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As I was working with a group of students this week, I showed them Google Scholar. They were in their first semester and few of them knew about it. I noticed a ResearchGate link showing up, but didn’t have a lot of time, so I didn’t go into what it is and what it will be in future. Besides, a student asked if the library had databases they could use, which was a perfect segue into the next part of our workshop (and no, I didn’t pay her to ask that question).

Yet it made me think about how prominent a source that site appears to be. It tempts us to think there’s a shortcut, a way to get free full text the fast internet way rather than having to pay whatever the publisher is asking – usually $30-$40 per article - or find your way to the library's site. For some students more familiar with Google than their libraries, it appears to be the way to get articles. Last spring a student asked me what to do when an article wasn’t full text on ResearchGate. Was there some way to get it?

Deep sigh. But what should we expect? Libraries are local; publisher websites and sharing sites like ResearchGate and are more seamlessly part of the web. Students are used to searching Google first, and chances are their teachers don’t start their search at the library’s website, either.

Yet the primacy of sites like ResearchGate seems to be . . . over? Publishers have banded together to push back against article information being scraped by ResearchGate and against PDFs uploaded by authors who gave their copyright to the publisher but are tempted by ResearchGate to pretend they didn't and post copies. Apparently ResearchGate, which had responded only to individual takedown notices, has made gestures that it will do more to prevent authors from violating their publishing agreements (or at least make it less tempting to click through the agreement that authors have routinely clicked, either because they thought they owned the rights to their work or they thought they ought to be able to share it, that pesky red tape notwithstanding). Something like this has happened before, and academics were shocked, shocked to learn copyright violations were going on.

In passing I chatted with a faculty member who wondered what the future would hold. How could her papers get discovered and cited if people couldn't find them easily online? She knew about our institutional repository, bless her heart, but that’s not where other scientists go to find her papers. What does it all mean?

Well . . . publishers have a problem if their authors are feeling thwarted, even though they say their beef is with ResearchGate, not with those who use it. Many publishers have already figured out which way the wind is blowing and have started open access journals and allowed authors to make their published papers open if they pay a hefty ransom. They’re buying up platforms that enable sharing so they can control these new means of production. But still . . . what if you don’t have the money to pay for open access from the Big Guys? What if the best journal for your research is behind a paywall, but you worry your research will be invisible?

You can check to see what a journal’s policies are before you submit. Most journals allow you to post a version of your article with a link to the publisher’s version. (Even publishers have started explaining themselves with a site that lets you look up sharing options by DOI or by publisher.) Of course, you have to be sure to save a draft copy of your manuscript before or after peer review and you may have to wait out an embargo before you can post, but it helps people find your work and is the socially responsible thing to do if you care about the large number of people who need to read research findings but don’t have a well-funded library to pay for it. Libraries often provide a repository where these versions can be put online, or you could upload it yourself to your own site or to any of a number of preprint servers that have a disciplinary focus.

Or you can go gold and find a journal to publish in that is fully open access. Not all of them charge thousands of dollars to publish, and there are usually breaks for people who don’t have grants to pay for publishing costs. Many journals (particularly in disciplines that don’t have lots of grant funding sloshing around) don’t charge anything. I’m partial to models like Open Library of Humanities, which depends on libraries for their funding. For a modest charge, libraries can put their money where their mouth is. There are alternatives, and they aren't all owned by the Big Guys.

(This doesn’t solve the problem of reputational metrics that are so embedded in scholarly publishing. A journal established decades ago that has a high impact factor has an edge over new ventures, and I constantly hear faculty say they feel trapped, especially when they not only need that publishing prestige, they need metrics to show it’s being downloaded and shared across the web.)

We have a problem with the Big Guys. Elsevier is trying to expand their walled garden of publications to enclose everything researchers do, and are even attempting to challenge Wikipedia with encyclopedia-like articles algorithmically drawn from Elsevier publications so that researchers won’t be tempted to leave Elsevierland. (Seriously? You want to challenge Wikipedia to an attention duel using algorithmically-massaged content? We'll see how that goes.) They bought SSRN and bepress to integrate those services into the Elsevier empire. At the moment they and other publishers are at odds with ResearchGate, but one of their large cousins, Springer Nature, is trying to strike some sort of deal, perhaps something that will bring ResearchGate into its orbit. (Nature is part of Macmillan Science which recently merged with Springer. Von Holtzbrinck, which has a majority share of this merged entity, also owns Digital Science, which acquired a minority share of Figshare, a data sharing and storage site which has Springer Nature as a customer.)* It will be interesting to see where this consolidation and investment leads as the giants grapple with the sharing impulse while also trying to enclose as much as possible.

What seems less likely to be an option for authors, though, is sharing your work through for-profit platforms that leave all the copyright worries up to you. As far as the big publishers are concerned, sharing should be prefaced with the word “profit.” And unless non-profits like the Center for Open Science comes up with alternatives, they’ll do what they can to keep your work, whether it’s data or preprints or publications, firmly within their grasp.  

*This post has been corrected to clarify that Figshare is an independent entity; Digital Science, which has no connection to Macmillan other than through its parent company von Holtzbrinck, owns a minority interest in it. Apologies for confusing these business relationships. It's like the "begats" in the Old Testament if they were to undergo revision on a regular basis.

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