​Researchers Ask: Does Academia Need Another Alternative to For-Profit...

Higher Education

​Researchers Ask: Does Academia Need Another Alternative to For-Profit Scholarly Platforms?

By Sydney Johnson     Nov 16, 2017

​Researchers Ask: Does Academia Need Another Alternative to For-Profit Scholarly Platforms?

Researchers have long raised doubts over sharing work on venture-backed publishing platforms. Some scholars have even pushed for an exodus from sites like Academia.edu, pointing out that tech companies have access to academics’ work, and prioritize profit.

Qualms with the for-profit publishing industry was part of what inspired the creation of free, nonprofit scholarly networking sites, such as Humanities Commons, which launched in 2016 out of the Modern Language Association’s social network and communication platform. And just last week another nonprofit platform called ScholarlyHub announced its plans for a site where researchers can also exchange ideas and work—if they pay a subscription fee.

On Twitter, some academics have pointed out that the new platform bears a striking resemblance to the efforts already in place by Humanities Commons. It’s led some to question the need for another open source research platform, and whether humanities users will flock to a paid service that they can already access for free.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick is the director of digital humanities and an English professor at Michigan State University. In 2015, she shared what she saw as the pitfalls to a for-profit academic sharing model like Academia.edu, which has raised nearly $18 million from venture capitalists. The professor wrote: “There are a limited number of options for the network’s future: at some point, it will be required to turn a profit, or it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down.”

Fitzpatrick, who is also a project director at Humanities Commons, stated in an email to EdSurge that the Humanities Commons was started, “with the goal of providing an open-source, scholar-governed alternative to the available commercial services.” The system, which was funded by grants from groups including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, lets users create free accounts.

Guy Geltner is the lead behind ScholarlyHub, and says he started the platform over similar frustrations with the for-profit models that Academia.edu and ResearchGate use. But instead of foundation dollars, his financing plan is to crowdfund €500,000 (about $579,700) to get the platform infrastructure off the ground, and then charge scholars $25 per year—$10 for students—to network, share documents or communicate on the social networking site.

According to ScholarlyHub’s website, anyone is able to view or download content, but only paying users will be able to post and share.

Since launching last December, Humanities Commons has already racked up more than 11,000 users, and partnerships with other academic organizations include the Association for Jewish Studies and the College Art Association. With such bonafides already in place, several academics are questioning the sustainability or even need for another alternative to for-profit social networking sites.

Geltner explains that while ScholarlyHub will offer similar networking capabilities and a repository similar to Humanities Commons, the platform will not be limited to any particular discipline.

“The scholarly world is much broader [than the humanities] and it doesn't need to wait for Humanities Commons to roll out a development plan that may or may not reach other academic fields,” he tells EdSurge.

That element was attractive to some in the Twitter buzz, though other open access repositories like Zendo also offer a place for researchers from diverse subject areas to house their work. But others, including Fitzpatrick, have pointed out that discipline-specific platforms are intended to direct attention and resources to certain fields.

“There’s a real point being made here: naming the humanities limits our reach. And to a significant extent, that’s purposeful,” Fitzpatrick wrote in a recent blog post. “The humanities have long been underserved by digital infrastructure projects.”

Seth Denbo is the director of scholarly communications and digital initiatives for the American Historical Association, where he monitors trends in academic publishing and communication. He agrees with Fitzpatrick, saying, “I don’t think any networking site has really had a major impact on any of the fields of humanities in a way that, say, Arxiv.org has in sciences.”

But Denbo still claims to be a supporter of the alternatives that both Humanities Commons and ScholarlyHub are trying to offer. And he thinks their potential overlap may not be a real threat.

“ScholarlyHub is casting their net wider than the humanities. Academic.edu and ResearchGate are used by people across all disciplines, not just the humanities,” says Denbo. “There would be a need for a place that isn't covered there.”

As Inside Higher Ed points out, ScholaryHub arrives at a time when for-profit publishing sites like ResearchGate have come under fire for allowing users to share articles that violate agreements authors make with their publishers.

“[ResearchGate and Academia.edu] have in some ways become bad actors, they aren't playing by the rules when it comes to copyright law,” Denbo says. “There are good reasons to think about intellectual property—in scholarly communication, the publishing process is not cheap, it requires a lot of labor.”

Geltner admits his platform might not be immune to those kinds of issues, but the website has a protocol to take down any material if there is proof of copyright infringement.

Academics also question how ScholarlyHub plans to get users to its site, and whether enough will join to make it a lively and financially stable social networking hub.

“People are used to getting their web services to free,” says Denbo. “I absolutely think [payments] will be a barrier to be getting off the ground.”

The subscription model hasn’t been smooth for sites like Academia.edu, which offers most of its services for free, and faced backlash in May after rolling out a paid premium feature.

When creating ScholarlyHub, Geltner did not intentionally avoid foundation money, which is what keeps Humanities Commons free for users. Instead, he says, “I tried and failed [to secure funding]. It was not that I did not look for foundation money; I went to them but I had nothing to show.”

The crowdfunding model seemed more natural to Geltner, who describes himself as an activist, and “not a librarian or scholarly communications expert.”

Still, ScholarlyHub isn’t without its industry supporters. The nonprofit has even managed to attract a few industry all stars to serve on its board, including Miriam Posner, an assistant professor in the Information Studies department at the University of California, Los Angeles, and April Hathcock, a scholarly communications librarian at New York University.

This article has been updated with more accurate information. In addition, this previously stated that ScholarlyHub is a company. It is in fact a nonprofit.

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