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Publishers take ResearchGate to court, alleging massive copyright infringement

Scholarly publishing giants Elsevier and the American Chemical Society (ACS) have filed a lawsuit in Germany against ResearchGate, a popular academic networking site, alleging copyright infringement on a mass scale. The move comes after a larger group of publishers became dissatisfied with ResearchGate’s response to a request to alter its article-sharing practices.

ResearchGate, a for-profit firm based in Berlin that was founded in 2008, is one of the largest social networking sites aimed at the academic community. It claims more than 13 million users, who can use their personal pages to upload and share a wide range of material, including published papers, book chapters, and meeting presentations. Science funders and investors have put substantial funds into the firm; it has raised more than $87 million from the Wellcome Trust charity, Goldman Sachs, and Bill Gates personally.

In recent years, journal publishers have become increasingly concerned about the millions of copyrighted papers—usually accessible only behind subscription paywalls—that are being shared by ResearchGate users. And on 15 September, the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers wrote to ResearchGate on behalf of more than 140 publishers, expressing concerns about its article-sharing policies. Specifically, the organization proposed that ResearchGate implement a “seamless and easy” automated system that would help the site’s users determine whether an article was protected by copyright and could be legally shared publicly or privately. The association asked for a response by 22 September, noting that its members could follow-up individually or collectively if ResearchGate failed to agree to its proposal. (AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider, is a member of the association.) 

Yesterday, a group of five publishers—ACS, Elsevier, Brill, Wiley, and Wolters Kluwer—announced that ResearchGate had rejected the association’s proposal. Instead, the group, which calls itself the Coalition for Responsible Sharing, said in a 5 October statement that ResearchGate suggested publishers should send the company formal notices, called “takedown notices,” asking it to remove content that breaches copyright.

The five publishers will be sending takedown notices, according to the group. But the coalition also alleges that ResearchGate is illicitly making as many as 7 million copyrighted articles freely available and that the company’s “business model depends on the distribution of these in-copyright articles to generate traffic to its site, which is then commercialised through the sale of targeted advertising.”

The coalition also states that sending millions of takedown notices “is not a viable long-term solution, given the current and future scale of infringement. … Sending large numbers of takedown notices on an ongoing basis will prove highly disruptive to the research community.”

As a result, two coalition members—ACS and Elsevier—have opted to go to court to try to force ResearchGate’s hand. The lawsuit, filed in a German regional court, asks for “clarity and judgement” on the legality of posting such content, says James Milne, spokesperson for the Coalition for Responsible Sharing and senior vice president of ACS’s journals publishing group in Oxford, U.K.

The underlying behavioral issue of ResearchGate is that it scrapes copyrighted material off the web, invites researchers to upload it to their portfolio, and modifies articles.

James Milne, Coalition for Responsible Sharing

“The underlying behavioral issue of ResearchGate is that it scrapes copyrighted material off the web, invites researchers to upload it to their portfolio, and modifies articles,” he says. Milne says the group believes publishers should receive monetary damages, but are not seeking a fixed amount from ResearchGate. (On 10 October, the coalition noted that ResearchGate had “removed from public view a significant number of copyrighted articles” but that “not all violations have been addressed.”)

Jon Tennant, communications director of professional research network ScienceOpen (also an STM member) in Berlin, believes ResearchGate will lose the court battle. “The consequences of this could be variable, from losing some of its data corpus—the infringing articles—to being asked to pay for damages,” he says. Guido Westkamp, an intellectual property professor at Queen Mary University of London, agrees, but notes that “the effect of such decision would usually be limited to Germany and would not [be] enforceable in the U.S.”

A ResearchGate spokesperson declined to comment but pointed to a statement the firm jointly released with the publisher Springer Nature, an STM member, on 9 October. It says both companies are “cautiously optimistic” that a solution can be found and “invite other publishers and societies to join the talks.”

It’s not the first time publishers are issuing takedown notices for papers: In 2013, Elsevier sent—another academic social network platform—2800 notices, but did not take the site to court.

Elsevier and ACS have also filed lawsuits against Sci-Hub, a pirate site illegally hosting millions of paywalled papers. In June, Elsevier was awarded $15 million in damages and ACS is seeking $4.8 million

*Update, 10 October, 12:45 p.m.: The revised story now includes a reaction from ResearchGate, an update by the publishing coalition, and a comment from a U.K. lawyer.