ACS v. ResearchGate – 3,143 articles and a few lessons about their authors  

In October, Elsevier and ACS filed a new US copyright infringement lawsuit against ResearchGate [complaint]. Like the German ResearchGate lawsuit I wrote about last year, the basic premise of the suit is the same. This is how Elsevier and ACS describe ResearchGate’s activities in the American lawsuit:

In egregious violation of copyright law, ResearchGate provides anyone connected to the Internet with a free trove of infringing digital copies of peer-reviewed published journal articles [PJAs]. ResearchGate has consciously designed and actively maintains the RG Website as a hub for obtaining infringing copies of those PJAs. ResearchGate is not a passive host of a forum where infringement just happens to occur. Rather, ResearchGate actively participates in the ongoing infringement, in which it directly engages by duplicating, displaying, and distributing unauthorized copies of PJAs. ResearchGate also intentionally facilitates, supports, and lures users into uploading and downloading unauthorized copies of PJAs.

Big, if true. I have some doubts that I will write about later.

As far as what this suit and the publishers’ assertions mean for authors, I suggest reading this detailed post by Brandon Butler at UVA on the subject. It’s the best explanation I’ve read yet on copyright, open access and publisher-author sharing policies.  The “tl;dr” for that post is sad but accurate: “You probably can’t share your research as widely as you thought, and this is a problem endemic to academic publishing.”

The Authors of the ResearchGate Articles

One thing I found so interesting about the complaint in the most recent lawsuit was that it had very little discussion of the authors of the articles involved, or about the research itself (to be fair, if I were writing the complaint for the publishers, I’d try to leave the authors out of it too). Discussion of the authors and their articles is important context, though, for understanding how these articles were created, who posted them to ResearchGate in the first place, and what rights those users might have. Were any authors U.S. government employees who had no rights to be transferred to the publishers? Were any subject to university open access policies that reserve rights to universities or authors? Were any subject to funder OA mandates? Or did authors pay for open access for any of these articles? 

Thankfully, to bring a copyright infringement suit, one must actually identify the content alleged to have been infringed, even if you don’t talk much about it in the complaint. In this case, ACS and Elsevier provided a list in “Exhibit A” to the complaint of the 3,143 articles that they claim were infringed. I haven’t had time to fully explore those articles (these is a spreadsheet with information for all 3,143, if you’d like to do your own research). But thanks to some advice from some fantastic colleagues here at Duke, I was able to extract that data and run some searches for information about the articles and authors. I searched those article 3,143 DOIs in Web of Science, which returned 3,082 records. Here’s some of what I learned from those records:

Author Organizations

  • Most authors of these articles are affiliated with non-US institutions. From among the 3,082 records, the top ten author organizational affiliations are:
    • Chinese Academy Of Science (176 articles, 5.7%)
    • Centre National De La Recherche Scientifique Cnr (128 articles, 4.1%)
    • Universite Cote D Azur Comue (100 articles, 3.2%)
    • University Of Chinese Academy Of Sciences Cas (68 articles, 2.2%)
    • University Of California System (60 articles, 1.9%)
    • Russian Academy Of Sciences (49 articles 1.6%)
    • Indian Institute Of Technology System IIT System (45 articles, 1.5%)
    • State University System Of Florida (37 articles, 1.2%)
    • Nanyang Technological University (36 articles, 1.2%)
    • Nanyang Technological University National Institute Of Education Nie Singapore (36 articles, 1.2%)

I think there is a whole other blog post to be written about publishers going after articles authored in large part by non-Western authors. But I’ll not touch that for now and focus on the license situation.  I can’t speak about all of those institutions, but at least one (the University of California System) has an open access policy. I’m not sure how that policy/license factors into the posting of the articles to a site like ResearchGate, but it’s worth exploring. Two of the authors are Duke authors, and I know we have an OA policy that affects whether posting the articles to ResearchGate is permissible.

Article Funders

  • Unsurprisingly, given the authorship, most articles with identified funders are not based in the US. The top 10 funders are mostly Chinese.
  • NSF funded 38 of the articles, and NIH funded 24.

Again, unclear how funder OA policies may factor into the posting of these articles, but worth further exploration.

“Open Access” Articles

These articles raise some important questions about what rights the authors thought they were getting when they paid the OA fees for their articles. Did they understand that posting to ResearchGate would be disallowed? It also raises a question about how Elsevier is interpreting the “non-commercial” clause of the CreativeCommons license (is an author posting to ResearchGate “commercial” use?) and how that matches up to, e.g, the interpretation of that language by Creative Commons and by courts such as in Great Minds v. FedEx.

I haven’t had as much time as I would like to fully explore these articles and their authors. I should say that I’m not particularly sympathetic to ResearchGate or its business practices, but I do sympathize with authors who are trying to share their research in the best way they know how. From them, I would be particularly interested in hearing what they think about this lawsuit — were they consulted before the suit was filed? Are they aware that it was even filed? Do they agree with it? Did they understand their publication contract and its effect on posting to sites like ResearchGate? I’m hopeful that someone out there will take up the important work of developing better information about authors views on lawsuits like this.

5 thoughts on “ACS v. ResearchGate – 3,143 articles and a few lessons about their authors  ”

    1. Good question! Using the “organization” field, I didn’t see any federal government agencies among the top 100 organizations for author affiliation. I will take a closer look (there were several hundred affiliated organizations, total) to see what I can find.

    2. I did some further digging – the only immediately obvious government connection is authors affiliated with the Department of Energy through the various national laboratories that DOE owns. I’m not terribly familiar with the status of researchers at national laboratories, but as I understand it, these labs are government owned and contractor operated, so employees are not federal government employees. See https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2014/08/f18/July%2018%20Kusnezov%20FINAL.pdf.

      There may be other federal government affiliations that I couldn’t find just using Web of Science metadata.

  1. Mr. Hansen:
    Respecting my one journal article that is posted to ResearchGate, a few points are in order.
    I hold that it is inappropriate for journals and their publishers to charge whorehouse prices for journal articles, especially given the low cost to reproduce and distribute such works in the internet age. Publishers are predatory respecting the income that they derive, and authors receive none of that remuneration. This is patently criminal behavior; it is called parasitism.
    In the case of my journal article, it is an article of rather substantial impact, having what are known among researchers as “long legs.” I have published a rather unique paper, that describes a machine that is actually able to build (construct) itself. Not its copy; itself. My machine has a zygote; look that biological term up. In short, within the field of machine self-replication, I replaced von Neumann. That paper is called Computational Ontogeny, in a 2008 edition of the journal Biological Theory then published for Konrad Lorentz Institute by MIT Press; now, Biological Theory is published by Springer-Verlag.
    Here is the most relevant point – Aaron Swartz. Apparently, though I never obtained any report of same from any source, including the publisher, my paper Computational Ontogeny, as published in Biological Theory, was one of those compromised by the actions of Aaron Swartz; though, from my point of view, I am happy with what he did.
    Yet, as a result of the disclosures effected by Aaron Swartz, my paper was taken off-line by the publisher (and KLI), for a period of several years (something like five, and perhaps a few more), my paper was not available from the publisher.
    So, to make my paper available to others, since the publisher breached their obligation to make the paper so available, I posted it to several repositories, including Research Gate.
    I invite your comment on these points, in an update to your post.
    Sincerely,
    William R. Buckley

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