the mobile app academia needs

Academic Audio is a mobile app for academics.

Read Summer Higdon’s account on how she came about this fantastic idea, the challenges she’s faced along the way, and the journey so far. 

For academics, it can be hard to keep up with advances in research.

Between research, teaching, conference travel, and our personal lives, simply reading new literature can easily fall to the bottom of the priority list.

Yet, as experts in our fields, we are expected to stay up-to-date on current research.

With the challenge of keeping up with the ever-growing body of scientific literature in mind, I proposed a mobile application called Academic Audio at the 2017 Startup Weekend in Columbia, Missouri.

What is Academic Audio?

Academic Audio would allow academics to listen to scientific research papers in the same manner that we would listen to a podcast or audio-book.

Ideally, the app would allow users to skip around to parts of the paper they are most interested in hearing, store and organize papers for later, and export citations.

Ultimately, the app would give academics the freedom to hear new research in their field while doing other tasks like working out or cooking.

At Startup Weekend last year, I, along with a team of almost-lawyers, developers, and graphic designers, spent 54 hours working through the logistics of getting this type of product to academics.

At the end of the weekend, we pitched the idea to a team of entrepreneurs for potential funding, but failed to secure the funds to move forward with the app.

It was a fun weekend and our work exposed the many hurdles to developing a product like Academic Audio.

#1 The Logistics

The first question was to decide who would read the articles aloud.

Voice technologies that can read text are not advanced enough to truly sound human-like, which would result in a bit of a dreadful listen.

Should these technologies improve, a robot might be the way to go.

Alternatively, perhaps lead authors could read their own papers.

Although a nice thought, realistically, all lead authors won’t value a product like Academic Audio and would therefore not take the time to do the reading.

A related issue to inviting all academics to read their own articles is the equipment issue.

Good audio requires good microphones and we can’t expect every academic, or even every university or research institution, to have quality microphones on hand.

Maybe the most obvious option is to pay someone to read the articles.

The issue with hiring just anyone lies in the complexity often associated with scientific literature, including jargon or statistical symbols.

Hiring graduate students who are in the same field as the journal could be one solution to finding the right readers.

#2 Inclusion and Accessibility

The next major question was which journals to include on the app.

New research is published every day across a spectrum of fields.

How do we decide who gets included?

One major factor in this decision is the legality of re-using and selling published research in an app form.

A word-for-word reading is likely not a unique enough product to avoid sticky copyright issues.

Perhaps we could start with open access journals and delve into other journals through partnerships with publishers.

Still, it would take innumerable readers to create and maintain audio versions of new research alone, not to mention the overwhelming amount of already published literature we would likely want back-logged on the app.

Even if we limited the app to specific fields of research, many journals would need to be included for academics to find the app useful.

#3 The Academic Market

The final necessary step was to determine whether the app would succeed.

Given that we would likely hire readers, buy audio recording equipment, and work with developers, coders, and graphic designers to launch the first version of the app, the startup costs are steep.

Market research establishing whether academics would purchase such a product is necessary, as investors won’t back this product without support from the academic market.

What are your thoughts? Would you use Academic Audio?

Summer Higdon is a master’s student in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Missouri.

Her research focuses on the eastern spotted skunk, a rare and elusive species that is petitioned to be listed on the US Endangered Species Act.

Summer enjoys spending time outside, cooking and baking, and spoiling her rat terrier, Peanut.

Twitter: @sumdawg
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