Open Access Week: Creating more equitable structures in publishing

October 25, 2021

Today marks the start of Open Access Week. Each year, we look forward to this week as an opportunity to reflect on how we can make open access the new norm in scholarship and research. This year’s theme, launched in alignment with the recent UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, is “It Matters How We Open Knowledge: Building Structural Equity” — a theme that encourages us to consider how different ideas, practices, and research outputs are shared and received within and beyond our community of 20+ million researchers.

It seems particularly fitting, then, that we’ve been rethinking many of our structures for knowledge sharing here at ResearchGate. With the launch of several new publisher partnerships, we’re pushing for the seamless discovery of groundbreaking research and easier publication of results — both positive and negative.

Sven Fund, ResearchGate’s General Manager for Publisher Solutions, has been working in academic publishing for 20 years. His experience ranges from management roles at larger publishing houses to advocating for open science with small, open access startups. We recently checked in with Sven about how ResearchGate’s new publisher partnerships are working toward an open-access future.

ResearchGate (RG): Researchers often complain that publishers block open access by putting up paywalls and requiring expensive subscriptions. So why is ResearchGate partnering with publishers now?

Sven Fund (SF):ResearchGate’s mission is to connect the world of science and make research open to all, and publishers haven't always been natural allies. But from early on, the ResearchGate team understood that having full-texts available directly on the platform makes researchers productive and, hence, happy. We also recognized that working with publishers can give our community better access to other features, like relevant publication opportunities in respected journals.

So about three years ago, we started talking with publishers to see whether there is common ground for us to work together. And we found that quite a few publishers were very supportive right from the beginning.

RG: A few decades ago, publishers were resistant to open access. But we’ve recently seen many publishers switch to open-access models. What’s driving that change?

SF: Publishers have changed their attitudes towards open access quite a bit — and a lot of that is driven by researcher preference. Open access is obviously what researchers want. They don’t want their publications locked behind paywalls and blocked for distribution.

In the early 2000s, I think the whole industry was in denial over this need for change, but there’s now been a sliding effect into hybrid and even full, “pure” open-access journals and books. And I think we are now at a point where it's becoming the prevailing business model. It's the only segment in academic publishing that is really growing organically — and not just by price increases.

What was missing for publishers in the early days of open access was the business model — publishers were used to earning money from subscriptions, and couldn’t imagine how they’d keep the lights on while still making content as open as possible, and not limiting access to that content. After quite some experimenting, they have found their way. Open access is today a very normal thing in academic publishing, and that is good for everybody.

RG: This year’s Open Access Week theme focuses on building structural equity. What does equity in publishing mean to you?

SF: I'm really passionate about open access and open science because I think it's the most natural thing to make research accessible to all. And I believe that has many different dimensions.

To start, there are many places in which institutions and individuals generally can't afford increasingly expensive subscriptions. So creating equitable pricing and access schemes is one aspect.

Equity may also be a matter of proximity: even here in Germany, for example, there are regions where the coverage of research institutions — and hence easy access to very specialized content — is relatively low. In certain parts of the country, there is simply not the next university or a big library around the corner, as in bigger cities. So there’s an innate inequality that results from limited access to research material and research publications — and it exists everywhere, literally next door.

And then there’s another aspect that is very apparent in the publishing industry, and that’s a lack of bibliodiversity. Globally, the academic publishing industry is dominated by a few big companies, which means we’re flooded with the same types of content. But there are hundreds of smaller publishing houses that have highly specialized journals, and which are putting groundbreaking research out into the world. Part of our goal at ResearchGate Publisher Solutions is to make those smaller publishers more visible in our community, and to make sure their work is discoverable and accessible.

RG: How can publishers better serve the researcher community?

SF: It’s my understanding that over the last 30 years, publishers — and especially the big publishers — have lost touch with the individual researcher. They have built huge sales forces selling subscriptions to libraries because the library is where the money is in the monetization of the publishing process. It's not with the researcher primarily, but it is with the library (or a research funder). So they have really taken the shortcut, which makes sense from a business perspective. But they have forgotten to try to understand what researchers want in a new, more digital environment.

At ResearchGate, we work with researchers every day, so we have a good idea of what they want and how their behavior is changing. In my view, publishers must work on creating value for researchers, to make this process of publishing and consuming content as easy and as simple as possible. Researchers want to focus on their research — publishing is only important to them because it’s key to making their work visible, and can help them with career advancement. But they’re usually driven by the desire to advance their science, and not necessarily by the need to churn out their next paper. So publishers need to focus on keeping that process as concise as possible to help serve researchers’ needs.

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