Large Open Access publishers are collecting more and more data about researchers

Martijn van der Meer will be awarded a Ph.D. for a historical study on Dutch youth care at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication. if Open and responsible science ambassador he is preoccupied with questions about how science can be made more accessible. The researcher recently wrote an opinion piece in the NRC together with Tilburg professor Juliëtte Schaafsma about the dark side of Open Access.

Since 2013, the government has strived to make all publicly funded research in the Netherlands accessible to all Open access† In this way, researchers and institutions become less dependent on large publishers with expensive subscriptions, and science reaches society more easily, was the idea. In practice, however, large publishers charge high costs for the right to publish Open Access. Researchers and university staff have previously criticized the double cost that universities pay for this. Yet Van der Meers’ critique is mainly directed at a new development: large-scale data collection by publishers.

You are critical of Open Access, a publishing practice that allows anyone to read a scientific article or book online for free. However, this practice actually ensures that the visibility of publications is increased and that they are cited more often. What can you have against it?

“I’m not necessarily against Open Access in general. Open Access is needed to reach a wider audience and to make research available in parts of the world where this is not so obvious. Although you may be against the high costs, I think that is something we should continue to welcome. ”

What are the disadvantages then?

“The problem is the revenue model for large publishers such as Elsevier and Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which are gaining momentum with the profits. These publishers of leading scientific journals today are not so much publishers, but above all providers of the most important software that scientists use for their research. And these research activities map companies accurately.

“If, for example, you publish in a magazine in Rotterdam after an embargo period, the publication will be made publicly available via a digital repository. The software running this warehouse, PURE, is owned by the aforementioned Elsevier. So if the plan was for Open Access research to make science more independent of major publishers, we now use software from the same companies to facilitate open access. Due to the growing reliance on research software, publishers gain a kind of monopoly over the entire research process. ”

PhD candidate Martijn van der Meer would like to start a discussion about the power of major scientific Open Access publishers.

Picture of:
Martijn van der Meer

What do you notice as a researcher?

“You feel it especially when you are aware of it. At first glance, you are working with very user-friendly and secure programs. However, if you look critically at the companies behind this software, you see a problematic situation emerge. In addition to PURE, there are also important programs like Mendeley that you as a scientist can keep track of your notebook with, and Sciencedirect that you need to search for articles on the web. Both are owned by Elsevier. When you use these tools, your mouse movements, reading behavior, and resource unit are closely monitored and managed by a third party such as Elsevier. Researchers have often not given explicit permission for this. “

And what is the objection to that?

“I am afraid that this data collection will stimulate a process in which a researcher’s actions are examined more and more carefully. This means that it is not only the privacy of researchers that is at stake. I also fear that this software determines who is a good scientist and who is not. In the shareholder reports from the parent company Elsevier, it is clear that the company wants to focus more and more on software that processes data from and about researchers for ‘business intelligence’, which can be used for management purposes. The publishers thus gain control over information, which the universities decide whether a researcher should have a permanent contract with.

“At the moment, behavioral data is not yet used in this way, but it could technically be possible. If decisions about research software are made on the basis of efficiency rather than public values, there is a real danger. In this way, we all stumble upon a dystopian situation. We should not have this kind of software define what good science is.

“That path would also run counter to the belief of ‘recognize and value’ 1† If we really believe that research should not be about the number of publications, but about the quality of it, then we should refrain from collecting quantitative data on researchers with such tools. ”

But what can we do about this?

“Researchers, administrators and staff at the university need to make basic considerations about what is valuable in the relationship between science and external parties: broad reach or independence? And if we sacrifice usability because of independence, how bad do we think it is?

“Although library staff, data administrators and policy officers already help researchers very well, EUR should have a sustainable open access policy that includes a better relationship with commercial parties. EUR could e.g. replace Elsevier’s software with open source alternatives and encourage the software to be developed and managed by a larger group of institutions. The national SURF, which provides software to higher education institutions, should play a pioneering role in this, together with the Dutch universities.

“Researchers are often surprised and shocked when they hear what data Elsevier collects from them. At the same time, researchers simply want everything to work quickly in practice. But if they really mind, then we should do something about it together. ”

In a reply, Matthijs van Otegem, director of the university library, says the following:

The fact that large tech companies collect data from their customers and use it to create new services, direct the market and sometimes even resell this data is a well-known fact in the world of online services. Van der Meer is therefore right to draw attention to how this problem manifests itself in the scientific world and how we as an academic society can deal with it adequately.

“He links this problem to open access policy in the Netherlands. This policy is based on the principle that research results funded by public funds must also be publicly available. It is unclear how Van der Meer believes this contributes to the above problem. The question from the article ‘a wide range or independence?’ thus suggests a contradiction that does not exist: Although nothing from the Open Access repository is available, the service still runs on Elsevier’s servers, so a university like EUR should both have an open access policy and consciously protect its own knowledge.

“I wonder if the road to open source offers the solution to the problem of market dominance. Nevertheless, I believe that there are four effective measures a university can take to reduce the risk of commercial dominance.

“First and foremost, you have to ensure that you as a university have your own scientific output, and that you do not place everything with the same supplier. That Erasmus Data Repository is therefore with a different supplier than our publications.

“It also helps to make clear agreements about ownership and who can do what with what data. For example, we can agree that all data remains in EUR’s PURE and that Elsevier may only do things with those necessary for the provision of the service.

“Finally, it is important that the privacy and rights of members of your academic community are protected by providing as little personal data as possible when logging into databases and search systems. Publishers prefer each user to create a personal profile. The library’s policy is that we allow users to log in via a central platform whose data can only be traced back to a person within EUR and nowhere else. Researchers can also protect their copyright themselves. The copyright information point in the library can help you with this. “


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  1. In 2019, various interest groups of Dutch researchers and universities also decided to evaluate researchers in the domains they work in, such as education and the impact of research, instead of just the number of publications they have to their name.

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