A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about a proposal from the International Association of Scientific Technical and Medical Publishers (STM) to introduce upload filtering on the ResearchGate site in order to stop authors from sharing their own papers without "permission". In its letter to ResearchGate, STM's proposal concluded with a thinly-veiled threat to call in the lawyers if the site refused to implement the upload filters. In the absence of ResearchGate's acquiescence, a newly-formed "Coalition for Responsible Sharing", whose members include the American Chemical Society (ACS), Brill, Elsevier, Wiley and Wolters Kluwer, has issued a statement confirming the move:
Following unsuccessful attempts to jointly find ways for scholarly collaboration network ResearchGate to run its service in a copyright-compliant way, a coalition of information analytics businesses, publishers and societies is now left with no other choice but to take formal steps to remedy the illicit hosting of millions of subscription articles on the ResearchGate site.
Those formal steps include sending "millions of takedown notices for unauthorized content on its site now and in the future." Two Coalition publishers, ACS and Elsevier, have also filed a lawsuit in a German regional court, asking for “clarity and judgement” on the legality of ResearchGate's activities. Justifying these actions, the Coalition's statement says: "ResearchGate acquires volumes of articles each month in violation of agreements between journals and authors" -- and that, in a nutshell, is the problem.
The articles posted on ResearchGate are generally uploaded by the authors; they want them there so that their peers can read them. They also welcome the seamless access to other articles written by their fellow researchers. In other words, academic authors are perfectly happy with ResearchGate and how it uses the papers that they write, because it helps them work better as researchers. A recent post on The Scholarly Kitchen blog noted:
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.
The problem lies in the unfair and one-sided contracts academic authors sign with publishers, which often do not allow them to share their own published papers freely. The issues with ResearchGate would disappear if researchers stopped agreeing to these completely unnecessary restrictions -- and if publishers stopped demanding them.
The Coalition for Responsible Sharing's statement makes another significant comment about ResearchGate: that it acquires all these articles "without making any contribution to the production or publication of the intellectual work it hosts." But much the same could be said about publishers, which take papers written by publicly-funded academics for free, chosen by academics for free, and reviewed by academics for free, and then add some editorial polish at the end. Despite their minimal contributions, publishers -- and publishers alone -- enjoy the profits that result. The extremely high margins offer incontrovertible proof that ResearchGate and similar scholarly collaboration networks are not a problem for anybody. The growing popularity and importance of unedited preprints confirms that what publishers add is dispensable. That makes the Coalition for Responsible Sharing's criticism of ResearchGate and its business model deeply hypocritical.
It is also foolish. By sending millions of take-down notices to ResearchGate -- and thus making it harder for researchers to share their own papers on a site they currently find useful -- the Coalition for Responsible Sharing will inevitably push people to use other alternatives, notably Sci-Hub. Unlike ResearchGate, which largely offers articles uploaded by their own authors, Sci-Hub generally sources its papers without the permission of the academics. So, once more, the clumsy actions of publishers desperate to assert control at all costs make it more likely that unauthorized copies will be downloaded and shared, not less. How responsible is that?
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