Editor’s Note: Fred Dylla is the Executive Director Emeritus of the American Institute of Physics. With more than 30 years experience as a practicing scientist, Dylla has also taken a leading role as an advocate for the sciences.
An important component of the working life of a researcher is — and has been for the last 350 years — the sharing of one’s research results with colleagues. Since the dawn of the first journal, scientists have shared copies of their articles with colleagues and potential collaborators. The burgeoning Internet has made this task easier with each passing year, first via email, then through institution and personal websites. As collaborative web-based services grow, sharing is becoming even easier. Last year, Dropbox announced that more than 400 million people were using the service. Web services geared towards researchers have also made headway; reference managers were among the first such tools. Today, scholarly collaboration networks (SCNs) are enabling the sharing of research works at an unprecedented level — and they provide value-added features like workflow facilitation and author profiles. Academia.edu claims to have 25 million users; ResearchGate, 8 million; and Mendeley (bought by Elsevier in 2013), 5 million.
Given the growing popularity of SCNs among those who publish scholarly research, the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM) began to examine the effects of these networks on scholarly publishers and how sharing via SCNs could be adequately supported by the publishing community. In late 2014, STM assembled a small group of publishers, some of whom owned and operated SCNs, to study the issue. Soon the effort expanded to include to a community-wide consultation, and subsequently a wider working group with representatives from independent SCNs. When considered in the right light, the publisher-SCN relationship is symbiotic — the respective services of each support those of the other. Our task now, is to define how we can support the benefits that each entity brings to the scholarly community without putting either party at risk. We need to leverage our respective areas of expertise and build on the successes of past collaborations, such as those of the publishing and library communities. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re making good progress.
Finding a common ground: The joint development of voluntary principles
As described in a previous Scholarly Kitchen article, the STM working group began by constructing a draft set of “voluntary principles” as guidelines for network owners and publishers alike. The goal of the principles was to establish use cases that reflected researchers’ needs while not unduly harming publishers’ ability to provide original content. Also we wanted to encourage the networks to grow and evolve in a manner that that allowed article use to be measured and shared by all who are interested in such metrics — authors, readers, publishers, and librarians.
If we were to make any progress, it soon became clear that we needed the diverse stakeholders across the community to weigh in. In February 2015, we formally posted the draft set of principles for a community-wide consultation, along with background material on the project as a whole, and solicited commentary.
The consultation lasted two months and generated 50 substantive comments. The feedback was carefully considered, and enabled us to post in August 2015 an improved, revised set of voluntary principles, associated FAQs, and our reasons for accepting or rejecting some of the suggested changes.
The principles recognize the value of sharing articles among research colleagues. Moreover, they encourage publishers to facilitate such “private” sharing among other things, simplifying and publicizing their author deposit policies. The principles also recommend the extension of the useful COUNTER system, to enable article use metrics in SCN platforms so that publishers and libraries could better understand reader habits and quantify the value of their services.
We have tried to communicate that the principles are meant to address sharing and access to subscription content, and not meant to hinder dissemination of open access content. For “public” sharing of subscribed content, we acknowledge that there is more to do, and we are working on this (see below). However, the principles do recognize the value of a research collaboration inviting members of the interested public to be participants in a private group, and the potential value of including “citizen scientists” in some research collaborations. Because the majority of costs of scholarly publication are still paid by subscriptions, wide dissemination to the open public of the publisher’s version of record soon after publication would seriously undermine the income that ensures the generation of original article content. A variety of useful access tools to facilitate wider public access are being introduced by publishers, subscription management organizations, and collaboration networks that allow links to full text versions on the content provider’s site.
To date, nearly 40 relevant organizations have endorsed the principles, including six SCNs that are not directly associated with scholarly publishers and we are actively engaging others.
To help socialize the principles among the stakeholders, working group members have given many presentations to the research, library and publishing communities. We have also kept the comment line open for additional feedback.
Working together: Community engagement for simple and seamless sharing
Since the development of the principles, the working group has turned its attention to relevant, directly related activities.
Several major publishers have already produced simplified, open, and transparent author deposit policies, as called for by the principles. Many more publishers are in the process of doing so. However, we realize that policies posted on various publishers’ sites won’t be enough to satisfy the demand for convenience. We need to make compliance easier and automate the permissions process for SCN users so that they can focus on their research and collaboration itself.
A Technical Support Group was added to our original SCN working group to explore and test technical solutions towards this end. Representatives from both publishers and SCNs serve on this support group, and they are currently designing a prototype system that would enable an SCN to automatically recognize different article versions and their related sharing permissions. The goal is a system that simplifies the process of posting and sharing articles on SCNs while capturing usage data, including COUNTER measurements, to quantify sharing within this important new channel. This technical group is working with both Crossref and NISO to make the most of existing infrastructure and standards. The prototype may not exactly reflect whatever sharing infrastructure is eventually put in place, but it will provide a starting point for iteration between publishers, SCNs and academic institutions, the key stakeholders of any successful system for sustainable sharing.
Dedicated website, How Can I Share It?, is the new home for this community effort
Much of the work described above has taken place behind the scenes by interested stakeholders and members of our working group. To further help promulgate this work and seek wider input and support from the community, we are launching a dedicated website on this subject. The new site, How Can I Share It? is now available in beta version.
This site includes all the material associated with this effort to date, names the organizations that have endorsed the voluntary principles, contains publisher and SCN deposit policies, and makes Technical Support Group progress reports available to all interested parties. Eventually, the site will include an article look-up tool that can be used to query permission for article deposits. We hope that this new site will continue to be a discussion forum for the use and evolution of SCNs.
On behalf of the working group that has devoted considerable volunteer time to this effort over the last two years, I encourage you to peruse the new site and your comments are welcome at: firstname.lastname@example.org.