You may have heard about recent legal action against ResearchGate brought by several large academic publishers organized under name of the “Coalition for Responsible Sharing” (Elsevier, Wiley, Wolters Kluwer, Brill, and ACS). Some of its members filed a lawsuit against ResearchGate and sent ResearchGate copyright takedown notices for many articles posted there. There are some good summaries of the dispute already, including this one by Mike Wolfe at UC Davis and this one on Science Magazine Online.
The dispute is about the millions of copyrighted articles–the Coalition claims there are 7 million–made freely available through ResearchGate. The Coalition publishers, whose business model depends on charging for access to those articles, don’t like that users can get them for free. It’s a familiar dispute, and one that publishers have fought over the years, although on a much smaller scale, with Academia.edu, as well as a variety of universities repositories.
A natural inclination toward open access
So, who posted all those articles to ResearchGate? As far as I can tell, every article shared through ResearchGate was put there by one of its authors. I’m not sure of all of the reasons why authors use ResearchGate, but I believe a major one is that those authors want their work to be as easy to find and read as possible.
I also believe, based on experience working with academic authors on their publishing contracts, that many authors aren’t aware of the details of how their publishing contracts allow them to share their work. They aren’t lawyers, but they shouldn’t have to be.
For most of the ResearchGate articles, I have every reason to think that the publishers are correct in their assertion of legal authority, based on publishing contracts, to remove those articles. Authors often sign publishing contracts that transfer almost all of their rights to publishers. Some agreements grant rights back to authors for some “scholarly sharing”, but the contract terms are often so incomprehensible and limited that they are effectively meaningless to many authors. Some try to figure it out (do a Google search for “Is it legal to post articles to ResearchGate?” and you’ll find lots of advice of varying quality), but it’s far from clear. So instead, many authors opt to follow their natural inclination—despite the risks—to take what steps they can to make their work easier to find, read, and perhaps be cited.
OA the “right” way versus “wrong” way
Scholarly publishing has long struggled with authors who don’t especially respect or even understand the dominant pay-for-access business model. Judging by the 7 million articles authors have shared through ResearchGate, many authors seem to view that model with something from outright contempt to self-interested indifference.
So what are publishers to do with these authors who make their work freely available the “wrong” way? If enough people do it, it may have a serious effect on journal subscriptions. But authors are in a pretty good position; if publishers start actively enforcing copyright law against authors we may react negatively (and possibly very publicly) against not just the particular enforcement action but against the underlying business model. See, e.g., The Cost of Knowledge. So instead, we now see a stream of copyright enforcement not against authors but against the intermediaries that authors use to share their work: ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and university institutional repositories. It puts those organizations in a tough position, but ultimately, the harm is to authors who want to share their work.
As many people have stated before, the goals of open access can best be achieved if authors—who have great power as the initial owners of copyright in their works—hold on to their rights and negotiate their publishing contracts for terms that allow them to widely distribute online. For that matter, authors who want to share their work as openly as they can would do well to use alternatives besides posting to proprietary commercial sites like ResearchGate. But right now, that ideal of broad OA the “right” way seems far off.
Open in order to be read
We’re at the end of Open Access week, as you may have noticed by the encouraging number of OA events over the last few days. This year’s OA Week theme is “Open in order to…” I find one of the simplest but most powerful “open in order to…” statements is “open in order to be read.” To me, a silver lining of the ResearchGate takedowns (among other similar recent actions) is that it signals meaningful, author-created, system-wide pressure against a business model that hinders readership, rather than enhances it. The method and platform demonstrating that pressure isn’t ideal, the legality is questionable, and the result for some organizations (and potentially authors) may be painful. But it’s clear that author-initiated sharing, viewed collectively, is seen as a real threat to that business model. I’m hopeful that means we’re just a little bit closer to seeing that model fade out of dominance and yield to one that emphasizes access and readership.
As for authors today, we can protect ourselves from the risk of takedown notices by retaining our rights. Publishing contracts are not written in stone; they’re negotiable. Increasingly, we can negotiate to keep the rights we need to post our works anywhere we want to be read. For anyone interested, here are some tools for doing this the right way:
- SPARC Author Addendum for publishing contracts
- SHERPA/RoMEO database of publishing self-archiving policies
- Authors Alliance tools to regain your rights for works already transferred to a publisher (for OA or for other types of distribution on your own terms) through Rights Reversion or Termination of Transfer