My last post was about institutional conservatism in relation to research evaluation and reward. I illustrated it with a brick wall bearing the words “insert head here” because so many wicked problems in scholarly communications today can be traced back to this underlying cause, and its immutability is therefore so frustrating to those trying to tackle its symptoms.
One of the many symptoms is that publishers and researchers are inextricably linked, mutually dependent, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Evaluation processes — even those that are evolving away from simplistic publication counts or Impact Factor-based points systems — still mean that publication in an established journal is important for researchers, much as quality submissions are important for publishers. It is into this stasis that “scholarly collaboration networks” (SCNs) have emerged, originally as places for researchers to form connections (à la LinkedIn) but increasingly used for “content swapping” and / or “quasi-legal downloading of research papers”.
Quite what SCNs are used for, and by whom, and what threats / opportunities they represent, has been a topic of conversation both on and off the agenda at pretty much every meeting I’ve attended recently. It is a commonly held belief that SCNs have become more focused on content sharing than on other kinds of collaboration between researchers, but evidence to support this assertion has been limited. José Luis Ortega’s interpretation of over 1 million records from scholarly collaboration networks was that SCNs are being used not, primarily, for collaboration, but for posting and accessing work; however, the most recent large scale survey, Nature’s 2014 study of “online collaboration: scientists and the social network”, showed only 35% of ResearchGate users (for example) selecting “post content” as one of the activities carried out on the site, with 33% using it to discover content — whereas 68% were on the site for a much more passive purpose, “in case contacted”.
In this context, I’ve recently worked with a group of publishers to carry out a new survey to update our understanding of how and why researchers are using SCNs, and shape next steps in terms of how publishers might best engage. The survey had over 7,500 respondents from around the world, all career levels, and all subject areas, though the bias is towards STEM (64% over 36% HSS), developed countries (40% Europe, 18% North America) and early career (39% within 1-10 years of completing PhD). Headline findings are that 57% of respondents indicated that they upload copies of their work to SCNs and 66% access work in this way. Of course, the survey respondents are not the same as those who participated in Nature’s study 3 years ago, and direct comparisons can’t be drawn, but one way or another, that looks like quite a shift in just 3 years. (It might also, of course, be a shift in researchers’ overall consciousness of sharing, and in their willingness to be open about this behavior — although our survey was sponsored by publishers, the survey was carried out by a third party, responses were anonymous, and publishers did not have access to the raw data, meaning that responses could not be tracked back to individuals; I don’t know the relevant specifics in relation to the Nature survey, but should acknowledge the possibility that respondents there may have underreported their use of SCNs to share and access work — thanks to Nicko Goncharoff for musing on this point).
Headline findings are that 57% of respondents indicated that they upload copies of their work to SCNs and 66% access work in this way.
Digging into respondents’ views around copyright provided further useful insight. Firstly, the assumption that people share via SCNs primarily for convenience (rather than because of specific intent to undermine traditional publishing models) may be given some substance by the finding that 83% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that copyright should be respected. The attitudes to copyright suggested by the survey may be surprising: on balance, respondents considered publisher copyright / sharing policies to be: “straightforward” (48%, vs 34% “confusing”), “fair” (39%, vs 27% “not fair”) and fit for purpose (44%, vs 23% saying policies “do not serve their purpose adequately”). On the other hand, 42% considered copyright to be “restrictive” (vs 34% “permissive”), and despite the strong sense that copyright should be respected, 60% felt they should nonetheless be able to upload work to SCNs. 21% didn’t realize that copyright / sharing policies might apply when sharing their work, and 82% thought it would be useful to have a single place to check policies — good news for the STM-led “How Can I Share It” initiative).
What does any of this mean for Scholarly Kitchen readers? Usage of SCNs is (probably) growing, and (probably) changing, with authors more actively using SCNs to access and upload work in a dissemination ecosystem completely separate to that provided by publishers and libraries. SCNs have become a major discovery channel, maximizing visibility of research (good thing), albeit in a way that is largely uncounted by publishers, institutions and funders (bad thing, for authors too, as it further complicates their ability to get an overall sense of the readership of their work). As a publisher, if you haven’t already done so, it’s worth auditing the extent to which your content is available, and within that, the level of copyright compliance (Hamid Jamali’s recent study found that 51.3% of 392 non-OA full text articles in ResearchGate were non-compliant with publishers’ policy). This should help prioritise and focus how you respond: from educating authors about copyright and metrics, to working with them to identify and support approaches to sharing that harness the visibility provided by SCNs, without undermining the publishing processes and metrics so necessary under current institutional reward mechanisms.