Publishers seek removal of millions of papers from ResearchGate

Academic social network accused of infringing copyright on a massive scale

October 5, 2017
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Leading publishers are stepping up their fight against ResearchGate by ordering the academic social network to take down papers that they say infringe copyright.

The move could see millions of articles removed from the site, as the publishers say up to 40 per cent of papers on ResearchGate are copyrighted.

James Milne, a spokesman for the group of five academic publishers, which includes Elsevier, Wiley and Brill, said that the first batch of take-down notices would be sent “imminently”.

“We’re not doing this in any way against the researchers, we’re doing this against ResearchGate,” he told Times Higher Education. ​The site was “clearly hosting and happily uploading material that they know they don’t have the licence or copyrights” to, and was “refusing to work with us to solve that problem”, he added. 

According to a survey of academics released last year, Berlin-based ResearchGate is by some way the world’s biggest academic social network, used by about 60 per cent of academics, particularly in the physical and life sciences, and has raised nearly $90 million (£68 million) in funding from investors, according to the website Crunchbase.

Publishers are seeing “anecdotal” evidence that the availability of papers on the site is eating into their revenues, said Dr Milne. “We have heard during the subscriptions renewal process that librarians are occasionally referencing ResearchGate as an alternative to resubscribing to journals,” he said.

He attacked ResearchGate as being “backed by hundreds of millions of dollars [from venture capitalists,] who are seeking to make a profit from what [ResearchGate] do, which is upload copyright infringed material”.

“They put nothing back into the process for generating and validating and curating all that material,” he said.

The publisher Elsevier drew a backlash from many academics in 2013 when it told users of Academia.edu, a rival to ResearchGate, to take down papers to which it had rights. Dr Milne stressed that this time, the publishers would not directly send take-down notices to academics. “We will work with ResearchGate on this, not researchers,” he said, although the organisation would be communicating “en masse” with academics about how they can share their work properly.

But for the publishers, sending out mass take-down notices is not a permanent solution. “That in itself doesn’t solve the problem, because every day ResearchGate is uploading more and more material,” said Dr Milne, trapping publishers in a “perpetual loop” of having to identify infringing papers. He argued that this would be confusing for researchers, as “one day there’s content, and the next day there isn’t”, he said.

Elsevier and the American Chemical Society are therefore also taking ResearchGate to court where they hope to obtain a ruling that would stop ResearchGate “scraping content off the web, uploading it...and asking researchers to claim it” so that infringing material “is not in the public domain”, he explained. The court claim would be lodged in Europe, he said.

A ResearchGate spokeswoman declined to comment. The company’s founder and chief executive, Ijad Madisch, has previously said that he “wouldn’t mind” if copyrighted material was removed from the site, as researchers could continue to share papers privately.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

Although Dr. Milne says that "ResearchGate is uploading more and more material", the truth is that those papers were uploaded by authors who believed 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). Although ResearchGate may want to make a profit, the authors are simply using it as a hosting platform for non-commercial uses, with no profit motive. It is the authors' rights that govern article sharing, not ResearchGate's. Takedowns resulting from this lawsuit will be interpreted by many authors as a direct attack. Furthermore, Dr. 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 projects) those papers. The publishers do not compensate us for this labor; they just provide distribution. (Exception: A few high profile journals provide significant promotion in the popular press, but this isn't common.) 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* suppliers) just draws attention to its obsolescence. Publishers would be better served by adapting to changing conditions and building new tools and platforms to help researchers in their daily work, not by getting in their way.
It's untrue to say that ResearchGate and Academia.edu aren't providing value-added curating services to academics. Both sites have invested substantially in constructing distribution platforms that are quite useful to researchers and offer a chance for one's work to be made available to others. It's easy to follow the work of people in your own areas of interest in ways totally impossible through conventional academic publishing. If ResearchGate can make a profit by making available to others my modest but useful body of research publications, that's wonderful; I like to see good stuff made available. Obviously, we are in a critical transition phase in the evolution of the distribution of research knowledge. It's not going to be made easier or more effective by the intransigence of certain publishers so wedded to the old models that all they can do is dig in their heels. These old models have simply failed to cope with the proliferation of new stuff, and can't be resuscitated. Sage and their friends have choices, but they amount to "contribute to the changes, or die". I wouldn't be surprised to see them opting for the latter.
As a postgrad student I’d be lost without Researchgate. My university can’t afford to pay for all the publications that now exist.

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