Breaking Down Barriers: Search and Knowledge

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One of the perpetual challenges academics must address in publishing their work is the paywall. Yes, organizations like Elsevier add value to the work through proofreading, peer review, and copyediting; but that value comes at a steep cost. Because companies that supply the means of production do so for profit, academic material like research papers, dissertation, and other knowledge-driven content becomes a commodity for sale.

Most of us lack the means to pay monthly subscriptions or steep per-article fees to view academic content.  Moreover, the way the Internet functions on a large scale has trained us to expect information for free. When I need to know how to change the auto-save feature in MS Word, I Google it. When I need to know the lyrics to “Hey Jude”, I Google it. When I need to know directions to a location I’ve never been, yup, I Google it. We’ve become accustomed to quick, easy search access to knowledge.

Yet more involved and (arguably) important knowledge remains locked behind the paywalls of academic publishing sites the world over.

To add to this challenge, search tools like Google Scholar or Scopus (Elsevier search tool) struggle to find content in the same ways Google’s traditional search bar does. One reason is content scarcity. A thoroughly researched and polished academic paper or book takes more time and resources to produce than other web content. Naturally, this means there is less content directed at any given subject.

Metadata is another crucial factor. Different academic publishers treat metadata differently, resulting in a range of expectations and standards. Unlike traditional book printing, there is no standard form or rule for metadata. This creates further issues for search engines, as there is no easy way to determine importance or weight of a given piece of content from the metadata.

With that in mind, consider how Google Scholar states they rank content:

How are documents ranked?

Google Scholar aims to rank documents the way researchers do, weighing the full text of each document, where it was published, who it was written by, as well as how often and how recently it has been cited in other scholarly literature.

If you’re publishing academic content through a traditional publisher, they undoubtedly know how content is discovered and they’ll account for it while crafting your metadata. But, if you’re trying to avoid committing to a publisher who will lock your content behind a paywall, you’ll need to be certain you’re conscious of how your content will be discovered.

Elsevier continues to be a good example of changing trends. While they won’t be removing their paywall anytime soon, they are repositioning themselves as a data aggregate—their role as a connection between academics and their readers. They publish and profit from the access of content while acting to facilitate the acquisition of this knowledge.

Okay, so we’ve got a publishing world shifting toward the control of access, academics with more information and content than ever, and the power of the web to take control. Where does that leave those academics with content to share?

Full of options, yet still trapped in an archaic system.

The opportunities do exist for academic authors to share freely and openly. Glasstree is among a range of options to share content without having to work with a pay-to-read content publisher. Not only that, but the population relies on these authors sharing their knowledge in new and freely accessible ways. Adam Rogers of chimed in on this topic: “When all the solid, good information is behind a paywall, what’s left outside in the wasteland will be crap—propaganda and marketing.”

This runs counter to the purpose of academia—to expand knowledge. Higher learning is meant to be a benefit to society, to provide the groundwork for future research, to give something back. Yet so much knowledge is held behind pay-to-view blockades.

Over the years, academic distributors have been the subject of various boycotts and the like. Yet these publishers continue to grow, expanding their own catalog year after year. Because academics must publish. This is how they establish their expertise, which leads to how they make a living.

And Google Scholar’s search will prioritize oft-cited and reviewed content, making it even more important for an academic to establish themselves with published content. What, then, are researchers and academics to do?

Most importantly; keep publishing. Through mainstream publishers or self-publishing, the first and most important thing is that the work keeps finding its way into the public sphere. One noted option that is seeing more attention has been the pre-publication of unvetted content. Imagine offering your research freely in a raw form to the world? Then containing it within the normal publishing structures once the long and arduous peer-review and editing process were complete.

There are, of course, numerous potential and real issues here, the most obvious being the exclusivity. A publisher may not allow researchers to share their content freely while it is in the process of being edited and prepared.

Into this space come the array of self-publishing options like Glasstree. While a self-published book won’t have the same Google clout a traditionally published book will, that search relevance will build over time, eventually reflecting the true value of the content in the same way Google’s traditional search does.

The alternative is the continued commodification and segregation of knowledge-based content. The impact may seem slight at the onset, but over the long term, researchers around the world suffer. The gating of content remains a fundamental problem for facing academia-—the single best hope for breaking this stranglehold on knowledge is open, inclusive publishing, smart search optimization, and discarding profit-driven models.


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