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WriteLaTeX picks up funding to push its collaborative academic writing tool

Kang Xu, a scientist at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

Above: Kang Xu, a scientist at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

Remember how painful it was to write your papers in college? Well, it could be 10 times worse: Imagine you work in academia and you’re collaborating with people around the globe to publish a research paper.

WriteLaTeX saves the day by providing a collaborative writing web service that streamlines the publishing process. And now it can improve its service, thanks to an investment it announced today from Digital Science, a division of Macmillan Science and Education, which publishes Nature, Scientific American, and other titles.

Academic journal publishing is a huge business. But with the emergence of online publishers like Academia.edu, which offers free access to journal papers, the industry might be in trouble in the future. It’s a good idea for Macmillan to start catching up with the tech trend and diversify its revenue sources.

WriteLaTeX provides an online service called Overleaf that enables researchers to write papers together using the LaTeX markup language.

One of the biggest pain points for researchers is writing a paper in a group, said Timo Hannay, Digital Science’s managing director, in an interview with VentureBeat. But with Overleaf, researchers can very easily log in through a web browser and start writing alongside others.

More than 50,000 authors from more than 1,000 institutions have created more than 500,000 projects with Overleaf, according to WriteLaTeX’s website.

In case you’re wondering, the startup doesn’t have anything to do with Stanford emeritus professor and book author Donald Knuth, who created the TeX typesetting system.

“Donald Knuth doesn’t have any connection with the company, and neither do we have a poster of him in our office,” Hannay wrote in an email.

Overleaf is more than Google Docs with a LaTeX function. The startup wants to streamline the submission process, among other things. The idea is to save researchers from online application forms and uploading systems, with a simple button.

Life-sciences journal F1000Research and medical sciences journal PeerJ are already on board, and WriteLaTeX has been in talks with several scientific journals, including Nature, Hannay said.

“We are meeting a genuine need that’s becoming more and more pressing, because the number of authors of scientific paper is going up year after year,” Hannay said. “Probably 10 is the typical number [of authors] for Nature. Many papers have more authors.”

WriteLaTeX generates revenue from individual researchers with a freemium model. The biggest market in the long term will be institutions and universities. “Universities are willing to pay, once you show the product is good for research purposes,” he said.

WriteLaTex’s direct competitors include Authorea, to which Digital Science has given a grant. But Digital Science chose to invest in WriteLaTeX because it’s “the one that has attraction” and is “closer to hit the pain point,” Hannay said.

WriteLaTeX started in December 2012 and is headquartered in London. John Hammersley and John Lees-Miller started it, and today four people work there. Bethnal Green Ventures incubated the startup. Macmillan wouldn’t disclose the exact amount of investment, saying only it was in six figures in British pounds.

Hannay described the funding as a “larger seed round, not an A round.”

WriteLaTex will use the new money to hire more people. Digital Science also gives the startup access to its human resources, finance, and salespeople.

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