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Why We Have to Work Together on Article Sharing

23rd February 2016
By Nicko Goncharoff

Phill’s note: If you were eagerly awaiting my promised blog on the differences in scholarly communication culture between subject areas, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait another week. In light of recent events, we felt that it would be both timely and more interesting to hand the blog over to Digital Science’s Director of Publisher Relations, Nicko Goncharoff, for some insight on access issues and scholarly sharing, and an update on what the industry is doing about it.

No issue better embodies the tension between academic researchers and publishers than journal article sharing. The classic narrative pits the individual researcher trying to advance progress against publishers focused on copyright and subscription access. The truth is, of course, a bit more nuanced. This is fortunate, because in that nuance lies the foundation for a solution to the problem of ensuring swift article access for all those who need it, when they need it.

The sharing of journal articles is indeed vital to scientific and scholarly progress. As such it has always existed and for the most part has been largely accepted by publishers (think sharing within institutions, via email, EndNote, and even pre-print servers like arXiv). The advent of scholarly collaborative networks (SCNs) like, ResearchGate, Mendeley and others has dramatically expanded the scope of sharing activity. This has made it easier for researchers to access papers related to their research, but is seen as a threat to publisher business models. However, I believe it’s less a threat and more an opportunity for publishers, institutions and scholarly collaborative networks to work together to solve this issue for the ultimate customer they all share – the researcher. Article sharing is never going away, but only by working together can the stakeholders of scholarly communication ensure it’s sustainable, seamless and beneficial to all.

I’m not alone in this opinion. Publishers are looking at ways of facilitating sharing, in the process examining their own policies and attitudes around usage of subscription content. The STM Association’s Consultation on Article Sharing initially brought together a group of publishers tasked with developing guidelines for article sharing and opening them up to feedback from the broader scholarly community. The resulting Voluntary Principles for Article Sharing on Scholarly Collaboration Networks dealt mainly with sharing of articles in private research groups on SCNs, incorporating suggestions from researchers and institutions. They list some precedent-setting acknowledgements by publishers, covering sharing between subscribers and non-subscribers, and the participation of commercial researchers and members of the wider public in private research groups. They also call for mechanisms to better understand and measure sharing activity, using industry and standards bodies such as CrossRef, NISO and COUNTER.

Article sharing is never going away, but only by working together can the stakeholders of scholarly communication ensure it’s sustainable, seamless and beneficial to all.

These principles don’t address the trickier issue of wider public sharing of journal articles (such as posting an author manuscript or Version of Record on a researcher’s homepage or SCN profile). And those hoping for an instant transition to a wholly Open Access world will be disappointed to see references to appropriate usage and access rights to articles. But it is progress, and the principles are currently supported by more than 20 publishers (which between them account for a significant portion of annual STM article output) as well as some SCNs. The STM Association is engaging with more publishers, SCNs and institutions to both support the Voluntary Principles and to participate in initiatives to address public sharing.

While this may appear a modest start, we are seeing stakeholders come together on sharing for the first time. I believe that in 2016, the idea of systematic, sustainable article sharing will become an accepted, mainstream topic. That means we now face the challenge of turning an accepted concept into a viable system.

How to go about that? Well it’s clear the process will require adjustments of attitudes:

  • Publishers will have to make policies on article usage simpler, more consistent and aligned with the needs and existing practices of readers and authors (such as allowing authors greater freedom over posting author manuscripts, for example)
  • SCNs need to engage publishers as partners who can provide reliable sources of high quality content, and afford them ways to understand and benefit from sharing
  • Institutions and SCNs must recognise that publishers and authors have a right to understand how their content is being shared and utilised, while protecting the privacy of users of course. (Institutions will also want to track sharing usage as a means of demonstrating value.)
  • We must all acknowledge that the subscription model won’t go away tomorrow and until it does, a viable system for sharing subscription content is in the best interests of research and society.

It will also take commitment of time and resources:

  • Publishers and SCNs must work together to develop systems that support seamless, transparent public and private article sharing (I co-chair an STM working group in which a small number of publishers and SCNs are developing a prototype to demonstrate how this might work)
  • Standards must be developed that measure sharing and enable it to be captured as a metric alongside citation counts and altmetrics, requiring the support of organisations like COUNTER and CrossRef (both of whom are engaged in efforts in this area, some in conjunction with the STM working group on SCNs)
  • Institutions need to participate in sharing initiatives so we can make it easy for researchers to post and share articles in institutional repositories, and enable institutions and publishers to understand, and benefit from, sharing activity (the STM working group on SCNs is actively engaging with institutions and hope that they’ll join the effort)
  • Researchers also need to participate,so any sharing system truly meets their needs, and offers a far better experience than having to hunt around one’s hard drive to share a PDF via email.

It’s encouraging that progress is being made on both fronts, though changing attitudes  may be the larger challenge.  But if all the stakeholders can put aside ideology and past differences, I believe we can get to a point where researchers no longer need to hit a paywall to just browse an article to find out if it’s relevant to their research, SCNs don’t live under the threat of being shut down by court injunction, and publishers can find new ways to support authors and use sharing to deliver higher value content and services to readers.

Obviously addressing sustainable, seamless article sharing – one of the biggest challenges in research –  won’t be easy. But we are seeing a shift in attitudes and commitment that suggest it’s time to act. There will be those who dig in their heels and try to go it alone but those intransigents risk becoming irrelevant as the research community moves toward a system that is embraced because it brings benefit to all those involved. The only viable solution will come from working together.

Credit: Wikimedia
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