Today, we get our first glimpse. Springer Nature and ResearchGate have announced that “full-text articles published in select Nature journals since November 2017 will be rolled out to researchers’ ResearchGate profiles starting now and completed by March 7, making it easier to read or download research on or off campus from that moment on.” I had a chance to speak yesterday with Steven Inchcoombe, Chief Publishing Officer at Springer Nature, and Ijad Madisch, CEO of ResearchGate, about this project.
Though small in scope, the importance of this project should not be overlooked. This pilot project represents the first significant experiment with the syndication of publisher content to a content supercontinent. My fellow Scholarly Kitchen contributor, Roger Schonfeld, has been tracking this emerging strategy and exploring it in recent months.
Approximately 6,000 articles published from November 2017 onward in 23 Nature research journals will be uploaded to ResearchGate to the relevant author profiles. The journals included are all subscription-only titles that do not offer an article-level Gold APC option. The open access option for these titles is green deposit with a six month embargo. But, when the articles in this pilot are uploaded to ResearchGate, the copies uploaded will be the version of record and they will be available during the pilot without any access controls.
The journal titles are:
- Nature Astronomy
- Nature Biomedical Engineering
- Nature Cell Biology
- Nature Chemical Biology
- Nature Chemistry
- Nature Climate Change
- Nature Ecology & Evolution
- Nature Energy
- Nature Genetics
- Nature Geoscience
- Nature Human Behaviour
- Nature Immunology
- Nature Materials
- Nature Medicine
- Nature Methods
- Nature Microbiology
- Nature Nanotechnology
- Nature Neuroscience
- Nature Photonics
- Nature Physics
- Nature Plants
- Nature Structural & Molecular Biology
The initial pilot is planned for 3 months though it may be extended based on how it progresses. During the pilot, Springer Nature and ResearchGate will gather data about how and how often the articles are discovered, accessed, and used as well as feedback from authors and readers about their perceptions and experiences. To stave off any worries for conscientious authors aware of their copyright terms with Springer Nature, authors will be alerted that these copies are legitimate to have publicly accessible from their ResearchGate profiles. And, to respect author freedom, authors will have the option to remove them from their profiles if they prefer.
In my view, the most notable aspect of this arrangement is that Springer Nature is not only allowing publicly accessible copies of subscription-only content but also allowing the upload of the version of record copy onto ResearchGate. This means that anyone can also download the version of record; it is now “in the wild” through ResearchGate.
Springer Nature is uniquely positioned to have taken another path. Springer Nature already offers the SharedIt service, which is powered by Digital Science’s ReadCube, for making copies of specific articles available for public access and reading without uploading them onto other platforms. For this reason, I was personally predicting that this collaboration would utilize an inline reading copy built off of SharedIt. It is not at all clear why Springer Nature would prefer to have a downloadable version of record available through ResearchGate rather than a more controlled inline version.
As such, I have to wonder what this signals about the strength of each partner’s negotiating position. Though a top publisher, Springer Nature is facing challenges that all publishers are currently facing, e.g., Sci-Hub piracy and the open access demands of Plan S, but also some that are unique. In contrast, ResearchGate is the most visited science website in the world, with significantly more traffic than Google Scholar, and it has more than 15 million researchers in its social network. That is a tremendous position of strength from which to develop projects that are aligned with its interests. While nothing in this pilot obviously precludes a future based on SharedIt, it is striking that the parties went ahead with a more radically open approach.
So, what does ResearchGate get from this collaboration with Springer Nature? In some ways, the answer here is obvious; ResearchGate gets content and content drives more engagement on ResearchGate. Madisch emphasized to me that ResearchGate needs to work with publishers in order to serve researchers, observing that publishers play an important role in the spread of scientific information and the journal article continues to be the mechanism for formal dissemination of results.
Of course, the value for ResearchGate goes well beyond being able to load a few thousand pieces of content. Working with a well-established publisher legitimizes ResearchGate and distances it from a piracy reputation. This may be particularly useful as ResearchGate defends itself against ongoing lawsuits filed by Elsevier and the American Chemical Society.
Opening Springer Nature
More puzzling may be the question of what Springer Nature gets from this collaboration. Springer Nature is clearly very committed to this partnership. Inchcoombe emphatically stated to me that “Springer Nature’s view is that ResearchGate is a legitimate platform and a platform we want to work with.”
As I read Springer Nature’s Plan S feedback, I had a strong sense that it is seeking to position itself for the future as the leading publisher in open science/open access. But, the feedback also makes clear that there is not a financial model that supports Springer Nature making an immediate transition from subscription to open access publishing and that there is a need to drive demand for open access publishing.
That is admirable positioning, but what is really going on strategically? Is Springer Nature observing the traffic leakage to sites like ResearchGate and looking at how to account for this usage in order to ensure that the value of its library licenses do not appear to decline precipitously? Or, is Springer Nature actually playing a longer term game of integration with the scholarly communications networks in contrast to Elsevier’s choice simply to buy Mendeley and integrate it into the stack? A rumor has been spreading that Springer Nature might one day purchase ResearchGate. But, if it did that, would it find it just as challenging to position ResearchGate as a neutral community space as Elsevier has found it to be with its Mendeley? Instead, might Springer Nature be looking to build up ResearchGate over time as a neutral site — a supercontinent — where all publishers can place their content and receive the benefits of ResearchGate’s massive traffic?
Balancing the business model realities with their longer term aspirations is perhaps a tricky position for Springer Nature to be in — wanting to drive open channels while also maintaining the library subscription channel for as long as possible. Could it be that experimenting with content syndication to ResearchGate, while holding out the possibility for adding usage controls in the future, is indeed the strategic move?
Note: My thanks to Roger Schonfeld for detailing out the syndication model over the past few months in posts here on the Scholarly Kitchen and his helpful comments on a draft of this essay.