Editor’s Note: Today’s post is from Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe. Lisa is the Professor/Coordinator for Information Literacy Services and Instruction in the University Library and an affiliate faculty member in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She served as the 2010-2011 President of the Association of College and Research Libraries.
ResearchGate is under assault. As a scholarly collaboration platform that enables both public and private sharing on a networked scale, ResearchGate is seen as dangerous, not only because it is potentially infringing copyright, but because it is doing so on a massive publisher-independent scale. A group of publishers tried to tame ResearchGate through a proposal that it endorse the STM Voluntary Principles on Article Sharing on Scholarly Collaboration Networks and implement antipiracy measures, but ResearchGate rejected this proposal. Though ResearchGate now faces the threat of thousands of takedown notices and a lawsuit, it is positioned to emerge at least unscathed, if not strengthened, from these assaults.
I’ve documented the timeline and major activities of #ResearchGateGate elsewhere. Now, I’d like to draw out possible inferences and implications for the future of ResearchGate in particular and the state of scholarly sharing more generally. My analysis here is informed by an interview with James Milne, Chair of the Coalition for Responsible Sharing (conducted on October 18) as well as my own experiences as a scholar with a profile on ResearchGate and as a librarian who teaches the “Manage Your Online Scholarly Identity to Maximize the Reach and Impact of Your Work” workshop at my university.
It is hard to imagine any scholar, librarian, or publisher arguing against the foundational claim of the Voluntary Principles – that article sharing is important to the advancement of research. Even so, the scholarly communications community is rife with discussion and debate about how such sharing should take place. Some scholars engage in these conversations — but far, far more just go ahead and share.
That fact – that scholars just go ahead and share – is the challenge that publishers face with Sci-Hub, ResearchGate, SSRN, Academia.edu, etc. Publishers are understandably hesitant to take action against their own authors. Instead, they are focusing their efforts on developing their own workflow and sharing platforms while seeking to collaborate with or weaken competing ones. These two options are brought into sharp relief by the recent activities related to ResearchGate, the International Association of STM Publishers (STM), and the Coalition for Responsible Sharing (CRS).
As mentioned, publishers could pursue a collaborative approach with a scholarly collaboration network. The Principles contain within them the basis for such an approach and a negotiated agreement would enable publishers to avoid the expense of constant monitoring and takedown notices, and the time delays of litigation. Fundamental to collaboration, however, is the principle that all parties in the collaboration benefit from the collaboration in ways beyond the benefits they receive without the collaboration. If a platform signs on to the Principles, it is agreeing that “publishers and libraries should be able to measure the amount and type of sharing, using standards such as COUNTER.” But what does the platform gain? If authors are sharing their work in keeping with the Principles, the platform receives the benefit of the Principles without endorsing them. And, if data is the new oil, a platform (such as ResearchGate) would rightly protect its data on usage and sharing as a significant business asset and would not want to trade it away in exchange for access to antipiracy software that is possibly available through a third-party provider (or that ResearchGate may already have). Milne confirmed for me that STM had pursued discussions about collaboration with ResearchGate for two years. The details of those discussions are not public; however, we all know the outcome.
Having failed at the preferred strategy of collaboration, publishers were left with the approach of seeking to weaken ResearchGate. Two strategies are simultaneously being deployed – takedown notices via CRS and a lawsuit filed in Germany by Elsevier and the American Chemical Society (ACS). While they will likely prevail in their takedown efforts and perhaps the lawsuit, their effectiveness at weakening ResearchGate is far from guaranteed.
Though CRS initially indicated that it would be sending 100,000 takedown notices “imminently,” this intention was thwarted by ResearchGate when it removed from public view some of the content that would have been targeted. CRS characterized the amount of removals as “significant” and, though Milne would not provide a specific number citing various reasons, he characterized the remaining notices to be sent as “a modest amount.” As the takedown notices begin to go out, ACS also seems to be trying to assure authors that they are not the object of publisher ire.
Like every other content platform, ResearchGate undoubtedly regularly receives and acts on takedown notices as required by Online Copyright Infringement Liability Act in the United States and equivalent laws globally. Unlike many other platforms, however, ResearchGate also has a well-developed mechanism for private sharing. Faculty regularly tell me that this is one of the features of ResearchGate that they value most – that they now have an online system that stores copies of their publications and facilitates responding to requests. This kind of sharing is in keeping with what publishers typically allow in publishing agreements with authors. (It is disappointing that more institutional repositories don’t offer users this feature.)
Publishers and others would no doubt find it valuable to know the analytics on this sort of sharing and that seems to create an additional business opportunity for ResearchGate. One could imagine a ResearchGate service offering licensed access to this data graph to publishers (that want to know how their publications are performing) and to metrics platforms (that would be able to provide additional value to their customers through the inclusion of analytics calculated on non-public data).
What is most important to notice about ResearchGate’s actions in light of CRS’ stated intention to send 100,000 takedown notices isn’t, however, that it crippled CRS’ ability to take immediate action or that it will now be responding to a “modest amount” of them. What’s important is to note that ResearchGate seems to have the ability to identify copyright infringing material. In other words, it seems that ResearchGate already has some of the technical capacity that STM was offering. Interestingly, ResearchGate has not deployed this capacity to communicate proactively with scholars about legal sharing options and instead relies on authors asserting that they have the right to share their work publicly. It is unclear how deploying this capability will affect ResearchGate’s ability to mount a “safe harbor” defensive claim that it is unaware of the identity of the content on its site.
Concurrently with the announcement of the forthcoming takedown notices came the news that Elsevier and the ACS are suing ResearchGate in Germany. With no public information (at least not any in English), it has been unclear what the focus of this lawsuit is. Milne explained that the purpose is to pursue a legal finding that ResearchGate has an obligation to deploy antipiracy detection software proactively, analogously to how Facebook or YouTube might prevent upload of a Disney film or music recording. Does availing itself of safe harbor laws for Online Service Providers entail that ResearchGate not only remove infringing material upon notification or coming to knowledge of the infringement in some other, which is a well-established legal responsibility, but proactively reviewing materials to determine whether they are infringing? This proactive review was what STM had sought as a negotiated agreement and now the lawsuit pursues this through the courts instead.
I’m not an attorney but as a lay person it seems to me quite possible that ResearchGate could indeed be found to have this obligation. On the surface, this might appear to be a blow to ResearchGate. Certainly at least some authors will be annoyed by the intrusion of a copyright review step into their sharing workflow, particularly if it is time-consuming, and angry if the system prevents upload due to erroneous calculations. Might it be possible, however, that ResearchGate will be able to present this to users as another value of using ResearchGate as their sharing platform?
Remembering the private sharing feature that scholars already value: one can imagine a user workflow that does not reject an upload because it can’t be shared publicly but instead takes a cue from the message that TurboTax sends when the IRS rejects a tax filing: “This happens from time to time, but we’re here to help.” Wouldn’t most authors prefer a decision support system that walked them through the process rather than trying to figure out SHERPA/ROMEO? If you have a DOI, the DOI-based checking system on HowCanIShareIt can be useful if the publisher’s policies have been included but that’s not a workflow integrated solution. (Libraries should also consider offering this kind of support integrated into institutional repositories. Institutional repositories will still struggle to achieve the effect of a single globally networked platform but enhancing their service profile could make them more competitive with commercial alternatives.)
With a proactive check integrated into the ResearchGate sharing workflow, an author would get a positive outcome – public or private sharing – regardless of the determination. Such a system could also capitalize on the results of Crossmark, the STM Article Tagging Project, and other implementations of the NISO Journal Article Tag Suite to identify whether a file represents the version of record, the accepted manuscript, or the author’s original version/preprint. One could imagine ResearchGate encouraging the upload of all of these versions to its platform and assisting the author in offering them for public or private sharing as appropriate. By doing this, ResearchGate could help authors provide public versions of their work for ease of reading, while facilitating requesting of the version of record when another scholar would like to cite the work.
Authors and readers alike would no doubt prefer immediate access to the version of record without having to request a private share. But, given publishers will likely continue to send takedown notices for any versions of record that do get posted publicly, this public/private system still provides greater value than having to find author manuscripts in distributed institutional repositories that are not connected with a request system for versions of record.
As a platform that enables both public and private sharing on a networked scale that is publisher-independent, ResearchGate already rejected a negotiated solution with STM and seems positioned to emerge comparatively unscathed, if not strengthened, from the takedown and lawsuit processes. Any newcomer seeking to compete with ResearchGate will be faced with the same requirement for proactive checking upon upload if the lawsuit prevails, including any workflow platforms that are in development by companies historically focused on publishing and database provision. And, even if another scholarly collaboration network (e.g., Academia.edu) reaches an agreement with STM, the competitive advantage that might give the other platform over ResearchGate seems minimal given that the user experience of a copyright check during uploading would be similar regardless of how it is brought about. Personally, I wouldn’t count ResearchGate down and out.