A lot of our researchers put their work on ResearchGate, Academia.edu, their own web spaces or wherever. It’s perfectly understandable: these are easy ways to get your work online for interested people to be able to read and RG or Academia are great for networking, especially if your work is in a paywalled journal and your discipline is one with a high degree of public or professional interest. But for those of us who support and advocate for open access doing these things make us deeply uncomfortable. Let me explain why.
The overall theme for OA week 2018 is designing equitable foundations for open knowledge. Recent years have seen the acquisition by large commercial interests of a number of services or systems that had been dedicated to the open dissemination and preservation of the work we do. Other popular services, like ResearchGate or Academia.edu, while independent, are commercial operations, ultimately responsible to their shareholders, i.e. their interest in keeping your work online (or whatever service they provide) will last only as long as it’s in their interests to do so. Could it be bought out, like the Social Sciences Research Network or the repository software bepress? Does it have legal headaches? Can work you’ve uploaded be removed without your knowledge? This is what makes us uncomfortable: it seems like it’s part of the infrastructure supporting the scholarly community but the community has no control over or input into it. By all means use services that are useful to you but recognise what they do and don’t do.
These recent developments have mirrored the path followed by academic publishing during the 90s and 00s, where, with the advent of the web we saw the gradual acquisition of smaller and society publishers to the extent that it has been estimated that the ‘big 5’ academic publishers control over 50% of the research papers published per year. In part, of course, this shift was one of the key reasons for the birth of the OA movement in the early 00s as the academic community lost control of its own research outputs. These developments have even prompted some funders, like Wellcome or the Gates Foundation, to eschew traditional publishing and develop their own platforms to host research outputs and data, essentially because they found academic publishers weren’t able to meet the requirements for openness and public dissemination required of the researchers they funded.
Basically we’re in the middle of the next battle of the ‘walled garden’ (login required!) versus ‘community garden’. Hence this year’s rather technical and unsexy theme about infrastructure.
We do have, for example, non-profit repositories hosted by research institutions, such as Otago’s as OUR Archive, which staff can utilise to host their work (it’s not just for student theses!). These repositories provide a stable, long-term place for your work that is visible (i.e. search engines love repositories), accessible and measurable. OUR Archive (and others) is built on open source code so even a buyout of a parent company means the code is able to continue to be used regardless.
These examples are to highlight the theme for OA week: it might be unsexy but we need policies, licences, systems and software that work together and are not just for ‘now’ but offer a long-term, sustainable means of support for scholarly communication over which the academic community has some control or influence.
Richard White is the Manager, Copyright and Open Access at the University of Otago.