Business / Tech

Tokyo researchers’ Paper Digest makes academic jargon a cinch

by Alex Jackson

Contributing Writer

They come from very different worlds, yet have remarkably similar tales to tell. One hails from Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, while the other was brought up in the shadows of the Merendon mountains in the Sula Valley of northwestern Honduras.

Bonding over a “love of good coffee and jazz,” Yasutomo Takano and Cristian Mejia have come a long way since they first met four years ago while studying bibliometrics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Back then they were both enthusiastic students with a love for robotics and the “internet of things.” Now, they are using their combined skills to solve challenges in academia.

The fresh-faced researchers, still both in their early thirties, became increasingly frustrated by the amount of time they spent reading and understanding academic papers, often not in their respective native languages.

“We wanted to spend more time on creative research and wondered if there was a solution that could grasp the core idea of a paper without the researcher having to read the full text,” said Takano, who is currently working as a project researcher at the University of Tokyo.

The number of journal articles increases each year, with 3.5 million papers published alone in 2017. Yet research shows that as many as 50 percent are never read.

“An average U.S. faculty reads only 20.66 papers per month, spending 32 minutes each,” stated Mejia, who came to study in Japan after receiving the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology scholarship. “Young researchers and those whose primary language is not English would take a lot longer,” he added.

This was the spark for their idea, Paper Digest, a tool that uses artificial intelligence to generate an easy-to-read summary of academic papers. It aims to understand more content in less time, producing a single page synopsis that can be read in three minutes. They are not the first to try something like this, with the auto-summarization industry already a crowded market, but the young academics believe their idea is different.

“We’re hoping it will appeal to students and young researchers,” Takano said. “Particularly nonnative English speakers, nonexperts and nontenure researchers.”

The free tool, which was quietly launched at the end of June, has already attracted more than 1,000 researchers from over 50 countries. With further algorithm tweaks and developments, they’re hoping they’ll soon be able to translate summaries into the users’ language.

Earlier this month, they won a prestigious international industry award for innovative startups from research industry technology firm Digital Science. The Catalyst Grant award of up to £25,000 (¥3.64 million) is an international initiative to develop projects with the potential to transform scientific and academic research.

“Paper Digest impressed us with their clearly articulated goal to automatically summarize papers using AI,” said Steve Scott, director of portfolio development at Digital Science. “Although still at an early stage, they have already managed to build a product with real utility.”

The success has buoyed the Tokyo-based researchers, who admit they previously had limited business knowledge. It was through seeking strategic advice from Nobuko Miyairi, who has worked in scholarly publishing for nearly two decades, that they found out about the grant.

“The new connections and ideas, financial reward and traction from the grant will be really important,” Mejia said. “It’s going way faster than we imagined at the beginning. We feel like we’re dreaming.”

Miyairi has since joined the team, acting in part as a mentor and helping them manage business plans. “It’s a joy to support young, talented researchers to transform their ideas into reality,” Miyairi said.

“The very fact they had to come up with a tool they couldn’t find elsewhere indicates there is a gap in the market. We should do better in the publishing industry to come up with solutions and encourage collaborations like ours. I’m really happy Paper Digest were among the winners, especially as they are the first ever from Japan.”

Takano was a first year Ph.D. student when Mejia visited the university laboratory where he was working. They soon became friends, with Takano informally assigned to Mejia as support on the Ph.D. program. “I just immersed myself in Japanese culture and tried to learn the language, it was a world away from Latin American life,” recalled Mejia. “Yasu (Takano) was very open to helping me, not just with studies, but language skills too.”

They soon realized they shared many similar research interests and started collaborating on academic papers, writing their first on the internet of things and related technologies. Mejia believes his adopted research home is very open to technological advances and robotics.

“Japan seems very welcoming to new technologies and is moving to a much more internationally collaborative experience,” he said. “Universities are opening doors to more foreign researchers in laboratories and working together with many other institutions across the world, which is really positive.”

Takano agrees but bemoans the lower research budgets in Japan.

“Sometimes the Japanese are good at improving something, but not always good at finding what to do with it,” he said.

The government’s budget for investment in science and technology in fiscal 2018 climbed by 7 percent year-on-year to ¥3.84 trillion, and it aims to boost Japan’s science and technology budget by ¥300 billion per year to meet a funding goal of 1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product by fiscal 2020. However, many young researchers feel it is not enough after years of minimal growth in the science budget.

“I feel at times like you have to be slightly courageous to do something new in research here, because the funding is so tight,” added Takano.

With numerous business ideas swirling around their combined minds, they’ve recently set up their own company Jiyu Laboratories with the intention of launching more products in the near future. In the meantime, they’re optimistic Paper Digest will grow significantly, with the aim to have 10,000 researchers across the world using it by 2020.

“We have lots of ideas, many linked to our Ph.D. studies,” Takano said. “We really hope Paper Digest will be useful for both researchers and publishers.”