stm logoScholarly collaboration networks (SCNs)/social sharing networks (SSNs) have been part of the scholarly communications landscape for several years now. While these networks are increasingly popular among the research community, as shown in this 2014 Nature survey, publishers – unsurprisingly – have some reservations, primarily around the sharing of research articles on these sites. But there’s no doubt that SCNs are here to stay; so, in hopes of finding a collaborative solution to the challenges and opportunities they present, the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM) has recently issued a set of voluntary principles that aim to facilitate article sharing on SCNs. They’ve also launched a consultation about the draft principles – possibly the first time a publishing organization has done so. To find out more, I spoke to Fred Dylla, Executive Director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics and the project lead of the STM working group for this initiative.

You’re the project lead for an STM working group that has drafted a set of voluntary principles on article sharing on scholarly collaboration networks – what are these principles and why are they needed?

The principles seek to express a commitment on the part of publishers and SCNs to reduce friction where article-sharing takes place among academics and to help make it a consistent and user friendly experience for researchers. We want to start a constructive, community-wide discussion about article-sharing, and the principles are intended as a starting point for comment. Publishers acknowledge that improving the article sharing process begins with communicating clear policies and clarifying our role in facilitating article sharing. The principles would also enable SCN users to share articles easily and responsibly. The idea is to make discovery easier while removing the ambiguity and uncertainty over what’s permissible. We’d like to arrive at a core set of principles to which the community can agree that would benefit everyone.

SCNs and SSNs have been operating for several years already, so why is STM acting now?

The ways by which scholarly information is delivered and used by researchers is rapidly evolving. Researchers have always shared copies of articles from the inception of the journal when print copies were shared among collaborators. Sharing an electronic copy with a colleague is now done with a key stroke. Sharing networks facilitate the dissemination of articles and related information among an entire collaborating group. Internet tools have simply improved the efficiency of a standard academic practice. As the use of sharing networks increases, ambiguity has grown over how to access, share and use journal articles on platforms and tools like SCNs. Although some publishers have previously made independent statements about SCNs, we’re conscious that researchers want simple solutions that work for all platforms and publishers. STM believes the best approach to finding common ground on this issue is through a wide and far-reaching consultative process. As all parties across the scholarly community – researchers, librarians, SCNs and publishers alike – seek clarity on these issues, we think it is timely to start an inclusive dialogue in order to form a springboard for further progress. Wide community input on this topic could help inform the evolution of new practices, tools and metrics that benefit everyone.

What do you see as the main benefits of SCNs and article sharing for the various stakeholders – publishers, librarians, researchers?

Sharing networks vary in function. Some primarily offer professional networking, others enable reference sharing, and others article and/or data sharing—all are useful. For example, there are SCNs that connect researchers and their projects towards common goals; enable review of each other’s work; increase the reach of publications; make data output available for citation, sharing and discovery; offer metadata for tracking tools, facilitate reference management; archive for easy retrieval; enable convenient sharing of articles and data, and so forth. Benefits of such networks are abundant, especially in improving how scholars share and use the results of their research.

The primary beneficiaries of SCNs are, obviously, the researchers, who can share information and collaborate with their colleagues more efficiently and beyond their immediate circles. Authors, publishers and librarians have a common interest in seeing that research articles are disseminated and used. These benefits would be amplified if these usage channels were promoted and worked with library systems and standards. (See below.)

And what are the main challenges?

As a community, we don’t have a good grasp over how much article sharing is being done over SCNs. All we know is that there is a fair amount of sharing, and it’s growing every day. Using standards such as COUNTER would enable us to measure the amount and type of usage on sharing networks. Better understanding the habits of readers would help both publishers and librarians quantify their services, thus better addressing researchers’ needs. Working with, and expanding the scope of, existing library standards like COUNTER could also help libraries provide return on investment (ROI) information on subscriptions they are providing to their users.

Making information discoverable on such sites is challenging if the metadata isn’t attached to articles and datasets. Until recently a lot of debate focused on sharing of articles among small or private groups online. But more challenging still is public group sharing (or public posting of articles). The mechanism by which this will function, and finding common ground that works for everyone, will take thoughtful discussion. It is an area where individual publishers and SCNs diverge more than on broad principles and on private group sharing. We hope the voluntary principles will spark some useful thinking and contributions during the consultation period on this. This is why we have focused first on the sharing of articles in private (by invitation only) research groups, and only lightly touched upon the public sharing of articles. We believe it is helpful to take these challenges in a step-by-step approach to keep them practical.

What does the subject of this STM consultation have to do with open access?

Open access articles can already be shared according to their license terms. Some argue the simplest solution is to make everything open access, but that’s not practicable at this time for a number of reasons. So while we expect responses to include recommendations about open access, this consultation focuses on the main challenge, which is to enable the simple sharing of subscription content. This consultation is about the rapidly evolving nature of collaboration networks and their use to share articles among colleagues—both subscription and open access content—with collaborators who are both subscribers and non-subscribers.

STM supports sustainable open access, and most of its members offer open access publication options and initiatives for growing open access content.

Why has STM chosen to hold a community-wide consultation on this issue rather than simply asking its members to adopt the principles?

Finding solutions to community-wide issues can only be accomplished through inclusive, constructive conversation. Through the consultation, STM wishes to gain a better understanding of the current landscape of article sharing through scholarly collaboration networks and sites. We hope to get more insight into the scope of issues from all members of the scholarly community (the SCNs, librarians, academic institutions, authors, researchers, etc.)—and to see if, together, we can find solutions that work for all parties.

There are things that publishers themselves can do to help clarify our policies regarding sharing via collaboration networks. But we need to acknowledge two things:

First, there is a great diversity of publisher viewpoints over the sharing of published works on SCNs. Although the 10 publishers exploring the issue in a working group included participants from both the for-profit and non-profit world, for the draft principles to act as a catalyst for solutions and for a wider adoption there are many more registered members of CrossRef—both members and non-members of STM—whose involvement would be needed. Any industry-wide agreement can only be achieved by inviting more input.

Second, steps taken on the part of the publishing community alone can help facilitate sharing, but we’d miss an opportunity to truly strengthen the positive impact on research if we just consulted with ourselves. Other stakeholders must be part of the conversation to fully realize the potential of sharing via SCNs in such a way that optimizes the experience for researchers, aids librarians and publishers in their efforts, and helps SCNs better meet their users’ needs.

We realized that if a more inclusive dialog were to take place, we needed to offer as a starting point a draft of cross-cutting principles that were broad enough to allow for varying perspectives but focused enough to structure a meaningful dialog.

Who do you hope will respond to the consultation and why?

We are hoping for the widest possible response to our consultation.

This is about making sharing work better for researchers, so we want researchers who use SCNs to respond. In an effort to make sharing transparent to SCN users, we’d like their input on how to quantify the use of and value of the sharing process and hear more about their specific needs.

We want librarians to respond, as they share a commitment to meeting the needs of researchers. Librarians know their customers, and could also benefit from the metrics and enhanced discoverability that could possibly result.

We want SCNs to actively participate in the consultation. We need to work together, and the SCNs would be directly involved in any practical measures that might arise from this dialog.

As stated above, we want many publishers to respond, both those who are members and non-members of STM. There is a diversity of viewpoints among publishers over the sharing of published works via SCNs. The STM working group itself included varying publisher perspectives, but more input is needed to generate a broader consensus.

There are other stakeholders, too, that will want to provide feedback, and this consultation is open to all who have input to offer.

Have the major SCNs (e.g., ResearchGate, Mendeley, been involved in drafting the principles and/or are they engaging in the consultation?

For practical matters, our initial work has involved SCNs that are directly connected to publishers, such as Mendeley, Papers, ACS ChemWorx, ReadCube and FigShare (among others). Our own survey taken at the beginning of our group’s work identified more than 40 networks. We are actively reaching out to independent SCNs like ResearchGate and to invite them to join the conversation. There hasn’t been much dialog between independent SCNs and publishers up to now, and SCN involvement will be essential to successfully meeting the needs of researchers. So we hope that these voluntary principles and consultation will move us in the direction of collaboration.

How can people and/organizations participate in the consultation? 

We invite everyone with an interest in this important topic to join in the consultation, which is hosted on the STM website: Participants have the options to 1) submit their comments and feedback and/or 2) communicate their formal support for the framework presented in the draft principles.

STM is planning to collate and publish all feedback on its website – will you change the draft principles if necessary based on that feedback?

Of course! In addition to collating and publishing all the feedback, it will be analyzed for potential modifications of our draft of the principles. We are very clear in our messaging that these principles exist only in draft form now, pending community-wide feedback.

We welcome organizations and individuals to support the current draft of principles, and if the draft changes significantly, we will ask those who voiced support during the consultation to reconfirm their support.

What do you hope the consultation – and the principles – will ultimately achieve?

Truly collaborative solutions must also be worked collaboratively. We see the consultation as a first step in what we hope will be an ongoing collaborative process. Ultimately, we want to develop practical solutions to improve the value and use of these networks. But to do this, we need to work together with all the players—the SCNs, researchers, and librarians, as well as publishers – reaching critical mass. Feedback from the consultation will help inform the path forward.

We hope to make publishers’ policies universally more transparent, to positively affect discoverability through the proper use of metadata, and to track usage through systems like COUNTER. We plan to expand the conversation to include standards for modes and models of sharing, for instance among corporate researchers and for public sharing. The consultation will hopefully draw out other areas for future dialog and additional potential benefits.

It’s not often that publishers hold consultations – do you see this sort of approach as a model for consensus-building within the scholarly community in future?

Yes, I do. As you say, consultations don’t occur regularly, and we hope this effort will generate feedback from a wide representation of the international scholarly community. Over the next few months we’ll be able to see if the consultation was effective in accomplishing that. Consensus-building is a process, and we can only benefit from increased dialog.

As an international trade organization, STM facilitates collaborations within the diverse scholarly publishing community that have resulted in the development of information identification protocols, industry standards, best practices in communications, and more. For another example, STM, the American Association of Scholarly Publishers’ Professional/Scholarly Publishing Division (AAP-PSP), and library organizations currently work with 190 publishers on the Research4Life initiative that provides access to researchers, students, agriculturalists, and other professionals in the developing world. STM has also reached outside the publishing community in outreach efforts, such as patientINFORM, also developed in concert with AAP-PSP, voluntary health organizations, medical societies and researchers, to give patients and caregivers access to research concerning their diagnosis and treatment. Perhaps consultations are not done often, but STM has a history of helping stakeholders work together for common goals.




Alice Meadows

Alice Meadows

I am a Co-Founder of the MoreBrains Cooperative, a scholarly communications consultancy with a focus on open research and research infrastructure. I have many years experience of both scholarly publishing (including at Blackwell Publishing and Wiley) and research infrastructure (at ORCID and, most recently, NISO, where I was Director of Community Engagement). I’m actively involved in the information community, and served as SSP President in 2021-22. I was honored to receive the SSP Distinguished Service Award in 2018, the ALPSP Award for Contribution to Scholarly Publishing in 2016, and the ISMTE Recognition Award in 2013. I’m passionate about improving trust in scholarly communications, and about addressing inequities in our community (and beyond!). Note: The opinions expressed here are my own


22 Thoughts on "Article Sharing on Scholarly Collaboration Networks – An Interview with Fred Dylla about STM’s Draft Guidelines and Consultation"

This is the first I have heard of invitation only private sharing groups, which are the subject of this consultation. Presumeably one cannot observe them, but where are they to be found? Is there information about them? It is hard to evaluate proposed principles that apply to something that cannot be seen.

Sure, but I did not know about the private groups, nor would I assume that all other Kitchen readers do. Any info on them? Are they secret or is there a listing somewhere? How about sizes?

Only 4 people can comprise a private group in Mendeley – meaning only beginners would consider this service as a tool for sharing.

Note that larger groups are available under the Institutional version of the product.

Obviously, there are issues of copyright involved here, such as where “fair use” applies and where it doesn’t. There is a long history of attempts at consultation and collaboration among publishers, librarians, users, etc. One such effort was the attempt to come up with recommendations for changes to Sec. 108 (concerning rules for copying done in and by libraries). The STM group may want to look at the published results of that effort to see what areas of agreement were reached that might apply to this new set of negotiations over permissible usage.

Like David I too was unaware that the ability of private groups working on a mutual problem via some dedicated means was and is a problem.

What difference is there between a web based conversation and a telephone based conversation? If the consultation concerns a research problem and eventually results in a paper in what way do the citations used in regard to copyright differ from any other published paper?

Is this a solution looking for a problem?

I suspect the potential problem is that such systems can be used to set up widespread copyright infringement, the difference between me handing you a copy of a paper and me putting one up on the internet for all takers. If I create a “private” group of 500 researchers and we each upload every single paper that our libraries subscribe to so all can have access to the other’s subscriptions, that’s likely going to cause problems.

Similarly, some of these sites actively encourage copyright infringement. I get constant requests from ResearchGate to upload copies of my copyrighted papers, with little to no information that doing so might get me in trouble.

Any reason to think that there are any secret groups of this size? The public groups look much smaller at first glance (but there are over 100,000 of them). Your 500 separate bulk library uploads example seems a bit far fetched. Any evidence of any bulk uploads, including in the public groups? How easy is it to upload an entire library’s stuff? I think rules should be based on evidence, not conjecture.

Who knows? Each of these services is opaque, though each boasts huge numbers. ResearchGate claims over 5 million members actively sharing content with one another and 2 million articles uploaded every single month: boasts over 18 million users.

There’s also the thorny question over whether these networks should be making money from facilitating copyright infringement.

Interesting numbers but the RG averages just 0.4 posts per person per month, which suggests few bulk loads. is interesting because it suggest lots of students and non-scientists.

The copyright problem is that there is a continuum between allowable simple sharing and violation, so lines need to be drawn. As is said above, lack of data may be the real problem. It is very hard to write good rules when you cannot see what you are talking about.

Another issue is the question of just what exactly is being uploaded and where to. I can find myriad examples of the published full text pdf of articles from journals on any of these sites, clear violations of publisher policies and copyrights. At the same time, many publishers allow authors to upload the accepted manuscript version of their articles to personal websites and institutional/funder repositories, and many of the copies on these commercial sites are manuscripts.

The ratio of each is unknown because the sites are deliberately opaque, and in order to claim safe harbor defense, have to deliberately remain ignorant of what has been posted on their sites (if they know something is in violation of copyright, they are required to take it down). The second question is whether these commercial for-profit networks are to be considered “personal websites” or repositories.

Can these services claim protection as ISPs under the provisions of the DMCA?

That’s the idea–not necessarily an ISP, but under the safe harbor provisions of the DMCA, online hosts are protected from suffering the consequences when users upload infringing material. YouTube is able to avoid being sued when someone uploads a clip from a tv show. The idea is that so many things are uploaded per day that the host can’t possibly carefully monitor them all for problems.

This defense though, requires that the host remain ignorant of what content is being uploaded. When it is brought to their attention that something is infringing, they must immediately take it down. And that gets weird when you’re a paper sharing social network that has a built-in system to automatically identify any pdf that gets uploaded, and if you’re also in the business of selling data about paper usage and research trends that are discovered from knowing exactly what papers are being passed around. You can’t be ignorant of a file once you’ve identified it and are analyzing its use. Could be a fascinating court case once someone gets the guts to sue one of these companies.

Of course in the case of YouTube, they’ve moved beyond the days of the Viacom lawsuit, and now have all sorts of cooperative programs where they generate new revenue and share it with copyright holders through licensing agreements, rather than trying to keep it all to themselves and having to face constant legal challenges. One would suspect that this is a possible future direction for these networks as well.

The complexity is fascinating and would make a nice issue tree. However you seem to be referring to the public case, while the draft principles are limited to the private case, which seems closer to allowable sharing among colleagues. Perhaps the public case is not being covered because some deem it illegal, or simply because it is more complex.

I agree that it is complex, and that it may be impossible to disentangle the threads of public/private network sharing. The opaque nature of the private networks (and those profiting from them) make them perhaps harder to deal with, as most legal systems for policing online hosts are directed at sites where discoverability is possible.

We do not need more restrictions from STM — SCN facilitate uploading

The “Draft voluntary principles for article sharing on SCN” contain this: “Academic groups would … only share articles within and for the purposes of the group, … not be open to participation by the general public”. Probably STM tries to establish rules more restrictive than mechanisms that already exist with the aim to rescue Closed Access publishing.

The FAQ of ResearchGate contain this: “Am I breaching copyright by uploading my publication’s full-text?” (

Answer: “Self-archiving permissions vary between publishers and journals. You can find details of many publisher copyright policies on Sherpa/RoMEO ( If your publication is correctly linked to its journal on ResearchGate, you can also find general publisher conditions for it by clicking the ‘Show self-archiving restrictions link’ at the bottom of its ResearchGate page. Here you’ll see a classification color: green means you can generally upload a full-text, blue or yellow means you should check your individual article conditions, and white means self-archiving is generally not permitted.” …

SCN facilitate uploading for everything classified “green”. Not everyone may have a private homepage or access to an institutional repository. SCN can help here. I do NOT think researcher need “Draft voluntary principles” to make the distribution of research results more restrictive – the opposite would help.

I am hopeful that these principles will be re-stated as minimums of expected allowance by publishers/content providers (i.e., the community putting forth the principles) and not as upper limitations on individuals/research groups, particularly as certain publishing agreements allow for far greater sharing than the language in this framework articulates. I do value that this conversation is occurring and have been encouraging as much participation as I can.

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