ResearchGate, a popular networking platform where scientists can post their published work, has a complicated relationship with academic publishers. A number of them have accused the site of illicitly disseminating copyrighted work, and two of these—Elsevier and the American Chemical Society—filed a lawsuit in Germany last year to try to force ResearchGate to change its practices. 

The pair has now escalated the legal battle by pursing a second case in the United States. At the same time, some publishers have opted for different approach: choosing to collaboratively address copyright issues with the platform rather than fighting it in court. 

“We feel that [ResearchGate] should take responsibility for what they upload and what they allow users to upload,” says James Milne, the spokesperson for the Coalition for Responsible Sharing, a group of publishers that have taken an adversarial stance against ResearchGate. “Their view is, I believe, that they feel...

ResearchGate, which is a Berlin-based for-profit firm, boasts more than 15 million members and has received millions of dollars in funding from a variety of investors such as the Wellcome Trust, Bill Gates, and Goldman Sachs. Researchers can join the social networking site for free.  

Some publishers are taking a different approach, collaborating with ResearchGate rather than seeking legal action.

For scholarly publishers, the number of paywalled papers made freely available on the website has been an increasing concern. In an attempt to address this problem, an attorney for the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM), a trade association including more than 150 academic publishers, wrote to ResearchGate last fall urging the site to adopt an automated system that would immediately flag copyright-infringing articles before they’re uploaded, preventing them from appearing publicly on the site. 

The social networking site declined this proposal, and shortly after, a group of five publishers—the American Chemical Society (ACS), Brill, Elsevier, Wiley, and Wolters Kluwer—banded together to create the Coalition for Responsible Sharing, noting that it would take formal steps to change ResearchGate’s practices. The coalition, which has expanded to 15 members, has since done two things, says Milne, who is also ACS’s senior vice president. “Elsevier and ACS, as two representative organizations from the coalition, filed a suit in Germany to ask for the courts to address the infringement that we could see,” he tells The Scientist. And all members started sending takedown notices to ResearchGate and its users for articles identified as breeching copyright, he adds. 

According to Milne, the first hearing for the German lawsuit took place in mid-April and the next is scheduled to occur later this month. 

The legal battle launched by Elsevier and ACS escalated last week (October 2) when the two filed a second claim against ResearchGate with the US District Court in Maryland. In court documents, which were obtained and uploaded by Inside Higher Ed, the publishers allege that the “dissemination of unauthorized copies of [published journal articles] constitutes an enormous infringement of the copyrights owned by ACS, Elsevier, and other journal publishers.” 

ACS and Elsevier also claim that the infringing activity is intentional, adding that the platform uses the illegal copies of articles to “grow the traffic to its website, its base of registered users, its digital content, and its revenues and investment.” 

ResearchGate declined The Scientist’s request for comment.  

Lisa Hinchliffe, a professor and coordinator of information literacy services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says she finds this particular claim problematic. “If you try to upload something to ResearchGate, you’re asked multiple times to confirm that you have the rights to do so,” she says. Rather than intentionally violating copyright, “I believe that for the predominant group of authors, they don’t know that they transferred their copyright to the publisher, and that they’re under terms of sharing that they could never in their wildest dreams imagine.”

See “Publishers’ Legal Action Advances Against Sci-Hub

Joseph Esposito of Clarke & Esposito, a publishing consultancy firm, notes that one potential reason to sue would be “if you’re in the crosshairs of the rifle,” pointing to the stalemates in negotiations between Elsevier and various European library consortia in Germany and elsewhere. “If you’re deep in the journals business and you find your ability to negotiate with libraries and library consortia has been undermined by these various file-sharing and pirate organizations, then litigation is a good thing to do,” Esposito says. However, he adds, without stopping the activities of Sci-Hub, a pirate site that provides free access to paywalled papers, a victory over ResearchGate won’t do much to address this issue. 

A collaborative approach

Some publishers are taking a different approach, collaborating with ResearchGate rather than seeking legal action. This April, Springer Nature, Cambridge University Press (CUP), and Thieme announced that they had forged an agreement with the site to work together to address copyright infringement on the social networking platform. 

“While there was a huge amount of our content on ResearchGate that was violating various policies, we could also see that there was something beneficial about social sharing,” says Brigitte Shull, CUP’s senior vice president of academic publishing in the Americas. “We came to the solution that social sharing is a vital part of research, and if it’s done correctly, it can make research more discoverable and impactful.”

According to Shull, CUP will soon be able access ResearchGate with a crawler tool that will identify copyright-infringing content that has been uploaded to the site and provide the ability to monitor data regarding the usage of the publisher’s content. She adds that CUP is currently negotiating an agreement with Digital Science, the technology company that developed the tool, before using it on ResearchGate’s platform. A key difference between this software and the one that the STM initially offered ResearchGate is that this would flag and remove copyright-breaching papers after they are uploaded, rather than before. 

“For us, it’s going to be about gaining a better understanding about what’s happening with our content on ResearchGate for the next few months,” Shull says. “Then we’ll be able to decide what the next step might be from there.” 

A Springer Nature spokesperson tells The Scientist in an email that the publisher has worked with Digital Science to implement the same tool as CUP, but has not yet used this because it is “working on a different solution with ResearchGate which would benefit both their users and our authors.” (Mareike Bauner, a communications officer at Thieme, tells The Scientist that it is working on a similar tool, but with a different developer.)

Although around two dozen publishers have chosen to actively address copyright issues on ResearchGate using either an adversarial strategy, such a litigation and public rebuke, or a collaborative one, the bulk of publishing organizations have chosen to watch from the sidelines, Hinchliffe says. “Most of them are sitting back and watching these other approaches play out.” 

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