Creating cartoons to communicate science – Jonas Nørskov Søndergaard challenges what a scientific journal could be

Published: 2020-02-25


Jonas Nørskov Søndergaard is, apart from being a cancer researcher at SciLifeLab, moonlighting with creating his own academic journal. What he thought was going to be an instant success turned out to require a lot more work, however.

What seems to be a million steps awaits when entering the 1920’s apartment building, with its fair-faced plaster facade and mullion covered door typical for its time of Nordic Classicism – or Swedish Grace. The ever so happy Jonas Nørskov Søndergaard opens the door to a ceiling height to die for and a – considering the size of the apartment quite unnecessarily – spacious entryway. He leads the way to a more modest sized kitchen, where all of the work with the Fair Journal is and has been carried out since its infancy.

The idea of the Fair Journal is quite simple: summaries and cartoons are made to communicate research publications to a non-scientist audience, and the researchers get paid for their efforts – or for Jonas efforts as of right now. In practice, Jonas Nørskov Søndergaard has not found it as easy as he initially thought.

The Fair Journal publishes cartoon videos explaining research to non-scientists.

The eureka moment
Jonas Nørskov Søndergaard was standing on the cross trainer at the gym across the street from his apartment, as part of his usual morning routine. Aggravated when thinking about having a paper rejected 15 times, for seemingly no apparent reason other than editors’ lack of time, he suddenly got an idea. Would it not be great if researchers could actually get paid for their publications, rather than having to pay thousands of dollars to have their papers published in high impact journals? Could not a system like the Youtube advertisement system – where users get 55% of the revenue – accomplish this? Jonas, being an avid Youtube viewer himself, thought it very well could.

Most people would most likely keep an idea like this at the idea stage. Jonas, who had never started a business or done something similar before, just went for it. He searched the web for similar projects, but could not find anything that remotely resembled what he aimed to do. Right away, the name for the website was registered and the logo created – again, by Jonas who had never designed a logo before.

The Fair Journal office is located in Jonas Nørskov Søndergaard’s kitchen.

Jonas was from day one sure that this idea would be a major success if he put it on Kickstarter – a crowdfunding website. He did, however, realize that people were not likely to support the project if he did not have anything to show for. So he designed the website and wrote all the texts for it, including time-consuming descriptions for every research category he could think of. He then thought at least three examples of summaries and cartoons were needed. Top cited publications from different fields of research were chosen, to show some variety.

Jonas did not want to write the authors without having any examples, so he started writing summaries and cartoon scripts himself – the first about superconductivity in graphene, which he knew nothing about. It took quite some time, but he finally finished the first summary and script, and contacted the authors to look it over. He was, however, met with silence. So what do you do if you do not get a response? If you are Jonas Nørskov Søndergaard you continue on anyway. A group of freelancers were paid for out of his own pocket to produce a cartoon and the authors were contacted again. He still did not get a single answer.

Again, Jonas carried on. He found a publication about cancer – his own field of study, which he quickly summarized. He wrote the authors, but still got no response. Despite this, he produced another cartoon. This time, the authors wrote back – excited about having their work made into a cartoon.

Rejuvenated by finally getting some feedback, he created the last summary and script. This time, the authors contacted Jonas with notes on minor changes before the video was produced. Together with a fourth cartoon explaining the concept, and a video where Jonas presented his thoughts on the Fair Journal, it was finally time to release the campaign on Kickstarter. First, though, his brother Jesper pointed out, he needed some products to send to people who decided to sponsor the journal – why else would they just send him money, he reasoned. Jonas ordered t-shirts, pins, and the like, and finally put the campaign out for the world to see – and sponsor.

Jonas Nørskov Søndergaard lives next to Torsplan, a few minutes’ walk from SciLifeLab.

After a few weeks of running the campaign, he did not have that same feeling of guaranteed success he started the project with. He realized that he was not going to reach his goal, he was not even going to get close. Waking up at 5 a.m. every morning and putting in all those hours – while at the same time working full time at SciLifeLab, was not going to result in a single dollar for the Fair Journal – with Kickstarter campaigns, the sponsors pledge money, but are not charged if the full goal is not reached.

“It was something I had been working on for more than a year, so not reaching the goal was a big disappointment” says Jonas Nørskov Søndergaard.

Now, the 500 pins he was supposed to give as thanks for the support sits comfortably in his closet. Despite this, Jonas does not seem too bothered by it all, but rather relieved that the campaign is over so he can start focusing on the journal again.

“I still think it’s going to work out, but I think it will take a lot longer than I thought in the beginning” says Jonas Nørskov Søndergaard.

Not slowing down
At SciLifeLab, Jonas is working as a Senior research specialist – a senior postdoc of sorts – on liver cancer, and more specifically with non-coding RNA – and has been since he started his postdoc at SciLifeLab. Before coming to Stockholm, however, all his previous experience has been in immunology, which he has worked with in the US, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

Apart from creating a journal, Jonas Nørskov Søndergaard plays video games and grow chilis on his spare time.

Jonas has despite spending a lot of time on the Fair Journal no plans of quitting his research career. He is in no hurry leaving his current lab, but he has also started thinking of applying for his own lab, where he wants to combine his knowledge in immunology and his current work with non-coding RNA:s. In fact, that was one of the reasons he left immunology, to get a new perspective he could bring back to the field. He already has an idea of what he would like to investigate: peoples’ different responses to for example diseases.

“Some people are more prone to getting cancer, while some are prone to getting autoimmunity. I’m thinking there are a pre-skewed baseline of your immune system, that defines how easily you get sick. That’s what I want to define in my own laboratory, and later also try to change” says Jonas Nørskov Søndergaard.

The research plans are not hindering his ambitions for the Fair Journal though. Jonas has noted that people visit the website, look at the videos but then have no way of knowing when something new is uploaded, and thus never visit the site again. Therefore, he has now developed and published Fair Journal apps for the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store, to get people to come back and view the videos and summaries more often.

That is the big challenge for the Fair Journal being successful, a lot of views are needed for any money to be made. The appeal is that the summaries and cartoons will be available for a lifetime, and then hopefully get a lot of views during that time. Only time will tell if that will actually be the case, but Jonas has nonetheless big plans for the Fair Journal. Another possible revenue for the journal Jonas is hoping for is deals with for example schools paying fixed fees for viewing the videos, in order to remove the ads that otherwise would be generating the revenue. In the long-term, his goal is to start his own animation studio.

“Now I just want to make more cartoons, so this year I’m thinking one cartoon a month, so that I’ll have twelve more cartoons at the end of the year. Then I just hope it is picked up by someone important and that a lot of people will start visiting the journal”, says Jonas Nørskov Søndergaard.