Access issues

In September, the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers, a trade group based in Oxford, UK, sent a letter to ResearchGate suggesting that the network introduce an automated filtering system, through which uploaded articles would be shared publicly or privately depending on their copyright status. Publishers generally say that paywalled articles for which they own copyright can be shared only privately; scientists are allowed to upload preprints, and peer-reviewed but unedited manuscripts, online for general access.
“ResearchGate refused to engage with us on that,” says Milne. The Coalition for Responsible Sharing, which also includes publishers Wiley, Wolters Kluwer and Brill, says it is “now left with no other choice” but to issue take-down notices.
Litigation has been tried before: in 2013, Elsevier sent 3,000 notices under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act to scholarly networks including, demanding that they take down papers that breached Elsevier’s copyright. Those notices were passed on to the networks’ academic users. But the new actions would be on a larger scale.

Terms and conditions

ResearchGate declined to comment on the coalition’s statement, but its terms of service ask users not to store information that infringes copyright. They also state that because the site neither previews nor automatically reviews information that users have stored on it, ResearchGate can’t know about — and isn’t liable for — any possible infringements. The site says it will quickly disable access to infringing material after being notified of a problem.
But repeatedly sending lots of take-down notices is not a long-term solution, Milne says — hence the lawsuit, which aims to clarify what responsibility ResearchGate has to prevent copyright breaches. Milne says Elsevier and the American Chemical Society are hoping that the German court will tell the social network that it has a duty to identify copyrighted material on its website, and remove it; that the site must check whether material it scrapes from the Internet is copyrighted before users are invited to ‘claim’ it and upload it; and that ResearchGate will also be told it cannot modify copyrighted material.
“The expectation is that ResearchGate will be told by the courts to cease certain behaviours. This could take months or years,” says Milne.
Not all publishers have stopped discussions with ResearchGate. On 9 October, the company posted a joint statement with Nature’s publisher Springer Nature, saying that the two firms had been in “serious discussions for some time” about sharing journal articles online while protecting intellectual-property rights, and that they were “cautiously optimistic” that a solution could be found. (Nature’s news and comment team is editorially independent from its publisher.)