Publishers have been driven to desperation

October 12, 2017

In the news story “Publishers seek removal of millions of papers from ResearchGate”, James Milne, a spokesman for a group of five academic publishers that includes Elsevier, Wiley and Brill, says that “ResearchGate is uploading more and more material”. The truth is that those papers were uploaded by authors who believed that they were exercising their right to distribute preprint versions of their accepted manuscripts “via their non-commercial personal homepage or blog” (quote from Elsevier’s article-sharing policy). ResearchGate may want to make a profit, but the authors are employing it simply as a hosting platform for non-commercial uses, with no profit motive. It is the authors’ rights that govern article-sharing, not ResearchGate’s. Removals of articles resulting from this lawsuit will be interpreted by many authors as a direct attack.

Furthermore, Milne’s statement that “[ResearchGate] put nothing back into the process for generating and validating and curating all that material” is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Academics generated (wrote), validated (reviewed) and curated (by posting to public collections such as ResearchGate) those papers. The publishers do not compensate academics for this labour; they just provide distribution. Printing and distribution was once a valuable service; with the internet, it is now a cheap commodity. The academic journal business model carries on mostly through inertia, and attempts to maintain it through coercion of academic authors (who are both the publishers’ customers and their suppliers) just draws attention to its obsolescence. Publishers would be better served by adapting to changing conditions and building new tools to help researchers in their daily work, not by getting in their way.


It is untrue to say that ResearchGate and do not provide value-added curating services to academics. Both have invested substantially in constructing distribution platforms that are useful to researchers and offer a chance for one’s work to be made available to others. It is easy to follow the work of people in your areas of interest in ways impossible through conventional academic publishing. If ResearchGate can earn a profit by making available to others my modest but useful body of research publications, that is wonderful.

We are in a critical transition phase in the evolution of the distribution of research knowledge. It is not going to be made easier or more effective by the intransigence of publishers so wedded to old models that all they can do is dig in their heels. Those models have failed to cope with the proliferation of new stuff and cannot be resuscitated. Publishers have choices, but they amount to “contribute to the changes or die”. I would not be surprised to see them opting for the latter.


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