Scholarly collaboration networks (SCNs) are top of mind these days for publishers and academic societies. One such network is ResearchGate. A new alliance of publishers, called the Coalition for Responsible Sharing, is taking steps to address widespread distribution of published articles in violation of copyright. For this article, I spoke with James Milne, Senior Vice President at the American Chemical Society (ACS) and chair of the Coalition.
ResearchGate is a for-profit undertaking, with reportedly more than $85M in funding from venture capitalists and other high profile investors. It is arguably the most popular SCN, likely due to an aggressive and very successful program of email marketing. The slide below, from a presentation by Philip Carpenter (John Wiley & Sons) given at the Academic Publishing in Europe Conference (APE) earlier this year in Berlin, offers a sense of the enormous traffic levels ResearchGate sees, more than even the largest of scholarly publishers (and close to 7X that of Sci-Hub):
Researchers clearly are making great use of ResearchGate. Part of the reason is that ResearchGate is easy to use. Gaining access to large numbers of articles without the hassle of journal authentication systems is likely a large draw, as is access to papers from journals to which one’s library does not subscribe. Several studies (examples here, here and here) have shown that these networks are actually used almost exclusively for profile building, and the uploading and downloading of research articles.
Any academic will tell you that ResearchGate looms large in their daily life. Researchers receive massive numbers of unsolicited emails from ResearchGate on a daily basis, and while 90% of these will end up in the trash, the fact is that the remaining 10% are actually useful – the brand of ResearchGate is front and center in their minds.
Researchers particularly appreciate ResearchGate because they can easily follow who cites their articles, and they can follow references to find other articles they may find of interest. Researchers do not stop to think about copyright concerns and in fact, the platform encourages them, frequently, to upload their published papers.
Users likely pay little attention to whether the article they are accessing is being presented to them legally. There are, of course, many papers hosted on ResearchGate that are not violating copyright. Authors can and do often post the accepted manuscript version respecting any embargo policies and where such posting is allowed for commercial purposes. ResearchGate provides links to the SHERPA/ROMEO database and provides the color designation for each journal to facilitate sharing policies
Publishers have been grappling with what to do about SCNs, and ResearchGate in particular for close to a decade now. ResearchGate is hosting a mix of material which includes a significant number of final published Version of Record articles, in violation of copyright. Further, there are reports that ResearchGate has stripped out metadata from papers, rebranded them, and altered links in papers to point to their own hosted versions of papers, rather than the original journal. If true, these represent direct copyright infringements that go beyond the mere hosting and encouraging of copyrighted materials.
Publishers and societies have tried to find common ground and cooperative, mutually beneficial solutions for working with SCNs. This includes the STM’s (International Association of STM Publishers) Sharing Principles, which have been signed-on to by several SCNs. It appears that such efforts have not succeeded with ResearchGate, which has resulted in the formation of the Coalition for Responsible Sharing, which includes publishers and societies ready to take action, ranging from legal requests asking ResearchGate to remove infringing articles, to litigation.
Milne, Spokesperson for the Coalition for Responsible Sharing has a significant history in academic publishing across corporate and society publishing. In his 25 years he has worked at Elsevier, been Managing Director of publishing at the Royal Society of Chemistry, Global Publishing Director for the Physical Sciences at Wiley, and currently is Senior Vice President in charge of journals publishing at the ACS.
Formation of the Coalition for Responsible Sharing
The Coalition for Responsible sharing currently includes five members, with several not-for-profit publishers and research societies expected to join shortly: ACS, Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer, Wiley, and Brill.
According to Milne, the Coalition is a recent coming together of publishers that are also members of STM. For over two years, STM has being attempting to discuss with SCNs an amicable solution on how publishers of all stripes could work together in a fully collaborative manner, with SCNs as part of the scholarly communication ecosystem.
Milne related that STM’s role had been to work with a broad range of publishers, representing them in discussions with ResearchGate in attempts to have all parties sign up to the Voluntary Principles of Article Sharing on Scholarly Collaboration Networks. A separate proposal, offering a route to providing automated processing of uploads, indicating to users whether an article can be shared privately, or publicly was also made via a public letter. Unfortunately, these efforts have so far yielded no results. Individual publishing houses are now taking on the task outside of STM. The five publishers in the Coalition believe that the activities of ResearchGate undermine the integrity and sustainability of the scholarly communication system, Milne said.
The statement from the Coalition mentions that members are prepared to issue take-down notices for content that violates copyright and that at least two publishers, Elsevier and the American Chemical Society, are pursuing further legal action.
Milne told me that members of the Coalition will issue take down notices (an initial batch exceeding 100,000 to be sent imminently) to ResearchGate, and in fact ResearchGate has asked publishers to do just that if they discover articles that infringe copyright. The trouble is that this is a paper by paper solution. Coaliton publishers also want ResearchGate to help explain to authors how to share research, while bearing in mind the need to be copyright compliant.
According to Milne, ACS and Elsevier are taking further legal action against ResearchGate with the thought that even if infringing content is removed, more will be uploaded, and that take downs do not address the underlying pattern of behavior from ResearchGate.
“Copyrighted material should not be made available for free, unless there is a license in place, or the process aligns to the Voluntary Principles of Sharing” he said.
It should also be stated that most content on ResearchGate does not infringe copyright; with that said, as many as 7 million copyrighted articles are currently freely available on its platform.
The popularity of ResearchGate with users is a potential public relations problem.
“This really is part of the core aspect, and why we were trying to work with ResearchGate towards an amicable solution,” Milne said. He notes that the issue here is really that if ResearchGate were to work with publishers to keep their environment strong and compliant, then there would be a significant benefit to researchers, so it is not the publishers causing loss of access here, but ResearchGate. Publishers have also been quite active on such initiatives as How Can I Share It, and authors are encouraged to share responsibly.
Asked whether there is a positive outcome to researchers in this scenario, Milne said that publishers have been active in educating authors about how to share articles. Publishers are of course promoting Gold OA and the maximum ability to share that Gold allows. Researchers are now more engaged in sharing activity. Researchers should benefit from publishers and ResearchGate working together.
ResearchGate is of course a for-profit entity, with vast amounts of venture capital funding. I asked Milne if there were any similarities to the early days of YouTube, and whether the ultimate solution would be a revenue-sharing arrangement along the lines of that site. Milne said that none of the publishers involved have explored revenue generating arrangements under agreements to license content to ResearchGate. The primary concern of publishers is to have ResearchGate abide by the Voluntary Principles and respect copyright.
Asked what ACS and Elsevier hope to get from the legal filing, Milne said, “We want ResearchGate to stop scraping materials and modifying copyrighted materials. We don’t want to see authors posting their content to ResearchGate in good faith, only to find out that they have to take it down later.”
The Coalition essentially wants the courts to tell ResearchGate to work with publishers on collaborative solutions that are good for the research community. Currently, ResearchGate’s lack of responsiveness has lead the coalition to conclude that the only option available is to issue take down notices and pursue legal action in hopes that ResearchGate will comply.
As Chair of the Coalition, Milne invites publishers and scholarly societies who are interested in joining, should contact him directly or visit the Coalition’s website.