ResearchGate v. The Coalition on Responsible Sharing

By Kathy Snediker

There’s been a lot in the news lately about major publishers threatening take-down notices and litigation against the scholarly collaboration network ResearchGate. The situation has yet to fully play out, but here’s where we are now.

Over the past several years, it has become increasingly common for researchers to share their published papers online, particularly on popular scholarly networking sites like Academia.edu and ResearchGate, whether or not they have the legal right under copyright law and/or the author agreement they signed with the publisher. The sites take the stance that while they explicitly ask users to comply with copyright law, they aren’t responsible for enforcement.

Not surprisingly, most publishers object to the unauthorized sharing of copyrighted articles and have tried different methods for addressing the practice, including allowing authors to “self-archive” submitted versions (as opposed to the final published version – see Springer, Wiley, Elsevier examples.) They’ve also used legal actions, like in late 2013 when Elsevier sent thousands of takedown notices to Academia.edu and other sites including universities. Yet unauthorized online sharing proliferated.

So what’s the latest? Publishers, claiming they have tried unsuccessfully to negotiate solutions directly with ResearchGate, have formed a Coalition on Responsible Sharing to take action against the site, including threatening a massive number of take-down notices. Also Elsevier and the American Chemical Society have filed a lawsuit against the company in Germany where ResearchGate is based. It appears that ResearchGate may have given in to the pressure and started removing copyrighted articles, though the company has not made a formal public announcement about it.

There is certainly a lot of debate over whether researchers should have the right to share their own papers freely wherever they choose, regardless of publishers’ views, but as of now that’s not a legal reality. Though in many cases, the difference between legal and illegal behavior can be simply posting a pre-print or post-print version instead of the final version, or adhering to the embargo period set by the publisher.

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