A Nonprofit Alternative to ResearchGate

Scholars are planning an alternative site on which to network and share work.

November 9, 2017
 

A nonprofit scholarly networking and publishing platform is being planned as an alternative to for-profit platforms such as ResearchGate and Academia.edu.

The platform, called ScholarlyHub, will be member-run, but first its team must raise 500,000 euros ($579,705) to build it.

The project is led by Guy Geltner, a professor of medieval history at the University of Amsterdam, who once was an avid user of Academia.edu, but who said he developed concerns about how his work or metadata collected on him might be used by for-profit companies.

After deciding to leave Academia.edu, Geltner said, he spoke to many others who wished to do the same but felt there was no alternative. “Of course, they had a point -- there was no alternative that was as ambitious as Academia.edu or ResearchGate,” said Geltner. The launch of ScholarlyHub comes at a time when ResearchGate and Academia.edu are in hot water with publishers for allowing researchers to share copyrighted material, with the result that some papers have now been removed from public view at ResearchGate, and the site has updated its terms of service.

ScholarlyHub, as an ambitious alternative to ResearchGate or Academia.edu, is being planned by Geltner and a team of collaborators. After almost two years of work, the website for ScholarlyHub was launched this week, and a fund-raising campaign is due to be launched on the site in the next 10 days.

Geltner says that he and his diverse advisory board have developed plans to make the platform both fun and functional to use, but they need additional funding to complete their vision. If they reach their fund-raising goal, the proposal is that ScholarlyHub will be sustained by an annual membership fee of €25 ($29) -- a price comparable to or lower than what many already pay to belong to scholarly societies, said Geltner.

The fund-raising target is going to be tough to reach, Geltner admits, but there is no firm deadline by which the money must be raised, and he hopes that many will buy in to the project’s vision to “change the status quo” of scholarly networking and research sharing.

April Hathcock, a scholarly communications librarian and lawyer at New York University who is also on the advisory board for ScholarlyHub, agreed that collecting enough money to get the project off the ground will be a big hurdle, but she said she feels optimistic about the project’s chances.

“ScholarlyHub is coming at a great time,” said Hathcock. She said that in the past year or so, publicity around publishers’ legal battles with Academia.edu and ResearchGate and movements to boycott the sites caused some to become more aware of the platforms they use and how those platforms operate. She said she hopes scholars will “put their money where their mouths are” to fund a platform that will “focus on scholarship for the sake of scholarship.”

“I have high hopes for our ability to get involved in this space and stay involved in this space long term,” said Hathcock. As a nonprofit venture, ScholarlyHub would always remain in the control of scholars and not big publishers, like what happened when research management tool Mendeley was bought by Elsevier, said Geltner.

A spokeswoman for ResearchGate, in response to the announcement of the launch of ScholarlyHub, defended ResearchGate's business model, saying that it "serves our members, customers and ourselves because it connects scientists with job opportunities, resources and services they need. This makes our network sustainable and allows us to be there for scientists in the long run."

Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed, said that she supports the idea of a nonprofit platform for academic sharing and networking. Fister said the proposal of a membership fee “suggests seriousness about sustainability,” adding, “it’s also smart that the platform won’t require registration or a membership to view the site or download open-access papers. That would defeat the purpose.”

Wariness of Academia.edu and ResearchGate is probably at the level where people would be willing to pay a small fee for an alternative, said Fister, but a big challenge will be creating the “network effect” -- having enough uptake to make others join “because everyone else is there.”

“There’s a healthy interest in noncommercial scholarly sharing right now,” said Fister. But whether ScholarlyHub will be able to sufficiently distinguish itself from projects like Commons in a Box (the open-source software behind the Humanities Commons) remains to be seen, said Fister. “ScholarlyHub is joining an emerging field of nonprofit alternatives, but which will become big enough to become the place to go -- I don't know. I'm just happy they are popping up to support real change in the ways we share knowledge.”

Daniel Himmelstein, an OA advocate and data scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, said that he supports the idea of creating ScholarlyHub, but it is too early for him to endorse it -- “it’s still too nascent and underdeveloped,” he said. Himmelstein is not a big user of academic social networks, mostly because their interests as for-profit companies are likely to be at odds with his view that scholarly communication should be open and free.

Introducing a subscription cost for ScholarlyHub could be prohibitive to the site’s development, especially early on, said Himmelstein. “Few academics will pay to participate in a service that doesn’t already have a substantial user base,” he said. Himmelstein said he would like to see the site think carefully about ensuring that content placed on the site can be migrated easily to other platforms if necessary. “Will the source code and database be open?” he asked.

To ensure that ScholarlyHub’s content remains open in future, no matter whether the services or providers they lean on continue to exist or not, Himmelstein encouraged the developers to create a decentralized architecture -- a computer network with many control points, and therefore less vulnerability than a centralized architecture.

“There's growing development of decentralized social media tools. For example, Steemit provides a block-chain-based alternative to Medium, and Mastodon is a decentralized Twitter. Were ScholarlyHub to adopt similar technologies, they could lock their network open,” said Himmelstein.

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