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Scholarly communication issues around scholarly collaboration networks

By Colleen DeLory, Elsevier Library Connect | Oct 25, 2017

Scholarly collaboration networks

With Facebook at almost two billion monthly users, it’s safe to say most of us are familiar with the functions of an online social network.1 Professional counterparts, such as LinkedIn, allow us to present our career qualifications to the world at large, especially to potential employers. Scholarly collaboration networks (SCNs), such as Mendeley, and ResearchGate, are an interesting blend of social and professional with elements of see and be seen, and tools for managing research.


Though they are sometimes called “academic” social networks, SCNs are used by a wide audience of researchers and scholars both within academia and beyond. With the rise of SCNs, librarians need to understand the role of these networks in the research lifecycle, the key issues involved and how to incorporate SCNs into scholarly communication models and instruction and outreach activities. 


Also before dedicating time and resources to SCNs, librarians should consider their sustainability and place in the scholarly ecosystem. In its February 2017 report “The Scholarly Collaboration Network Landscape,” the research and advisory firm Outsell noted, “Eight years after the launch of the Big 3 SCNs [, ResearchGate and Mendeley], it’s time to start optimizing these services to generate profits. Investors have been generous, but in the case of ResearchGate and Academia in particular, they’ll be looking for an exit in the short-to-medium term and will want to see significant return on investment.” Conversely, they note that Mendeley is part of a greater researcher offering from Elsevier, which is looking to cement Mendeley’s place as a market-leading and sustainable collaboration platform.” 2


In exploring the intersection of scholarly communication and SCNs, I will use Mendeley as my example as this is the SCN I’m most familiar with, but the same inquiry and advice can, and should, be applied to any SCN you plan on supporting.



Features of a true scholarly collaboration network


A true scholarly collaboration network must offer a platform for researchers to connect, communicate and collaborate. Such a platform should include features such as:


  • Follow — to stay up-to-date with others’ work and for others’ to keep up with your work
  • Disseminate & discover — to share and seek information, including early feedback on your work and commenting on others’ work 
  • Profile — to build an accurate, searchable profile to ensure others find you and your work
  • News — to receive alerts when new content, personalized to your interests, is available
  • Private groups — for research teams and study groups
  • Public groups — for discipline-specific news and topic discussions


Before committing resources to understanding and promoting SCNs, librarians should ensure the SCN offers the features their users’ want and need, and that it operates in an ethical manner, e.g., respecting copyright (see Copyright and SCNs section below) and being transparent in communications. 



From collaboration to impact


Researchers want to understand the reach and impact of their work; SCNs can help. Most SCNs offer some sort of article-level tracking (made easier through integration with the ORCID researcher iD and Scopus author profile). For instance in Mendeley this includes the number of Mendeley users who have added the researcher’s publications in their personal library, downloads from ScienceDirect, and citation metrics from Scopus.


Metrics may be a critical feature for researchers in fields where citations develop slowly. Article-level metrics from SCNs are starting to be included in promotion and tenure files, grant applications and on various online profiles.



Copyright and SCNs


As SCNs have evolved, so too has the need to address issues of copyright. Librarians are embedding information about responsible article sharing with instruction about copyright, fair use and the integrity of the scholarly record. The publisher of the article of record — from university presses to niche publishers to publishers with large portfolios — ensures the work is authoritative, trusted, preserved, discoverable and accessible. The good news for librarians delivering these messages is that researchers want to respect copyright. In a 2017 survey on SCN usage, 83 percent of authors agreed or strongly agreed that copyright should be respected (survey by Kudos and 10 publisher partners; April 2017; n = 5,513).3 The challenge for librarians is to get the message across so that copyright is easy to understand and sticks. In a presentation to faculty, librarians at the University of Rhode Island outlined the contradictory language of some SCNs about uploading and sharing articles without being clear on copyright issues, while shifting copyright violation liability to users in the fine print.4


“The best defense is a good offense” is an adage that comes into play here. Librarians can help protect their researchers by educating them on a few important facts regarding SCNs and responsible sharing:


  • ResearchGate, and Mendeley are all owned by for-profit organizations.5
  • Researchers can share the final published version of an article in a private group on an SCN, such as Mendeley, that has signed the STM Association’s “Voluntary principles for article sharing on scholarly collaboration networks.”
  • Sci-Hub, LibGen and some SCN websites are becoming open repositories of copyrighted material. They are not only jeopardizing scholarly publishing, but in many cases are breaking the law. (Mendeley does not violate copyright as it follows the STM voluntary principles for article sharing on SCNs.)
  • Researchers can always share their preprints and provide the DOI for the final published article.


The STM Association drafted “Voluntary principles for article sharing on scholarly collaboration networks” with input from the wider research community, including librarians. These can be found on the homepage of the How Can I Share It? website and are available in English, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish. A key principle is that final published articles may be shared in private groups. The How Can I Share It? website also enables authors to search for an article’s access and usage rights by DOI. 


Other new tools like Unpaywall are being introduced. This site allows researchers to search for the best available version that can be shared without violating copyright, e.g., a preprint or accepted manuscript post-embargo. Libraries can also integrate publisher APIs with their institutional repositories to meet funder requirements regarding article sharing, and to provide access to the best available version depending on the library’s subscriptions.


For more information at a publisher and journal level about rights and permissions, the SHERPA RoMEO website “aggregates and analyses publisher open access policies from around the world and provides summaries of self-archiving permissions and conditions of rights given to authors on a journal-by-journal basis.”6


Article sharing: authors reduced sized imagge

Download an article sharing handout for your authors. Select "Fit to page" for best printing results. 


The black hole of usage


In a June 2017 Scholarly Kitchen post, the journals director at the American Society of Civil Engineers commented, “When papers are downloaded from Sci-Hub and the associated LibGen database, the publisher site loses the download counts. Now, the same can be said for all the papers in ResearchGate, and institutional repositories.”7 In the case of institutional repositories, librarians are able to access the data and combine it with usage numbers from publishers, but when SCNs do not share their usage numbers, this black hole of data hurts librarians. 


Librarians factor usage data into decisions about their budget allocations and collections, and in more recent years, to prepare institutional and departmental level reports on research outputs. The more fragmented usage data becomes, the more difficult it is to develop a cohesive and comprehensive picture of research impact.



Information literacy and beyond


Librarians are teaching their researchers, faculty and students about SCNs. As with many things, self-education is key. After you become fluent, it’s much easier to implement other tactics to familiarize or raise awareness among library users about an SCN, such as:


  • Establish your own profile and offer resources there
  • Create a LibGuide
  • Offer a workshop or bootcamp
  • Set drop-in hours for SCN topics
  • Identify and use platform experts
  • Embed SCNs in other research lifecycle topics and training
  • Share results of a literature search or systematic review in an SCN group


The benefits to using and promoting SCNs are numerous. Don McMillan, a University of Calgary librarian, sums it up nicely:


"For librarians, besides being a powerful tool for their own research, Mendeley serves as another point of engagement with other faculty and students. Developing fluencies and expertise with resources like Mendeley we may be better able to make connections in senior classes, offering something besides bibliographic searching; it may be a way to work with research teams on campus; it may offer a different perspective on how well the library’s collections match the needs of the institutions’ researchers, or the impact of researchers’ work. In any case it is another way for the library to add value to the institution."8





1. “Facebook is closing in on 2 billion monthly users,” The Verge, Ben Popper and Nikki Erlick, Feb. 1, 2017,

2. The Scholarly Collaboration Network Landscape, Company Analysis Report, February 6, 2017, Copyright 2017 Outsell, Inc.

3. “Survey shows author sharing via scholarly collaboration networks is widespread, despite strong support for copyright,” Charlie Rapple, April 4, 2017,

4. Rathemacher, Andrée; Lovett, Julia; and Izenstark, Amanda, "ResearchGate, Copyright, and You" (2016). Technical Services Faculty Presentations. Paper 46.

5. Do academic social networks share academics’ interests? David Matthews, April 7, 2016, Times Higher Education


7. “Are Open Access Journals Immune from Piracy?” The Scholarly Kitchen, Angela Cochran, June 6, 2017.

8. Mendeley: Teaching Scholarly Communication and Collaboration through Social Networking, 2012 IATUL Proceedings. Don MacMillan, University of Calgary,