Earlier this month, Deepdyve, an online rental service for scholarly and professional research articles, contacted me to let me know that it was launching a new freemium service that it hoped would help research reach wider audiences and make more effective use of social media.

Deepdyve’s freemium service officially launched on 5 June and allows users to preview the full text of any article available on its site for five minutes per day. The service is available to anyone willing to set up a free user account and, according to Deepdyve’s announcement, gives them access to eight million articles from 3,000 peer-reviewed journals that normally reside behind paywalls. While users only get free access to each article for five minutes at a time in each 24 hour period, the service places no limit on how many articles users can access in any particular day.

Freemium models are pretty well understood now in the entertainment and media sectors, and we’ve looked at how the phenomenon of freemium fiction in China is changing the way that consumers discover and consume fiction on this blog before. Such services are a great deal rarer in the spheres of professional and scholarly publishing, but having taken a closer look at Deepdyve’s freemium model I can think of two ways in which it could be an interesting and important development.

1. Overcoming the limits of the abstract model

Currently if a researcher or other user wants to assess whether a research article is worthy of consideration, they have to rely on the abstract. Deepdyve’s CEO singles this out for particular criticism in the announcement, saying: “Researchers often complain that the abstract is not sufficient to determine the relevance and value of an article. Consequently they either waste valuable time looking for free alternatives, or settle on reading the abstract, losing out on the potential insights embedded in the article.”

Speaking as a consumer of academic and professional research, I have to say I agree. In my personal experience, the abstract only leads to caution on my part, and that something more extensive was needed for me to feel able to justify purchasing an article. If freemium access proves its worth as a way of enabling occasional or ‘personal’ users to research, choose and then buy individual articles, then Deepdyve may have found a way to monetise an almost entirely unserved market.

2. Making academic research more ‘social’

It has become increasingly apparent in recent years that scholarly and academic publishers see social media as being the key to solving the discovery and recommendation problems that prevent their content from reaching wider audiences. With over 1.8 million new research articles published each year, according to a recent STM Association report, it can be very difficult for researchers to locate relevant content, even using the sophisticated search functions that publishers now make available. Instead researchers often rely on informal word-of-mouth suggestions to filter what to read, and social media has come to play a key role in helping them to share recommendations with their professional networks. Social media’s role in this process is so important that academic publishers are snapping up the companies whose technology would enable them to see who is sharing their content where and with whom. We saw this earlier this year when Elsevier acquired Mendeley.

In Deepdyve’s view, however, what’s really holding researchers back from recommending content is access. It believes that researchers are less likely to recommend content that their networks can only evaluate based on the abstract. Therefore providing freemium access will result in them being “far more willing to share interesting articles with their colleagues, followers and other social connections.”

As this freemium service has only just launched, it’s too early to assess its impact either on sales of individual articles or aiding the discovery process. The fact that Deepdyve has successfully persuaded 100 of the biggest names in scholarly and research publication to sign up to its new model, however, is a progressive step. I’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on whether freemium access does indeed encourage usage and purchase of research articles in the way that Deepdyve hopes.