The traditional model of academic publishing restricts access to research by putting it in the hands of private companies. As a result, I’ve had to work hard to make my research available to those who wish to read it. I’ve done so by publishing accessible summaries on this blog, by publishing as much as I can in open-access journals, and by establishing profiles on file-sharing sites like Academia.Edu and ResearchGate, which allow you to store and share full-text uploads of papers with anyone. I will keep doing the first two going forward, but I’ve grown leery of the latter and have increasingly come to realize that these file-sharing websites aren’t an effective solution to the problems of academic publishing. In fact, I’ve grown quite concerned about these sites and have come to realize that academics need to pursue other means of sharing their work. Let me explain.
Before I go on, you may want to read this post first, which explains why I switched to publishing in open-access journals whenever possible. Long story short, academics have historically given their work away to big publishing houses for free (including the copyright to our research papers). The publishers have then turned around and sold our work to libraries and subscribers for exorbitant prices—and kept all the profits to themselves. The end result is that research is typically accessible only to those with the funds to access it. Academics have grown increasingly uncomfortable with this arrangement in recent years because we’re giving our work for free to companies that are severely limiting access to it, all while making billions of dollars.
By contrast, open-access papers can be freely viewed by anyone with an internet connection. This is great for the general public, which subsidizes most academic research in one form or another anyway. I mean, why should the public pay for research to be conducted, and then have to pay a middleman separately in order to access the results? Open-access is also great for students at universities that don’t have massive library budgets, as well as for scholars in developing countries where research resources are scarce.
Getting back to AcademiaEdu and ResearchGate, these are online repositories where researchers can upload copies of all of their works, which others can freely access. In other words, they provide an avenue for widely sharing research. Of course—and as I noted above—with traditional publishing, we give the copyright to our work away to journal publishers, so we usually can’t upload the final version of our articles without violating copyright law. However, most publishing agreements I’ve seen permit researchers to share the pre-publication version of their papers (i.e., the basic-looking version that you create in Microsoft Word, not the pretty version formatted by the journal. Some will allow you to share the version that has been through peer review; however, others may not).
Over the last several years, I painstakingly reviewed all of my previous copyright transfer agreements and, in cases where it was permitted, I uploaded a version of each of my articles to file-sharing sites like AcademiaEdu and ResearchGate.
I guess I was naïve, though. Initially, I thought those sites were solutions to the problem of poor research access. However, I’ve come to learn that these are large and growing for-profit companies that, just like journal publishers, are harvesting free labor from academics. We’re building a massive research infrastructure for them—and the profit potential is so big that these companies have some of the biggest venture capital firms in the world investing in them.
To be clear, the problem I see isn’t that companies like AcademiaEdu and ResearchGate make money—after all, they need to make something in order to keep running. Rather, the problem is that we’re transferring a huge amount of power and control over access to research to a new set of private companies—companies that don’t necessarily share the same end goal as scientists. Our goal is to get research out there, while their goal is to make money for shareholders.
AcademiaEdu is currently free to access, but has a “premium” subscription model. I’d bet good money that they’ll eventually start charging everyone for access once they have a big enough repository and user base. That would just put everything back behind a paywall, thereby defeating the purpose of why many of us joined the site in the first place.
I’m also concerned about other ways they’re trying to monetize their site. For example, a couple of years ago, AcademiaEdu toyed with charging users to get their papers “recommended” on the site. Efforts like this would have the effect of pushing self-interest over scientific advancement by giving anyone the opportunity to promote their work regardless of its quality or merit.
So how do we get around the problems that these sites create? Here are a few things you can do:
· Stop investing your time building up places like AcademiaEdu. They’re just taking your free labor and cashing in on it. This is a big part of the reason why I recently deleted my profile with them (I also deleted it because they’re poor at policing intellectual property infringement, but that’s a whole other story). AcademiaEdu and ResearchGate have done a brilliant job marketing themselves as noble causes—places where academics can go to share research—while hiding their real goal, which is building a massive and profitable research database curated by the world’s experts. As I write this, ResearchGate is the 171st and Academia.edu is the 275th most visited website in the entire world. These are incredibly powerful companies we are unwittingly building up and we don’t know what they’re ultimately going to do with the fruits of our labor—other than find a way to make a lot of money on it, of course.
· Unfortunately, there doesn’t yet exist a non-profit equivalent of AcademiaEdu that I’m aware of. However, until that exists, one option is to post pre-prints of your work on a site like PsyArxiv, which is run by the non-profit Center for Open Science. This can at least get your work out there in some form and it will be accessible to anyone online.
· Publish your research in open-access journals whenever possible. This is the best way of ensuring that your work remains free and easy to access for the long run. If an open-access journal requires a fee to publish, try to request a waiver or apply for a grant to cover the costs. I’ve been able to get several open-access papers published without paying one cent. It shouldn’t have to cost academics money to give their research away.
· If your research is locked behind a paywall, review your copyright agreement(s) to see what kinds of information sharing are permissible. Odds are that there’s some version of the paper you can share freely. You can share these versions on your own personal website, put them out on social media, email them to anyone who requests them, and/or store them on professional websites. For example, if you have a profile on a site like the Social Psychology Network, you have a certain amount of storage available for sharing any files you wish.
· Take advantage of institutional repositories. A lot of colleges and universities have them, and depositing your research with them can make it easier for others to access your work. For example, the University of California repository is accessible to everyone, although you must be affiliated with that university to post your work in it.
· Blog about or otherwise publish accessible summaries of your research that the average person can understand. Making academic papers more widely available is great, but they’re often written with so much jargon that only our peers can decipher them. Accessible summaries can help others to better understand our work and why it’s important.
These are just some of the alternatives that exist for getting science out there. We’d all do well to consider investing in them in the interest of ensuring freer and wider access to research for the long haul. If you have other tips or recommendations for sharing research, weigh in with your comments below.
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