How to Build a Sustainable Academic Commons?

5 minute read

I’ve lately been moving away from the walled gardens I used to put my research in and trying to find ways of making my research as openly accessible as possible while keeping it future-proof. These goals are not that hard to accomplish, but they do require some effort and some new tools.

In order to research to be freely accessible, somebody needs to make it accessible, because that’s not currently the default for published research, even if it’s funded by public resources. So what would be needed for that to be reality?

It would help, if the services needed to keep academia working – especially publishing – would be open-source, there would be multiple interoperable services and they would be run by non-profits.

Having tools and services that are open-source is especially good at making them future-proof. Even if some company goes under or decides that hosting academic research is no longer in their best interest, open source tools ensure that somebody else can just pick up where they left. It also means that if the people currently responsible for running the services become more hostile towards academic freedom, you can just set up a competing service with the same tools. This is even easier if all the data hosted is under an open license.

This is further helped by having multiple interoperable services. If there is a set of shared standards (like the same open-source tools, or at least shared data types), but no single powerful actor who dictates how things are handled, there is an incentive to compete in providing the best experience for a particular use case. As long as the services provided stay interoperable, users are free to move from one service to another as they figure out what best supports their needs. If one of the services disappears, you just hop onto another and take your research with you.

It would also help if the organisations providing the services were non-profits. In principal, there is no problem with deriving a profit from a service. The problem with for-profits in academic publishing is that the incentives they have are in conflict with the goals of academic research. The goal of academic research is to increase the amount of knowledge available, while for-profits are focused on increasing their profits. The best way to accomplish this is to make what they are selling (access to knowledge) scarce, which is in direct opposition to the goal of academic research.

Open licenses (like Creative Commons) help in making research accessible, since it’s harder to lock down openly licensed research behind paywalls. Researchers want people to read their publications, so from the researchers point of view open licenses make sense. For-profit publishers make their money from closing down research behind paywalls, meaning that their incentive is to favour restrictive licenses.

Institutional repositories and libraries have a central role in making research accessible, since their explicit purpose is to share knowledge freely. They also have a lot to gain from making more research openly accessible, since the costs to accessing closed journals is too much for many of them and rising steadily. While there is no single publisher that would have a monopoly of the whole publishing market, journals are not interchangeable with each other, so libraries have no choice but to pay for all the journals their researchers need and they can afford (these two things have increasingly been at odds). Bringing that cost down would free resources usable for other purposes.

The current model is already in crisis. Research communities in Germany, Netherlands, Finland, Peru, Taiwan and elsewhere are already struggling with the current system of publisher-take-all and in some cases have rebelled by refusing to serve their ever-increasing profit margins. Because everything in scientific publication runs on the free labour of authors, reviewers and editors, publishers have to either be prepared to negotiate or find out how they are made obsolete (like in the example of Glossia).

There have been two developments that seem like they could help the situation, but that could harm access to knowledge in the long term.

The first is the introduction of hybrid models, where the publisher charges the author for publishing an article openly, making that one particular article open access. However, this means that the other articles in the journal stay closed, meaning that libraries still have to pay to access them. For the publisher this is convenient, since they get paid twice for publishing one journal: first by the authors and then by the libraries. The open access models created by the big publishers are designed to maximise their profits, not access to knowledge.

The second development is the creation of new for-profit repositories for research, like and ResearchGate. They operate like social media sites, allowing researchers to share their publications and find other researchers with similar interests. However, they also close the shared publications behind registration walls and add their own branding to publications hosted on their sites. Instead of becoming a way to share research, they become another wall between knowledge and access to it. They share the same incentive as for-profit publishers to make access to knowledge more scarce – if research was freely and easily accessible, nobody would need to register to their sites.

Fortunately, there are also good developments. Preprint repositories have existed for a long time in some fields (arXiv for physics, mathematics and related fields is probably the biggest). However, they have been virtually unknown in the humanities and social sciences. This is slowly changing, with the creation of places like the Humanities Commons focusing on different subfields of humanities, or OSF, which serves all fields of research.

In addition to preprint repositories, there are also other promising tools. ORCID allows researchers to create a permanent identity, making it easier to find particular research and enabling tools like made by ImpactStory. These tools are not perfect – for example, there seems to be no open API for accessing the data on ORCID. However, they are a step forward, and an example of how open tools enable building a more sustainable academic commons in the future.

Researchers are also not waiting for this problem to solve itself. For example, Open Scholarship Strategy lists current challenges and possible solutions. I think we will get to an open academic commons eventually, but it’s not a given if researchers don’t work towards that goal. The other options is to keep padding the profit margins of the big publishers while they keep closing paywalls around knowledge.