Academic and scientific researchers have their own social networks. One of the biggest differences between these services and LinkedIn or Twitter is that researchers are interested in other researchers’ content as much as they are in social interactions. This has led academic social networks to find ways of getting users to post their papers and journal articles to the networks, in order to increase membership and traffic. The problem with this, of course, is that in many cases the researchers don’t own the copyrights–publishers do–and they don’t have permission to upload that content.
The London-based startup Mendeley was one of the first of these services to encounter this issue. It attracted controversy on both sides of the copyright aisle: open-access advocates hailed it as a means of sharing and promoting open-access content while circumventing the big STM (scientific, technical, medical) publishers, while the publishers objected to the ways that Mendeley made it easy for researchers to upload and share their own content potentially without permission. When STM publishing giant Elsevier acquired Mendeley in 2013, it was a moment in some ways reminiscent of Napster’s purchase in 2002 by the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann. Other publishers accused Elsevier of going to the Dark Side, even as many open-access advocates assailed Mendeley for selling out to the Evil Empire. Since then, Mendeley has attenuated its content-sharing capabilities and has thrived within the Elsevier family.
Two major independent social networks for academics remain: Academia.edu and ResearchGate. Both have received tens of millions of dollars in funding from A-list tech VCs; and as such, both have pursued the same kinds of grow-audience-at-all-costs tactics and data-driven ad revenue strategies as their consumer-oriented counterparts do. Both services send out copious emails to users, much of which is designed to cajole them into visiting the site to see who has been citing their content. Researchers are ambivalent about them: they are annoyed by all the spam the services send and the commercial aspects of their models, but they love or need all the attention they bring to their work, the opportunities to connect with peers, and possibly the flattery as well.
ResearchGate claims 17 million registered users, and an independent survey from 2016 found that it has several times the membership of Academia.edu, particularly in medicine and life sciences. As a purely unscientific metric, I get about double the volume of spam from Academia.edu compared to the already impressive amount I get from ResearchGate.
Yet ResearchGate has gotten into trouble over copyrights, while Academia.edu hasn’t. One reason for this may be that ResearchGate is much more aggressive about soliciting content from users: it enables users to ask authors for the full text of their work and then sends the authors “You have a new full-text request” messages. It also combs the Internet for full texts of articles and then seeks out authors’ permission to make it available on ResearchGate without them having to upload it themselves (“We think we found your full-text online”). Another reason is that Academia.edu has moved in recent years to make most of its features available only to paying subscribers, which has sharply reduced its user base.
ResearchGate’s copyright hostilities with STM publishers began in 2017, when the publishers’ global trade association, the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (also known, confusingly, as STM), sent it a letter threatening to sue. At the same time, five publishers formed an organization called the Coalition for Responsible Sharing (CfRS) with the sole purpose of addressing copyright issues on ResearchGate.
CfRS main agenda has been to push ResearchGate to adopt a system devised by the STM trade association that uses content recognition, a la YouTube’s Content ID system for music and video, to both monitor content that users upload to the site and identify content already on the site to be taken down. The system also includes a way for users to pay for additional licenses to share content on the service if they don’t own the copyrights. ResearchGate refused to adopt the system. Then two of the publishers, the American Chemical Society and Elsevier, sued, first in Germany, then in the U.S. (These were the same two publishers that sued and obtained default judgments against Sci-Hub.) In the 2018 U.S. lawsuit, ResearchGate has asserted various affirmative defenses, including the DMCA § 512 safe harbors and the doctrine of copyright misuse, and it has claimed that publishers are suing mainly because they see ResearchGate as a threat to their business.
Since its 2017 launch, CfRS’s membership has grown steadily from five to seventeen publishers, and publishers have been sending ResearchGate hundreds of thousands of takedown notices. In June 2019, CfRS claimed that about 4 million copyright-infringing articles were available on ResearchGate and that 58,000 were being added every month. Yet not all publishers were on board: in April 2018, three publishers–Springer Nature, Cambridge University Press, and Thieme–announced that they had reached an agreement with ResearchGate based on educating users about copyright and processing takedown notices rather than monitoring uploads or purging content that had already been uploaded.
The latest development in this saga took place this past Wednesday. Wiley, an original member of CfRS and one of the world’s largest scientific publishers,* announced that it has reached an agreement with ResearchGate and has pulled out of CfRS. Wiley’s statement about the agreement is vague on details. But reading between the lines, it suggests that Wiley’s agreement goes somewhat beyond ResearchGate’s 2018 agreement with Springer Nature et al: ResearchGate has agreed to send its users detailed messages about the permissibility (or lack thereof) of content sharing, and to process Wiley’s takedown notices more aggressively and/or efficiently; while in return, ResearchGate will share some of its trove of content access data with Wiley and work to improve discoverability of content on the site. But the agreement does not call for ResearchGate to implement content recognition-based copyright filtering or facilitate incremental licensing revenue from authors.
CfRS’s statement on Wiley’s departure from the group suggests that the group will continue to push for ResearchGate to adopt STM’s automated solution. CfRS might eventually get its wish in Europe, as STM’s proposed scheme seems to be in line with the new regulations in Article 17 of the EU’s copyright directive. If and when that happens, we will see just how much ResearchGate needs full-text content–and not just lots of spam and flattery–to attract its audience.
*Disclosure: Wiley is the publisher of my book Digital Rights Management: Business and Technology, published in 2002.