ResearchGate is a platform where its users, primarily researchers, routinely engage in massive-scale copyright infringement of published works.
It was announced this week and covered in a series of high profile venues, including the New York Times, Business Insider, TechCrunch, and Research Information, that the platform had acquired $52.6 million in funding from a range of sources including the Wellcome Trust, Bill Gates, and for some bizarre reason, Ashton Kutcher.
Financing massive-scale copyright infringement
The platform boasts that 2.5 million published outputs are uploaded by its users every month, equivalent to around the total number of published scholarly research articles each year. The site claims to have around 100 million published articles, which is very impressive seeing as only around 20-25 million have ever been published Open Access.
Now on the face of it, this might seem awesome, as it is vastly increasing access to published research. But it is actually hugely problematic, as recent research reveals. Based on a random sample of English language articles drawn from ResearchGate, the study showed that:
The key finding was that 201 (51.3%) out of 392 non-OA articles infringed the copyright and were non-compliant with publishers’ policy.
While this sample size was small, there is no reason to think that the same cannot be said if we scale up to consider the entire corpus of articles shared on RG. This means that around half, or approximately 50 million, research papers on RG are most likely illegally hosted.
Every researcher is is aware of RG spam, often with emails requesting directly that authors upload a version of one of their published papers. So while RG is itself not committing the copyright infringement, it is certainly enabling and often encouraging it, therefore being directly complicit in this on an enormous scale.
The problem here is that the vast majority of published research papers cannot be uploaded online legally, even by the original authors. This is because researchers are often forced, albeit often without their knowledge or awareness or understanding of the implications, to transfer full copyright over to publishers in exchange for having their research article published.
The ethics or questionable practice of this aside, this means that for around 75% of all research articles, the published versions cannot be legally posted online. The manuscript versions prior to peer review (preprints) can often freely and without restriction, and the often unformatted but peer reviewed versions (postprints) can, often with embargo restrictions.
With RG though, it is often not these versions which are shared, as the above research demonstrates: “..the majority of non-compliant cases (97.5%) occurred when authors self-archived publishers’ PDF files (final published version).”
This is all of course not complicated or an issue with Open Access publishing in which free, unlimited and unrestricted sharing is completely acceptable and encouraged.
Why is ResearchGate so popular?
Posting to RG is no more difficult than freely posting to an institutional repository, yet with allegedly more than 12 million members on the platform, publishing there is clearly appealing. Academics precariously use it as a professional advertising tool, and in an academic environment where egotism and self-marketing is rewarded more than sharing, it is easy to perhaps see why using RG is more popular than doing things the legal, and often bureaucratic and expensive way.
When questioned about this massive scale illegal file hosting, RG can simply wave their hands and say it has nothing to do with them; instead, fault lies with the choices of their members.
Search engine of choice, Google Scholar, also harvests content from RG. This means that researchers’ most popular way of research discovery is also enabling massive scale illegal access to research. I doubt GS would be half as popular if it didn’t consistently facilitate access to illegal content, as it’s a pretty rubbish search and discovery platform on the face of it.
In the meantime, RG can keep using this illegal content to enhance their data analytics, which is perhaps more of an issue than what they then choose to do with such data as a for-profit company. They can, and do, provide a simple statement upon uploading articles, to make sure that they are the legal versions. But this is not monitored or enforced in any way, and if it was in any way effective as a preventative measure then we would not see such massive scale illegality on the platform. This issue is so much greater than the question of whether or not a for-profit entity should be engaging with academia.
RG boasts that its user base comprises more than half of the global research community: “According to Mr. Madisch, the social network has signed up 12 million scientists, or roughly 60 percent of all such potential users worldwide.”
A system-wide access/copyright/education disaster
This means the problem comprises three major parts:
- The vast majority of researchers engage with a platform in which about half of the core article database is illegal.
- Those same researchers don’t seem to care or be aware of this.
- ResearchGate also does not seem to care or be able to be held accountable for this, as the infringements are from their users, rather than the company itself.
Which means that active engement in illegal sharing of scholarly works is now so commonplace that even companies that facilitate this can gather millions in venture capital, with no one even raising this issue. It also demonstrates that the vast majority of researchers either do not care or are not aware of the issues of copyright and scholarly publishing, as Richard Poynder pointed out recently.
It looks like the future of ResearchGate will be in using this vast and illegal corpus of data to focus on advertising to its user base, according to comments from its CEO.
The nature of these investments is also presently unclear. Does the Wellcome Trust now own a stake in ResearchGate, and how does this align with their charitable aims and other investments, such as Wellcome Open Research, a fully legal initiative?
Why has legal action not been taken?
Seeing as publishing companies like Elsevier are actively pursuing other illegal article sharing platforms like SciHub, and often with an enormous media campaign following each step, it seems quite surprising that they have not taken additional stronger action against ResearchGate, other than the few thousand takedown notices they issued several years ago.
SciHub claims that it is “the first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers”, providing access to 58 million articles at the present, all provided by a global user base. Well, this isn’t really true, is it. ResearchGate has been around longer (2008), and is in effect a pirate website of almost twice the size, now with the backing of major investors.
The difference is that SciHub is run by one frustrated student, whereas RG emphasises the massive-scale problem with access to knowledge through 12 million researchers as members. SciHub is the same as RG though in that it is the vast number of users who commit the copyright infringement, with both platforms simply acting as the hosts for this activity.
Furthermore, this also means that this is 12 million researches who probably think they are ‘doing Open Access’ by sharing their work on RG, whereas actually the opposite is true. By doing this in an illegal manner, they fail to commit to OA in a legitimate, integrated, or sustainable way.
What would happen if ResearchGate shuts down tomorrow?
Edit: While it does explicitly state on my site that content on here is personal and not those of my employers, I should declare that I work for ScienceOpen, a competitor of ResearchGate. Not that it makes any difference at all to the content here, but just for the sake of transparency.