Research is the backbone of the pharmaceutical industry, with new scientific discoveries broadening the understanding of human biology and driving the development of new therapeutic drugs and medical devices. Academic and industry journals serve as the key source for published research, however the vast majority of early-stage findings, such as conference content, datasets, negative results, and preprints, do not have nearly as wide a reach. Indeed, unless findings reach publication stage, a process which can take months or even years, much of this content will never become widely accessible to other researchers.

The lack of availability of early-stage research, particularly in online repositories, threatens to hinder scientific progress. The response? A push for more open sharing of findings that are upstream in the research process, a movement which offers plenty of opportunities (and some challenges) for the pharmaceutical industry.

Making research accessible in its early stages is of particular relevance for business development and licensing departments, who can use these cutting edge research discoveries to make strategic decisions and increase the market competitiveness of their firms. By keeping abreast of breaking research developments as they happen, BD&L teams can observe, predict, and proactively respond to trends as they develop and make the best-informed and most timely decisions for their work. For instance, an analysis of early-stage research trends may reveal an uptick in interest surrounding certain diseases and direct BD&L teams to dedicated research groups that are experts in this topic for potential partnerships. Armed with this knowledge, pharma has the opportunity to redistribute resources and be much more efficient in both scouting and market research exercises.

Accessing early-stage research is not only helpful to maintain an overview of new findings in relevant fields, but is also highly relevant for medical affairs teams further down the line. They can examine early-stage research to track where their company’s drugs and compounds are being researched right now, and to what effect. What’s more, having access to upstream content offers the opportunity to identify trending thought leaders and get in contact with them very early in their research process - even before they first present findings at a conference, for example.

Additionally, early-stage research output such as conference posters often includes information on financial backers, which can be extracted to help companies follow early trends in funding and react accordingly. For example, a company may want to boost its support of certain research areas if it notices higher and more intensive activities in the market. Alternately, it may choose to direct funding towards other, potentially overlooked research fields.

While there are many benefits of staying updated on the latest findings and breaking early-stage research, one of the greatest challenges for pharma professionals is actually getting access to this early-stage information at scale. Traveling to every relevant conference, reviewing every poster and presentation, and keeping in touch with every interesting researcher would require massive human and financial resources.

For this reason, new platforms have been developed for the digitisation and preservation of pre-prints, datasets, and conference posters. Making these resources openly accessible and searchable online increases the efficiency with which pharmaceutical firms can explore early-stage research, analyze data, and create new insights.

Still, early-stage research comes with a caveat; much of this content may not be relevant or quality controlled. While many abstracts go through an initial peer review process to be accepted to a conference, later poster and preprint content does not. This means that researchers must come up with new methods for evaluating early stage research, such as citation metrics or crowdsourced rankings. Technologies such as machine learning and data analytics tools can be used to draw these insights out; however, they cannot effectively be implemented if datasets and methodologies are not made openly accessible. It is essential that we develop ways to measure the quality of early-stage research to ensure that those who rely on such content are aware of any potential limitations from the very beginning.

Without a doubt, early-stage research represents a wealth of opportunities for the pharmaceutical industry. In order to remain competitive and ahead of the innovation curve, firms must be willing to look beyond internal studies or traditionally published findings and instead start tapping into conference posters, datasets, and preprints.

As digital platforms improve access to such material, it will become increasingly simple to analyze trends in novel research topics and funding sources, among others. Although increased reliance on this form of research certainly has its challenges, the benefits to individual companies as well as medical progress as a whole are too great to overlook.

Sami Benchekroun is chief executive of early-stage research platform Morressier