A concept that developed for me out of the Digital Researcher #dr10 meeting was the idea of ‘Gatekeeper’ organisations and their impact on research work.

To explain what I mean by a Gatekeeper, let me use the example of the University. Not only does the university provide your access to what you hope is one of the best libraries in your discipline in the country, it also controls your access to online journals and books. In addition, it controls other people’s access to your work, by telling you what you are permitted to publish, and by providing space (or not) to do so.

Gatekeepers are very powerful in the researcher’s world, particularly for the early career researcher. The Gatekeeper seems to have considerably more control of the relationship than the researcher. Other examples of Gatekeepers that have less obvious but perhaps more insidious control of information communication are Google Scholar and Google Books. We rely on them a lot, but we don’t question how their searches work and what they do or do not include. We can give them a lot of control over the direction of our research, without even realising it.

I found that these ideas concerned me a great deal. Disparity of power between Gatekeeper organisations and researchers is a worry, as is the lack of dialogue and explicit recognition of how these organisations control research direction and give or remove priority to sources of information by including or not including them in their access streams. I have no evidence that any Gatekeepers use this power consciously to direct research, but there is potential there. I would think that researchers have a responsibility to consciously analyse their research methods, and to be explicit about inherent influences such as Gatekeepers.

What I found surprising is that #dr10 attendees didn’t seem to find this issue as striking as I did. What response I got suggested that people were satisfied knowing they could probably get an article they might need ‘through a friend’ if they didn’t have access themselves. But the ability to access information, to browse through books and journals, is integral to my own methods of research and I assume is not unique in researchers.

On the other side there is the problem of making your own work ‘open access’ and avoiding these Gatekeepers. At #dr10 the main solution being supported seemed to be ‘institutional repositories’. I was uncertain how this could be anything but a short term solution. Most researchers will move institution more than once. I see no reason why Institutions would continue to store and provide access to articles by researchers who no longer work there. Even the storage of theses would surely be better done under the auspices of the British Library’s project.

I am uncertain how to combat the problem of Gatekeepers and democratise information access. This is of particular importance in the field of archaeology as there is such a lack of communication between academic archaeologists and practicing field  archaeologists. I believe this is in part due to difficulty in communicating academic work, usually published in costly journals, to field archaeologists without access. If we could make our academic work more widely available and easier to access and hear about, I think it would go some way in healing this rift.

The big question is – how do we tackle Gatekeepers? I believe part of the solution is in fact things like blogging. Blogs are very discreet, focused forms of information that have a significant impact on Google’s search. We can help direct people through to relevant information. Other methods include hosting our own articles on blogs or websites, and taking the plunge and putting our own academic work into open-access journals. A number of these journals are just starting out – we can support them by making sure there’s good, interesting work in them, or even serving on review or editorial panels.

I’d be interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the Gatekeeper issue, and how to tackle it. [edit -From the searches that are getting people to this blog, I know there’s other people interested in the same issues, and I’ve found an article on similar (non-digital) themes here. I really believe we need to think more about this].


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