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Science publishers settle lawsuits with ResearchGate

Academic social networking site to use system that checks for copyrights

by Dalmeet Singh Chawla, special to C&EN
September 15, 2023


An office building against a blue sky.
Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid/Wikimedia Commons
The American Chemical Society's headquarters building in Washington, DC

The American Chemical Society and Elsevier have reached a legal settlement with the academic social networking site ResearchGate.

The two scientific publishers had taken ResearchGate to court in Germany, where the site is run from, in 2017, alleging copyright infringement on a mass scale. In 2018, both publishers escalated their legal fight by filing a second lawsuit against ResearchGate, this time in the US.

Specifically, ACS and Elsevier argued that ResearchGate was hosting papers published by their scientific journals on its site in violation of copyright law. ACS also publishes C&EN. ResearchGate states on its site that researchers are responsible for checking if they have the necessary rights to upload their papers or not.

In 2022, a Munich court ruled that ResearchGate is responsible for any content on its platform that infringes copyright. But the court dismissed the damages claimed by ACS and Elsevier, noting that the publishers weren’t able to prove that they had acquired the licensing rights from all the co-authors of the manuscripts in question.

ResearchGate was founded in 2008 and boasts millions of users, most of whom are academics who use the site to share their papers. Some of those papers are published in peer-reviewed journals that restrict sharing in some settings. The site’s early financial backers include Bill Gates, Goldman Sachs, and the Wellcome Trust.

Now, both lawsuits have been resolved, and a confidential legal settlement has been reached between the publishers and ResearchGate.

In the past, ResearchGate had requested publishers send takedown notices for affected manuscripts. In 2021, the site removed around 200,000 papers at the request of ACS and Elsevier. But the publishers say that sending takedown notices is disruptive and unsustainable. Instead, they have been arguing for a user-friendly technical solution.

“ACS, Elsevier, and ResearchGate have agreed on a technical solution that enables authors who have published research articles with ACS or Elsevier to share their work on the ResearchGate platform in a copyright-compliant way,” James Milne, president of ACS Publications, says in a joint statement released by the three parties on Sept. 15. “Automated checks occur instantly at the point of upload, helping researchers to save time.”

When researchers are uploading their manuscripts, the new system allows ResearchGate to check copyright-related information to determine if the content can be made freely available on the site.

“This automated solution performs a series of checks to determine applicable sharing options at the point of upload—with no additional overhead for researchers,” ResearchGate CEO and cofounder Ijad Madisch says in the joint statement.

Other publishers have taken a different tack in dealing with ResearchGate. In 2018, for instance, Springer Nature, Cambridge University Press, and Thieme Medical Publishers signed cooperative agreements with the site.

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, an information scientist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says a lot has changed since the lawsuits were first filed. For one, the regulatory regime for content platforms in Europe has developed significantly, she says. “Also, Elsevier and ACS have been using ResearchGate’s content blocking technology since at least early 2022.”

“Many publishers have begun syndicating their content to the ResearchGate platform over the past few years, and so I will be watching to see if those collaborations develop with Elsevier and ACS after this legal agreement,” Hinchliffe says.


This story was updated on Sept. 18, 2023, to remove the description of ResearchGate as a nonprofit organization. ResearchGate is a for-profit enterprise.


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