Sunday, November 19, 2017

The lure of free and escaping the productification of scholarship

Words like free and open can mean almost anything today and we need to be much more critical whenever we hear them. Global corporations offer enticing and exciting collaborative tools for free but slowly tighten the belt around the part that is free of charge until you are finally forced to pay for the premium version or you find that your free profile, content and interactions are being monetised in some other way. We are all more or less locked into Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft generally because the tools and services they offer are professional, attractive and in many cases even addictive. The alternative is to use only open source solutions or do it yourself and the results may not be as easy to use or as attractive than the commercial alternatives but you have the security of not being monitored or monetised.

But starting open alternatives to the giants is easier said than done. Mastodon has been around for a while now as an open non-commercial alternative to Twitter, with the attractive claim that, in Mastodon, you are a person not a product. I've been tempted to join but the problem is starting to build up a network all over again and I have thankfully so far avoided any problems in Twitter. It is an attractive alternative but a quiet backwater compared to the flood surge of Twitter. Another attractive alternative is the ad-free search engine Duckduckgo that doesn't track you or remember what you've searched for previously. I use it now and then but I admit I still rely on Google even if I'm aware of the implications. It's hard to escape.

In the field of research however there is a growing discontent with the commercial platforms of ResearchGate and as they become increasingly commercial. This is highlighted n an article in Times Higher Education, Scholars launch non-profit rival to ResearchGate and Academia.eduResearchGate and are used by many academics to share research and network but fears are that they are aligning with major publishers and mining researchers' data in what can be termed as the productification of scholarship.

An alternative is now being launched in the form of  ScholarlyHub, a non-profit platform that does not sell data or track its users. It's about academics running a service for academics but of course this cannot be done completely for free. The commercial platforms' "free" services come, as we know, with a price; generally your data. So ScholarlyHub has to charge its users from the very start and the proposal is to take $25 a year to cover the costs of running the service. This is always a hard sell in the world of "free" but the hope is that many enlightened users will see the benefits of not being tracked. Once there are enough users they have more ambitious plans according to project leader Guy Geltner:

Another plank of the plan is to make ScholarlyHub a publishing platform. “Without that we won’t be sustainable,” he said. The site would not charge article processing charges, but instead would allow academic communities to move their publishing away from for-profit journals to the platform. They could make the switch without changing their brand or journal “one iota”, Professor Geltner continued. "The network will become a resource that could (and I believe should) provide mentoring as well as quality control. And that may well take the form of a traditional pre-publication peer review," he explained.

The greatest challenge for all these alternative services is reaching a critical mass where it will be attractive for users to switch. Plus persuading people that you actually have to pay to be free.

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