Scholars Launch Non-Profit Rival to ResearchGate and Academia.edu

By <david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com>

Original article in THE

Would you pay $25 (£19.10) a year to use a not-for-profit alternative to ResearchGate or Academia.edu?

A group of open access campaigners are raising money to build a rival to academia’s biggest social networks, who they say cannot be trusted to put researchers’ interests first.

ScholarlyHub is trying to raise up to €500,000 (£446,000) in order to build a platform that would at once be a social network, publishing platform and repository.

Guy Geltner, a professor of medieval history at the University of Amsterdam who is leading the project, said that academics are caught up in a “capitalist war” between big publishers and venture-capital backed sites such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate. “It’s time we left that battlefield for the sake of science,” he said.

Existing networks, backed by tens of millions of dollars from investors, were likely to be bought up or float on the stock market, Professor Geltner claimed. Big publishers will buy them, he argued, after which academics would “no longer have control over their work”.

Once bought, publishers might begin to charge libraries or national governments to use these academic social networks, Professor Geltner feared. “You are the product and ultimately someone is going to pull the plug,” he said.

In 2013, Elsevier bought the academic social network Mendeley for a reported £65 million, to the horror of some academics. Mendeley still offers a free account option, but some critics argue that the sale makes the network vulnerable should the Dutch publishing giant in the future decide to change how it functions or even shut it down.

In addition, ResearchGate and Academia.edu “want to mine your data like other tech giants”, Professor Geltner argued. This was not as obvious to users of academic social networks as it was to users of Facebook, he said. “Scholarship becomes a product,” he said.

Finally, it was “very, very dangerous” to leave control of these sites to profit-seeking entities because of the power they have to create citation metrics that could help determine academic career success, he said.

Professor Geltner acknowledged that it would be a “real challenge” convincing academics to pay the mooted $25 a year for access when there were free alternatives.

But “what we’re planning to charge is very low” and there would be a “massive waiver” for academics in poorer countries, he said, adding that academics were already used to paying much higher membership fees for learned societies, so “culturally we’re already there”.

Another plank of the plan is to make ScholarlyHub a publishing platform. “Without that we won’t be sustainable,” he said. The site would not charge article processing charges, but instead would allow academic communities to move their publishing away from for-profit journals to the platform. They could make the switch without changing their brand or journal “one iota”, Professor Geltner continued. "The network will become a resource that could (and I believe should) provide mentoring as well as quality control. And that may well take the form of a traditional pre-publication peer review," he explained.

In one respect, however, ScholarlyHub would resemble existing networks in that it would not pre-filter uploaded papers to check that sharing them did not breach copyright, as publishers want. The site would be “self-policing”, he said.

A ResearchGate spokeswoman said: “ResearchGate’s business model serves our members, customers and ourselves because it connects scientists with job opportunities, resources and services they need. This makes our network sustainable and allows us to be there for scientists in the long run.”