The 8 Year Journey of Origins

Melanie E Magdalena
Jun 1, 2017 · 10 min read
New Mexico 2017 desert bloom. Photo by me!

It started as a blog. On June 1st of 2009, I was on a plane moving yet again. This time back to my home country, the United States of America. With my life crammed into 2 overweight suitcases and a questionable amount of carry-ons, I penned out an idea: an epic fictional adventure based around Egyptian archaeology.

My love of pyramids, embodied by this glorified PowerPoint edited PNG: BermudaQuest.

In order to properly plan how this novel would work, I started a blog: BermudaQuest. It was as a simple collection of photos to inspire my written adventure. (There was no Pinterest at this time.) Then came mini scripts and plot points: I learned how to articulate words in a semi-coherent manner.

Three months flew by and now this tale included archaeology throughout not only Egypt and the Near East, but expanded to underwater Japan and tropical Yucatan. BermudaQuest was no longer a live notebook but a collection of amateur research on ancient history as I began my first year in college focused on Mesoamerican archaeology.

In January of 2012, I finished my community college program. With field notes in hand I began planning how to showcase all the archaeoastronomy research I was doing at age 20. (Spoiler: I still haven’t showcased any of it…yet.) Blogger became more limited in functionality by the day and I was quickly outgrowing its “custom” web design capability. Over the next four months, with countless cups of coffee at my nearby Starbucks and staying until the staff was on their way out, a transformative idea was born: Origins.

Until that moment, 99.9% of research I needed access to had a paywall and hyper strict copyright restrictions in the way — impeding my advancement in science.

Instead of sitting back, conforming, and constantly complaining about the problem, I made a solution.

In magazine-style, the publication featured independent research by folks with and without advanced degrees. At the time, I was hyper focused on anthropology and archaeology. So I set out to use my social network skills (on Google Plus) and found a group of people (in my discipline) who wanted to contribute. The idea was to make a visually stimulating work of art that licensed everything under Creative Commons. This way, the material would be provided for free, to reuse for free, and remixed for free. (Yes, I have a serious issue with paywalls, haha.)

The first Origins logo. Brought to you by my mad Microsoft Paint and PowerPoint skills.

In 30 days I stitched together the first magazine edition of Origins. In freaking Microsoft Word! The first iteration of the logo was “nice”… considering I made it in Paint then PNG-ed it in PowerPoint. These were dark times for creative design. Manually cropping images in Word to make somewhat pixel perfect double page spread backgrounds is a punishment I would never wish onto my worst enemy. Not to mention, accidentally adding 5 pages to a document by moving an image one arrow key press to the left… Dark, dark times.

Version 2.0 of (2012) featuring zero web design skill and very questionable graphic design skill. The simple 3 page site featured the first issue in flipbook format on the home page, followed by “affiliate” images with awful gradients and drop shadows. I’m glad we’ve moved past these design decisions. And the older social network icons.

Featuring the research of individuals around the world–Ireland, USA, and Mexico–Origins debuted in PDF flipbook format powered by Issuu on May 1, 2012. I didn’t really think anyone, except the people I forced, would even bother opening it. Within 3 months, the issue reached over 300,000 people. I was onto something. **Squeal**

Back when Open Science wasn’t common lingo, I claimed Origins was “Open Source” — we all learn from our mistakes.

By fall of 2013, there were 6 issues of Origins carefully crafted (with Adobe InDesign, finally) with themed article collections. From undergraduates to graduates, non-scientists, and doctorate contributors, Origins hit over 1 million readers. The blog was more-or-less abandoned at this point so BermudaQuest was absorbed into Origins.

The first 6 issues of Origins, from May 2012 to September 2013. The first 3 built with sheer patience and Microsoft Word.

The Open Science movement was now gaining a foothold globally, and not merely a (roughly construed) concept in my mind. Science, for me, has always been an organic process. Everyone contributes, recycles, expands upon, and learns together. The premise behind the journal was to make an accessible outlet for students, particularly undergrads such as myself in 2013, to showcase their research passion and potential. No paywalls. No publishing fees. Just honest editorial publishing with the added bonus of being released under Creative Commons.

Version 4.0 of (2013) in celebration of 1 million readers. The new issue is still the only home page element, now featuring a teaser description of what the issue is about. The Archive featured covers of all the issues that opened up to the issue in full screen instead of nasty redirects to Issuu, unless you were on your phone… Explore! was the rebranding of BermudaQuest with revised articles and actual citations. There was even an official Contribute page!

From 2012 to early 2015, Origins published 12 issues. We tried doing print copies at one point. (That was a nightmare. You know those issues made in Word? Yeah, I didn’t format them with print gutters…) The website got regularly updated to work better and more efficiently on mobile. In March 2013, my dear friend Alex Vosburgh and I officially co-founded Origins Scientific Research Society, LLC in the state of New Mexico.

September 21, 2013 Launch night party with Ethan Kellogg, Margaret Smith, Alex Vosburgh and myself.

My graduation came in Spring 2014. Now people would potentially take me seriously, you know since I had a very expensive piece of paper. (Bragging rights, because it was expensive: B.S. in Anthropology, concentrated in Archaeology with a minor in Earth & Planetary Sciences.) Plus, it was a legit operation that paid taxes!

The 12 Issues, before Themes were introduced in 2016.

Instead I had to get one of those pesky grown-up jobs and face the world of adulthood. This left zero networking time to acquire new authors. And then submissions dried up. My pride, joy, and contribution to the open science movement abruptly came to a depressing halt. May 2015 marked the start of the Origins hiatus.

Version 5.0 of (2015) in celebration of 12 published issues. The home page featured the latest issue along with a handful of older ones. The main change with this layout was the menu, so focus was on the issue, and the addition of “Letters to the Editor” plus a feedback area to improve the experience based on community input.

Over the next year, I brainstormed how to rebuild Origins. With tons of new, amazing information architecture solutions now available I could make Origins even more open and accessible. Freelancing in web design and working professionally as a multimedia specialist opened up a realm of new possibilities — things I could actually do! Every new skill and piece of knowledge I learned by day, I tied into Origins by night.

I started the hiatus by killing the PDF flipbooks. Issuu retrogressed features for increasingly more costly renewals. Besides, the data showed people weren’t really downloading the PDFs either. Once published, editing was pretty much impossible due to InDesign and Issuu limitations (ahem, “features”). The more I thought about how terrifyingly broken my system was, the more stressed I got about never getting Origins back up and running again.

Finally, I had my epiphany moment. I discovered GitBook in October 2016 and instantly fell in love. The git-based publishing service is probably designed with the intention of managing programming documentation but I like to work way outside the box. Not only did it have features Origins could never offer before (i.e. a damn search box and selectable text), but its very nature allows me to provide research in a truly reusable and organic growth format.

In December 2016, Origins published its first Theme: Stories in Stone. Featuring the work of an American linguist and a Ukrainian agrochemistry soil scientist, Origins was back in business. It now featured search functionality, more obvious Creative Commons licensing, live editing, open peer-review processes, and available in highly versatile Markdown with version control. With themes, there is no longer a closed door for related research since they can be added to at any time. Editing and peer reviews can occur before, during, and after publication by subject-matter experts. Open science at its finest — with minimal technology feature interference.

Live commenting, GitHub updates, and the ability for anyone to submit edits for review is going to revolutionize everything about Origins — and I couldn’t be more excited.

Back In Business, And More Open Than Ever

Now, it’s June 1st of 2017. There’s still a lot of work to do, but Origins is alive and kicking. You can now contribute to past and new themes, participate in the open peer-review process, (by the end of the year) access all the restructured themes in the optimized Markdown format, and most importantly keep on learning.

Origins Scientific Research Society’s open science portal,, updated to version 6.0 (Git-Ready) on June 1st 2017 for the 8th Anniversary.

This key restructuring process has taken almost two years with little for the world to see. I am eager to collect community feedback on all the changes so Origins grows beneficially for us all. This update benefits us volunteers who have busy schedules and lives (so we can all eat) and now Origins can support organic growth. It took eight years to figure out how to do this and I’m glad it did! This entire journey transformed a simple blog into a literal open science repository that the entire world can use and build. It will never be finished, because it never should be.

What’s next? Lots of catching up, late nights converting back issues, and marketing the new structure. I could slap a paywall on all this and be able to finance a year-round group of staff members rather than begging my volunteers to share their free time with me — but I won’t. Origins will remain open to everyone as long as I have a say in the matter.

Origins is a project, a hobby, and (as I see it) a necessity. But also, my own personal passion is back. It’s hot, on fire, and will never die.

Origins is now open, for Year 8, serving #OpenScience. Hope to see you there!

Making it to Year 8 would not have been possible without:

  • The countless students and professionals around the world who have written for Origins and made custom media.
  • To the creators around the world who licensed their photography under Creative Commons and YouTube channels producing invaluable tangential learning approaches to science topics. Without you, Origins would be nothing but a wall of text.
  • The 2012 Starbucks staff on University Blvd who let me stay, almost daily, until 11pm for 6 months straight, providing refills to power through my creative spurts. Also, for not thinking I was completely crazy for having a monitor rigged up on your patio.
  • Jose-Pierre Estrada, for his research, support, late night last minute writing, multiple monitor loans during the dark times, and being a key member to the initial launch of this entire project.
  • Margaret Smith, for her research, copy editing, last minute content creation assists, plus our countless late night brainstorming calls.
  • Morgan V. Harrell, for her research, ambition, collaborations, loaning me her ears for ranting, and her support as a Patron of Science.
  • Chris Harrell, for his accounting skills, explaining the legal jargon, and making sure all the financey stuff is done correctly for the government.
  • Rachel Preston Prinz, for her research, collaboration, constant encouragement, and being the kickoff issue interviewee.
  • Chiaki Ramirez, for her research, encouragement, countless hours of reading, and keeping the tedious parts of this project fun.
  • Alex Vosburgh, for his research and support in establishing Origins Scientific Research Society, LLC as co-founder in the state of New Mexico.
  • My dad, for his continued support and sharing Origins with his science-loving friends and associates.
  • DeDe Watkins, who always shares the new issues, tells her friends (and complete strangers at the gym, grocery store, etc.) about Origins, and her continued support as a Patron of Science.
  • Karen Meza, my best friend who without fail will stay up on a school and/or work night to write a last minute article, her never-ending passion to learn and answer questions she was never taught in school, and continued prodding about what the next topic is so she can get started.
  • AJ, for gifting the world the HTML5UP collection, the exquisite Story theme used for version 6.0, and answering my Twitter DMs about theme edits (even though you don’t know me).
  • Josean Arroyo, for (unknowingly) pushing me to finally get sassy in CSS (otherwise version 6.0 would not have been possible) and always encouraging me to do my best.
  • Jordan Madrid, for the almost daily nudges and reminders to get my act together and back to business for the 8th anniversary.
  • Tyler Zey, for reminding me to always pursue my goals despite issues that arise and push forward with better solutions every time.
  • Audrey Gramstad, for teaching me to face challenges head on, problem-solve like there’s no tomorrow, never give up, never stop learning, never slow down, and never stop creating.
  • And Ethan Kellogg, my other half and Player 1 in the Game of Life: for his artistic talent; for putting up with my rants, chasing ideas, and freaking out when everything is on fire; staying up until sunrise on launch nights re-reading everything to catch the 50 commas I missed; making me cover art on launch night when everything was on fire; for telling me to eat (read: shoving food in front of me) and sleep; and for always reminding me of the importance of this life-long project to keep science open.

TL;DR: I want science. You want science. I made us a thing to keep making science!

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