Stop Tracking Science

How academic publishers use usage statistics for their own purposes


Lately, big academic publishers have been collecting large amounts of data about the research interests, online behaviour, and publication indicators of scientists. The sources for these data are various websites (e.g. of journals and commercial repositories) and apparently harmless free software (e.g. Mendeley) which transfer comprehensive usage data, such as:

  • Which papers do you look at and how often?
  • Which passages in the paper do you mark?
  • What other software have you installed on your computer?
  • What is your location, every time you access the website or use the software? (Check this Privacy Policy as an example.)  

In addition, these data are matched to other data sources (e.g. information from social networks). Even if you reject cookies in your browser, your computer can be identified clearly (browser fingerprinting, which is on the edge of legality in Germany), so that your online activities can be aggregated from different data sources. In some places, even the software of university libraries, which has been enhanced by publisher “plugins”, delivers data to the publishers.  

Such comprehensive personalised data are aggregated from all these sources and offered for sale to universities, but also to other parties such as the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This kind of tracking is rapidly becoming the business model of big publishers.    

Elsevier for instance sees its primary business activity no longer in classic publishing, but in the provision of data about researchers and their activities: “Elsevier will essentially accept a ‘zero revenue growth’ position for its journal in exchange for the universities purchasing a large set of their data analytics products.” (Leaked Dutch Contract with Elsevier Raises Significant Alarm Bells – SPARC).

The initiative Stop Tracking Science has collated analyses showing the dimension of these tracking activities and published a call for stopping them.
The German Research Foundation (DFG) has also published a highly critical statement on the topic:

Using such tracking data constitutes a serious danger to the freedom of science. What can the scientific community do to counteract such practices?

What can individual scientists do?

  • Sign the call Stop Tracking Science.
  • Avoid (often free) software and websites where usage data are tapped in a big way (including Mendeley and SSRN) and use Open Source alternatives instead for reference management etc. (e.g. Zotero | Your personal research assistant).
  • Do not post preprints to commercial servers such as SSRN, or ResearchGate, but to non-commercial servers such as EconStor (ZBW) or Zenodo (CERN).
  • Consider if you want to continue supporting publishers who practice science tracking widely (for instance by serving as an editor for the corresponding journals).

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