Today, ResearchGate and Springer Nature are jointly announcing the findings of their syndication pilot. In this partnership, as we have previously analyzed, Springer Nature distributes the version of record of articles from several dozen journals to ResearchGate for access. Users with institutional entitlements can download the PDF, while other users are presented with a read-only version. Today’s white paper from the partners reports positive responses from authors and plan to transition this pilot into an ongoing service. From the publisher perspective, article usage is up and leakage is contained. And, ResearchGate, which added a partnership with Wiley during the Springer Nature pilot, emerges as a stronger identity and access platform and a potential counterweight to Elsevier.
Findings from the Pilot Syndication Partnership
Highlights from the findings reported by the syndication partners and their planned next steps include:
- Impact. Article accesses through this program added to those accesses through Springer Nature websites. The degree of added usage that could be documented varied tremendously by title. On the high end, there was an increase of more than 50% through ResearchGate vs. Springer Nature websites. The partners attribute this increased usage to a combination of improved discoverability within the researcher workflow as well as improved off-site access. They do not share how this usage might have compared with usage of similar articles through ResearchGate outside this pilot partnership.
- Entitlement. Institutional IP address recognition is the typical vehicle for determining on-campus access based on institutional license agreements, and it is unclear how ResearchGate sources this IP information since it does not have direct partnerships with institutions. As for off-campus authentication, ResearchGate does not use a SAML-based approach (as RA21 recommended) but instead utilizes ResearchGate profile information as the basis for user authorization. The partners believe they have verified the efficacy of this approach.
- Leakage. As the partnership develops, the partners anticipate being able to enclose the usage taking place through ResearchGate in usage reports shared by Springer Nature to libraries. This is expected to require additional steps by ResearchGate in order to be able to pass a COUNTER audit, whose usage can then presumably be incorporated through Distributed Usage Logging. The partners trumpet the value to libraries of showing entitled users that their library is responsible for their ability to download the PDF though the report acknowledges the need “to be more transparent about how data is exchanged between the two organisations.” This will be a key part of the value proposition enabling leakage to be successfully enclosed.
- Service Model. User behavior suggests a preference to access the version of record over an earlier version of the work (“author accepted manuscript”). Nevertheless, while the pilot partnership involved a read-only version of the full article for users without an institutional entitlement, the partners now plan to dial back the offering to include only an article preview.
- Authors. A survey of the authors of the articles in the pilot found a high degree of satisfaction with the partnership. Half of the authors already had a ResearchGate account — and these individuals were pleased to see two organizations connecting more seamlessly on a service level. Presumably there is an opportunity for ResearchGate here to add user accounts. In the survey, at least some respondents shared their hope that other publishers will develop a similar partnership with ResearchGate.
The full range of impacts of content syndication will emerge over time but already in this project a number of implications are beginning to come into focus:
- Some have questioned how “sloppily” the partners have approached entitlements in contrast with the demands publishers place on libraries to regulate access entitlements. In this partnership, however, Springer Nature is working cooperatively to help to further develop ResearchGate’s identity platform as a counterweight to the identity platform that Elsevier has been building. While the report is silent on this, it is surely a possible outcome of this partnership — if not an outright objective.
- One of the most intriguing statements in the white paper notes that “ResearchGate and Springer Nature will explore bi-directional user journeys between their platforms, with a focus on improving the overall user experience.” Given that the current partnership envisions continued separate platforms and ecosystems, it is interesting to consider what might develop here. Could a user entitled on ResearchGate be considered entitled on the Springer Nature platforms without authentication through institutional systems (e.g., proxy servers or SAML services)?
- The decision to cease offering a read-only article to non-entitled users and substitute an article preview (i.e., metadata, abstract, figures, captions, and the full first page of the article) is notable. Put another way, ResearchGate is no longer going to provide access to the article for any reader without a subscription entitlement, bringing it closer to a typical subscription channel. How will this change the value proposition that ResearchGate offers its users? While we do not understand exactly what they learned that led them to this choice, we have to imagine that there may have been some indications from the study that suggested the potential substitutability of read-only access for paid subscriptions. If this were to be the case, it will be interesting to learn how — if at all — this finding will impact planning for GetFTR, a publisher initiative in which Springer Nature has played a leading role, which envisions providing a route for non-entitled users to reach the full text, at least on a metered basis.
- Finally, if leakage is key to libraries’ negotiating strategies, will librarians stand in support of this syndication initiative that has the stated purpose of plugging leakage by re-enclosing the associated usage and returning the value to the library subscription channel? And, will librarians raise questions of user privacy as they have done with RA21 and GetFTR?
The success of this pilot shows convincingly that we should anticipate future syndication partnerships — as the report itself states emphatically. We look forward to seeing which other publishers elect to syndicate their content to ResearchGate; we certainly expect to see Wiley do so before Elsevier! But equally, we await seeing whether publishers will begin to syndicate their content to any other scholarly collaboration networks, discovery services, courseware systems, research workflow tools, or other platforms. The details of such arrangements are likely to vary both across different types of publishers as well as different types of syndication platforms. Over time we expect to see a few predominant models and related standards and principles emerge.