Publishers Unite to Fight Copyright Infringement on ResearchGate

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ResearchGate, the world’s most popular scholarly collaboration network (SCN), which brands itself as an ‘online information society service’, might soon be facing its Napster moment. A coalition of major publishers, called the ‘Coalition for Responsible Sharing’, (which includes major publishing houses such as Elsevier, Wiley, Wolters Kluwer, The American Chemical Society and Brill) have issued a statement regarding the network’s alleged inability to adequately deal with alleged instances of mass copyright infringement, and have also initiated legal action against ResearchGate to “clarify its copyright responsibility.” As per the statement –

“Following unsuccessful attempts to jointly find ways for scholarly collaboration network ResearchGate to run its service in a copyright-compliant way, a coalition of information analytics businesses, publishers and societies is now left with no other choice but to take formal steps to remedy the illicit hosting of millions of subscription articles on the ResearchGate site.”

These actions come in the wake of recent actions against the massive online repository of scientific articles, Sci-Hub, which we blogged about here.

“Facebook for Scientists” and its Over-sharing Problem

ResearchGate is a social network for scientists, with a membership running into the tens of millions. It’s wide popularity has been attributed to some specific features which make it stand out from other such SCN’s, in particular, those which allow academics to share their research widely on the network. The primary research output being publications, ResearchGate’s feature allowing members to upload their own publications and share them with other members has earned it immense popularity among academics and researchers, and equal amounts of ire from many publishers (for more on why the interests of the two are misaligned, see here, here and here.)

ResearchGate’s community thrives on the relatively unchecked ability to upload and share their publications. Currently, close to 2.5 million uploads are made to ResearchGate, every month. This ability allows for greater collaboration and peer review, and allows researchers to follow references to their own articles and track the work of their peers in different fields. ResearchGate attempts to limit uploads by only those within the academic or research community, for example, limiting membership to only those with institutional email access. While ResearchGate’s terms of use explicitly require such uploads to be compliant with the publisher’s copyright, nevertheless, ResearchGate’s repository also includes access to several copyrighted and pay-walled works whose rights are owned by publishers – according to the publishers, this number comes to around 7 million articles. Under most agreements with publishers, the authors must sign over all of their rights in the final publication, which means that even author-uploaded articles are uploaded in violation of publishing agreements. One study has estimated that close to 40% of ResearchGate’s database may be illegal.

Fair Use, Fair Sharing or Farewell to ResearchGate?

Faced with increasing instances of copyright infringement on SCNs, publishers have attempted to come up with different models for ‘fair sharing’ aimed at checking copyright infringement on these networks. The Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers, based in Oxford, has echoed a similar sentiment of relying on increasing access instead of fighting long legal battles against SCN’s, for example, the website, which documents the sharing and access policies for different publishers.

After ResearchGate’s refusal to agree to the various proposals put forth by publishers, two members of the Coalition, Elsevier and the American Chemical Society, are planning on suing ResearchGate, and utilizing the notice-and-takedown mechanism under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act to legally mandate ResearchGate to monitor and take down content which is copyrighted.

The lawsuit and other actions taken against ResearchGate will be interesting to follow for a few reasons – firstly, exploring the question of ResearchGate’s responsibility and liability as an intermediary in allowing the uploading and sharing of copyrighted papers is a question which court’s would have to assess, primarily in the context of author’s sharing their own pre and post-publication works. Secondly, the dispute evidences major disruptions in the publishing industry bringing the publishing industry closer to fairer access and better models for open access. Recently, for example another major publisher, Springer Nature, has resolved to continue to look for a cooperative solution for the issue instead of initiating legal action. However, the legal response has had its intended effect, with publishers noting that a significant number of copyrighted articles were taken down from ResearchGate soon after the notices were sent. How much this will affect the network’s users remains to be seen.

Its unfortunate that the Coalition for Responsible Sharing decided that it had no alternatives left other than using the lopsided and blunt takedown mechanism and lawsuits to force ResearchGate to take action. Without working on a cooperative solution and addressing the issue of fair access to academic publications, the divide between the academic/research community and the publishing industry will only widen, pushing more people to alternatives such as sci-hub, which would arguably be worse off on all sides.





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