Soapbox Art & Science London is being sponsored by Overleaf: We catch up with Software Developer Hugh O’Brien about supporting science outreach.

Soapbox Art & Science London is being generously sponsored by Overleaf. We catch up with one of their Software Developers, Hugh O’Brien about supporting science outreach.


Overleaf is a London-based startup, supported by Digital Science and Bethnal Green Ventures, and founded by two mathematicians who were inspired by their own experiences in academia to create a better solution for scientific collaboration and communication.

Overleaf is building ‘Google Docs for Science’, making science and R&D faster, more open and more transparent by bringing the whole scientific process into the cloud, from idea to writing to review to publication. Overleaf has 750,000 users who’ve created more than 10 million documents, and is being used in hundreds of universities worldwide for teaching and research.



Hugh, what is your background and how did you come to join Overleaf?


I’ve had a somewhat indirect route to Overleaf. I have a BA in psychology from Trinity College Dublin, with the original intention of working in clinical practice in some capacity. While there I got involved in publishing the Irish Student Psychology Journal. There we published peer reviewed research and reviews from psychology students across Ireland. The interest in publishing lead me to try a career in publishing. I worked at at PLOS for 2 years on their Biology and Medicine flagship journals. The consistent push inside the company to use technology to simplify academic publishing and improve scholarly communication increased my interest in what other paths I could take. It became increasingly clear that was the direction the industry was moving in. After spending a couple of years learning to code outside of work I left publishing for an MSc in computer science at Imperial College London. While working on my masters research I started working part time at Overleaf, went full time when I finished and haven’t left since. Being a pretty heavy user of the platform during my masters and seeing how the company operated it seemed like a good way to bring together my interest in scientific communication and my new skills.



What attracted Overleaf to Soapbox Art & Science?


Overleaf is always looking for fun ways to interact with and reach out to the scientific community. Soapbox Art and Science is a great way to do that! Bringing together women scientists and the community in a fun and interactive way. We’re very happy to support your mission “to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy, learn from, heckle, question, probe, interact with and be inspired by some of our leading scientists.”




Why is it important for researchers and companies to make their work accessible to the public?


There are so many good reasons but let’s just name a few obvious ones.

For a start, people will be interested if you give them the chance. At public science events, I’ve always found the unexpected bits of research the most interesting. Things that have made me go, “oh, I didn’t realise anyone was working on that!”. A well curated explanation can really catch peoples’ imaginations. This is especially necessary for publicly funded research where, to be fair, they paid for it; however, let’s not forget the marketing opportunity from making what you do sound cool. Certainly this can be easier or harder depending on the field, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying to explain their work.

It’s also a great opportunity to re-assess your own work. Tunnel vision can be a real problem in science (and software development for that matter). Having to re-explain your work to someone other than the editor and expert reviewer at a journal has a value. It forces you to take a step back and see a bigger picture once in a while.

The public can also be a good collaborator in some cases. In the same way it can be good to get input from other fields, a new perspective or opportunity could come from a source you haven’t thought about yet. You won’t know until you get your research out there in a different way.



Overleaf is making it easier and quicker to collaborate, write and publish academic papers. If you could change one other thing about academic culture what would it be?


From working in the industry and from talking to active scientists it would have to be the peer review process. There’s a lot of interesting innovation going on and people experimenting with different ways you could change it. Post publication peer review, publishing the reviews and commenting systems are all steps in the right direction I think.

A lot of work needs to be done and there’s probably no one easy fix, but I find that to be a common issue stakeholders have with the current publishing system. The right combination of solutions is probably the one we haven’t thought of yet.


The London event will see art mix together with science and Overleaf champions collaborative writing. Why is it important to have collaboration as such an integral part of your work and have you got any advice for researchers who want to work with people from other disciplines?


Collaboration is really at the core of what Overleaf does. In my experience the best parts of the platform are the ones that have had insights from different parts of the team. We have a team with a lot of different backgrounds. I’ve found it does mean you have to work more on communication but the end product is generally improved. Having completely switched academic disciplines myself I think the biggest challenge is knowing how to explain your point of view to those with a completely different background. Getting this right is also probably the most important step for collaborating with different disciplines in research. Think about how to explain your research to those without a deep prior knowledge, understanding is the first step to collaboration.


And finally, if you were stood on a Soapbox telling people about your what Overleaf does, what is the one thing you would hope they would take away with them?


Overleaf aims to ease a common pain point in science: writing collaboratively. The science itself should be hard, everything else is a problem waiting to be solved.


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