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The origin of Litmaps and the team behind it.

Litmaps was started in 2016 by Kyle Webster and Axton Pitt. Kyle was a molecular biology PhD candidate, and Axton was a neuroscience BSc turned software developer. Both had noticed a common problem among researchers and students: navigating scientific literature is laborious and menial. They decided to start a company to solve this problem. Axton would provide technical expertise and coding skills as CTO, and Kyle would provide user insights and a charming demeanour as CEO.

Why is navigating scientific literature laborious and menial? In the status quo, navigating a field typically looks something like this:

  • Type a search term into your favourite academic search engine, typically Google Scholar. Just based on the results, you won't have much sense of which are the most important papers or researchers, but you'll probably be able to pick a sensible paper to read based on title and citations.
  • If a paper you want to read isn't open access, you will need to switch from Google Scholar to a library website to use their subscription. Conversely, when using a library website, they may not list papers which do in fact have open access, in which case you would need to switch back to Google Scholar.
  • When you're reading a paper and it references another paper which seems worth reading, you'll have to copy paste the title into your favourite search engine, and repeat the previous steps.
  • When you're ready to summarise what you've read (perhaps as a "Previous Work" section in a paper), you need to find the details of each relevant paper (which will likely require searching for them again) and either add them to your reference manager or copy paste them into a BibTeX or text file.

There's a lot of room for improvement in this process. A sleek modern app could make navigating between papers and collating them into a bibliography a frictionless process. And a visualisation of the citation network would let you understand the structure and most important papers in a discipline at a glance.

The first product created by Litmaps was a kind of Google Maps of Science. It was an enormous visualisation of over a hundred million papers and the citations between them assembled on a single timeline. Digl Dixon, the rare breed of designeloper (designer + developer), joined the team to help refine and deliver this web app.

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Paperscape is similar to this idea, but it's limited to hard science, has minimal citation visualisation, and the navigation is a little outdated. After several years of building out this concept, it turned out to have too problems: 1) it turned out to be impossible to put hundreds of millions of papers and citations on a single timeline and not have it look like a horrible mess, and 2) aside from a brief novelty, it's not actually useful to have all of science in a single map. When you're reading scientific literature, you're trying to understand one specific niche or find one specific paper.

So the company pivoted to creating bespoke artisanal literature visualisations. Rather than starting with a map of all of science and drilling down on your area of interest, you would start with a blank project and incrementally add papers to it. This product got much better feedback, and we've been iterating on it since. We've added network analysis tools for article recommendations, integration with reference managers, bibliography and map exporters, and improved search.

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Aside from Axton, Digl, and Kyle, the Litmaps team now also includes myself for data science and odd jobs (like writing blog posts), and Rachel Reeves for design leadership. I'm a computer science MSc with a background in medical data science. Rachel is a "chaos wrangler" with almost 10 years of design experience. Our team briefly included Helena Copsey, a summer research student.

Now that formal introductions are out of the way, how about giving the Litmaps app a try?

June 22, 2021
by 
Hamish Huggard
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