By Harriet Bergman and Guy Geltner
In whose benefit do we let people who need access to science pay for it, again and again and again? How do we allow for-profit academic publishers to syphon off around $10 billion annually from depleting research budgets and ransack people around the world who lack direct access to scholarly publications? $10 billion paid by governments, libraries, institutions, projects and individuals to read work that has, for the most part, already been paid for through taxes or donations and produced in and for a public domain. Scholarship that is subject to extortionate access fees and that hides behind paywalls doesn’t serve its key mission: to engage in a free and critical exchange of ideas. Nor does it challenge an academic world already fraught by diverse social injustices, from gender-based discrimination to lingering colonial paradigms.
Scholarship thrives in a safe but critical space, for the benefit of all. At present, however, such spaces are the dwindling right of the few, while intellectual merit, equal opportunity and efficiency define the scholarly effort less and less. Touted solutions, such as the major academic social networking sites (ResearchGate, Academia.edu), offer partial remedies, if that. They are mostly repositories backed by venture capitalists, whose commitment is above all to high profits and securing market share, not making science truly open or repairing an unjust academic system. Moreover, scientific publications are increasingly produced, managed and sold by a small group of conglomerates (Elsevier, Springer, Sage, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell), whose agenda is dictated by performance indicators meant to satisfy shareholders, not improve the quality of scholarship or the wellbeing of society. Last but not least, populist national and regional politics have been forcing research agendas in certain directions by reallocating funding to provide good optics (“relevance,” “impact”) but compromise fundamental research.
To counter these dangerous trends successfully there needs to be a sustainable alternative for bringing scholars closer together in an otherwise fragmented and often biased academic world. Research has to be made accessible to all, as far as possible beyond the restrictions of a pay-to-play mentality. All scholars would benefit from an environment set free from pressures that are too often unrelated to the quality of their work and interests, and where they (and not metrics or money or agendas imposed from the political or economic top down) would be in charge of determining what quality scholarship is. Beyond restoring authenticity to the scholarly process, this would provide society at large, and both the private and public sectors, with the broadest and most accessible panorama of current research: be it for sheer curiosity and pleasure, to pursue better standards of living, be critically engaged citizens, develop new products and improve economies. The financial interests of global elites should be of no importance in this sphere.
Along with colleagues and partners we have outlined one solution, and its funding campaign will be launched soon. ScholarlyHub will be a non-profit framework, where members pay a small annual fee (directly or through an existing learned society, network, project or institution) and create personal, thematic, project-based, associational or institutional profiles and populate them with scholarly and educational materials as they see fit. These are stored in a searchable, real open-access archive, and are directly viewable and downloadable from the portal by anyone (that is, not only members), without having to register or volunteer personal data. Members’ social-networking capacity, moreover, will be a top priority: they can join existing groups and create new ones, and engage in any and all activities on the platform, from recommending articles and creating events, mentoring, following and contributing to conference wikis and discussion boards, peer-reviewing and publishing articles, to curating journals and—crucially—setting up new virtual research platforms and teaching initiatives.
ScholarlyHub is a nascent project meant to improve open-access infrastructures. It is premised on scholars getting involved and correcting an evident wrong, for their own sake and that of society at large. If you also see the urgency of such an intervention, please join us. We are a work in process and all help, critical comments and donations are more than welcome. Together we can take back control of our work, and prevent scholarship from becoming a mere data stream to be bought, sold, suppressed and channeled for financial gain or political leverage.