ResearchGate and The Alternatives to Paywalls that Really Aren’t Alternatives

By: Angela Okune

I am writing this blog post to address an issue that I believe most of my colleagues are unaware of. Many academic colleagues–well-intentioned and desiring to do the right thing—(myself included!) have had an and/or ResearchGate accounts in an attempt to make scholarly work more accessible to those outside of the academy (who do not have subscriptions to paywall journals). Often if you cannot find free access to a particular book or journal article, a quick Google search will reveal that the person has uploaded a version to their or ResearchGate page where you can then download it. Problem solved, right? Take that you, big bad publisher! Or not.

I think few of my colleagues realize that both ResearchGate and are NOT public goods or knowledge commons. Scroll down the About page of and you will quickly find that they have raised over 17 million USD from investors. This is a for-profit tech start-up venture, folks! They are making money off of your decision to upload your paper to be a “public good” for people to access. It might be free for someone to now access the paper or book, but nothing is free. The commercial entity is not selling your output, they are selling YOU (as data)!  (Several colleagues are working on analysis of the growing platform capitalism of academic infrastructures, check out Posada and Chen; Chan for more on this).

ResearchGate is not a more innocent option. They have raised $52.6 million from several investors including Wellcome Trust, Goldman Sachs Investment Partners, and Four Rivers Group. Other participants in the round included Ashton Kutcher (?!?), Groupe Arnault, Xavier Niel, Bill Gates, Tenaya Capital, Benchmark, and Founders Fund. So, before you are so quick to upload your paper to either of these platforms, think about uploading them to your library repository or another public institution instead. For example, did you know the UC Libraries has a free and open access e-repository system?

I recently closed my accounts for both services on principle. But now, I no longer have access to any of the “open access” papers that colleagues have uploaded there. (See screenshots below – one from Routledge and one from ResearchGate). Are we trying to get around one system but just building up another one based on the same values (profit extraction and maximization)?

Now is the time to get involved in discussions about how we might design and build sustainable, more equitable scholarly infrastructures instead of outsourcing them to tech start-ups and for-profit ventures.



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