Social networking sites where researchers swap papers have been accused of infringing  on journals' copyright.

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Publishers go after networking site for illicit sharing of journal papers

A major scientific publishing group is taking aim at a social networking site for allowing researchers to illegally post copies of their journal papers. The International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM) in Oxford, U.K., and The Hague, the Netherlands, has written to ResearchGate, a networking website for researchers, to express concerns over its article-sharing practices.

ResearchGate, the world’s largest academic social network site with more than 13 million members, has been criticized before for facilitating the upload of paywalled papers. These studies are posted by authors themselves—even though the site’s intellectual property policy states that its users should investigate whether they have the rights to share content before doing so.

ResearchGate, operated out of Berlin, has reportedly raised more than $87 million in funding from the likes of the research charity the Wellcome Trust, Goldman Sachs, and Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates since launching in 2008.

A recent study looking at 500 randomly picked English journal articles from ResearchGate found that 201 of those infringed on publishers’ copyright.

“STM believes that ResearchGate has a responsibility to address noncompliant content on its site in the interest of a sustainable science communication ecosystem and in respect of content for which ResearchGate is potentially liable,” says Michael Mabe, CEO of STM in Oxford.  

The association’s attorney wrote to ResearchGate on 15 September asking for the site to work with STM to improve communication with its users around its paper-sharing policies. STM also proposes that its members give ResearchGate permission to keep content posted on the site before September 2016 until June 2018, giving various stakeholders time to discuss whether such content should be on the site. And any papers posted after September 2016 should be assessed by ResearchGate and STM, the letter says.

STM, which represents more than 140 scientific, technical, medical, and scholarly publishers, asked for a response by 22 September. Individual members who do not agree to the proposal may “follow up with you separately,” the letter states. “STM hopes that ResearchGate will choose to work with publishers to achieve a long-term sustainable solution that makes the sharing of content simple and seamless, but importantly that respects the rights of authors and publishers,” Mabe says. (AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider, is an STM member.)

ScienceInsider contacted ResearchGate for comment, but did not hear back by press time.

Some copyright infringement may be due to genuine misunderstandings from academics who are often confused about copyright policies, notes Christopher Jackson, a geologist at Imperial College London who posts many of his papers on ResearchGate. Other cases may be because researchers simply don’t care about copyright, he adds. For Jackson, the platform has “huge value” because it also allows users to request papers from researchers with a single clickgiving authors the option of sharing them publicly or privately if they are not already available on the site.

To neurobiologist Björn Brembs, based at the University of Regensburg in Germany, who uses ResearchGate to find paywalled papers online, STM’s letter looks like a “thinly veiled threat.” He notes that if ResearchGate’s paper-sharing policies are affected “it will clearly be a loss for researchers, but it is difficult to forecast if the number of affected individuals will be high enough to actually cause more than just a short blip in resistance.”

Publishers have previously asked other content-sharing sites to take down articles breaching copyright. For instance, publishing giant Elsevier sent Academia.edu—another scholarly social network site—about 2800 takedown notices over the course of a couple weeks in 2013.

“The unasked question that this all comes down to is: Do publisher-owned rights matter more than the sharing of research for whatever benefit?” says Jon Tennant, communications director of professional research network ScienceOpen (also an STM member) in Berlin. “There’s a chance that ResearchGate will fail to recover from this, unless they fight back, and crumble as a business.”