RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: ResearchGate, PDFs, and Copyright - 12/12/2019
ResearchGate is often a place individuals will go to snag PDFs which are typically provided b...
Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2019 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

ResearchGate is often a place individuals will go to snag PDFs which are typically provided by authors, not publishers. It refers to itself as a community and network for researchers to share and discuss their research with others from around the globe. ResearchGate explicitly states that they are not liable for any copyright infringement, and that the responsibility rests with the individual; it is entirely up to the individual to either post the PDF to be downloaded freely, or to send the PDF to individuals upon request.

I have multiple questions surrounding the use of ResearchGate. Number one, should libraries be directing individuals to ResearchGate to ask authors for copies of their articles? Number two, should our document delivery service be providing copies of PDFs from ResearchGate to our library patrons? I am personally very hesitant to refer anyone to ResearchGate as I find most faculty researchers are not aware of who truly holds the copyright to their published articles. Thank you!

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

I first heard about “ResearchGate” at a copyright training I was conducting for librarians. 

There I was, holding forth about Section 108 and Fair Use, when out of the blue, an academic librarian asked me: “What do you think of Researchgate?”[1]

This question triggered my number one rule for lawyering: never assume you know an answer; always do your research.  So even though my brain figured that “Researchgate” was a new scandal involving falsification of data,[2] I instead replied: “I have to admit, I am not familiar with that.” 

Good thing I followed rule number one!

Since that time, and in response to this question, I have had a chance to visit ResearchGate’s “About” page and their “Terms of Use” (for academics and students) page.  And I have developed some thoughts.

But first, here’s what I have learned:

Notably, as the member points out, ResearchGate’s “Terms” for submitters reinforces the rights of authors:

As a member, when you post full-text articles or supplementary materials on ResearchGate, you do not transfer or assign copyright to us. Rather, you make the content available to the public through ResearchGate.

…about encourages users to respect the rights of others:

If you choose to privately archive or publicly post content, we encourage you to first confirm your rights before doing so. … As we do not have any information about rights you may hold, or any license terms or other restrictions which might apply to such content, we necessarily rely on you to understand your rights and act accordingly. 

ResearchGate’s relationship with users is also governed by clauses on “Liability” and “Indemnification”—with ResearchGate attempting to pass all liability for a copyright infringement onto the users who supply content.

And finally, as also shown in their policies, ResearchGate also takes advantage of the “notice and takedown” provisions under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to assure itself “safe harbor,” in the event a user posts infringing content.[3]

What I found at ResearchGate.com was what looks like a thorough attempt to dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s to respect intellectual property.  They probably have a very good lawyer.

But as I said, “always do your research,” so in addition to visiting their site, I also visited PACER to see if ResearchGate is being sued by anyone for copyright infringement.  And boy, are they ever.

ResearchGate GmbH (its corporate name in Germany, where it appears to be based) is being sued by Elsevier, Inc., Elsevier Ltd., Elsevier B.V. and the American Chemical Society (“ACS”).[4]  The basis for the suit, as set forth in paragraph “three” of the plaintiff’s complaint, is the ResearchGate’s use of “Published Journal Articles” (which the suit calls “PJA”s):

This lawsuit focuses on ResearchGate’s intentional misconduct vis-à-vis its online

file-sharing / download service, where the dissemination of unauthorized copies of PJAs

constitutes an enormous infringement of the copyrights owned by ACS, Elsevier and other

journal publishers. The lawsuit is not about researchers and scientists collaborating; asking and

answering questions; promoting themselves, their projects, or their findings; or sharing research

findings, raw data, or pre-prints of articles.

And, just in case that doesn’t sound too bad, here’s the next paragraph:

ResearchGate’s infringing activity is no accident. Infringing copies of PJAs are a

cornerstone to ResearchGate’s growth strategy. ResearchGate deliberately utilizes the infringing

copies to grow the traffic to its website, its base of registered users, its digital content, and its

revenues and investment from venture capital. ResearchGate knows that the PJAs at issue

cannot be lawfully uploaded to and downloaded from the RG Website. Nevertheless, in violation of the rights of ACS, Elsevier, and others, ResearchGate uploads infringing copies of

PJAs and encourages and induces others to do so. ResearchGate finds copies of the PJAs on the

Internet and uploads them to computer servers it owns or controls. In addition, ResearchGate

lures others into uploading copies of the PJAs, including by directly asking them to do so,

encouraging use of a “request full-text” feature, and misleadingly promoting the concept of “selfarchiving.”[sic]  ResearchGate is well aware that, as a result, it has turned the RG Website into a focal point for massive copyright infringement.[5]

Yikes, that sounds dire, right?  And very akin to the member’s concerns.

So, with all that established, I’ll share my thoughts, and address the member’s questions.

Number one, should libraries be directing individuals to ResearchGate to ask authors for copies of their articles? Number two, should our document delivery service be providing copies of PDFs from ResearchGate to our library patrons?

Questions like this may be informed by law (and risk management), but must always start with ethics. 

The ALA Statement of Ethics[6] has very clear language regarding intellectual property: We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.

When it comes to a source like ResearchGate—ostensibly trying to operate within the bounds of the law, but alleged to have a seamier side—the ALA’s further musings[7] on this statement on copyright are also instructive:

 Library workers are increasingly critical resources for copyright information in their communities. Consequently, they should be informed about copyright developments and maintain current awareness of all copyright issues. Library workers should develop a solid understanding of the law, its purpose, and the details relevant to library activities. This includes the ability to read, understand, and analyze various copyright scenarios, including fair use and other copyright limitations, using both good judgment and risk mitigation practices.

Library workers should use these skills to identify their rights and the rights of their users. Further, they should be ready to perform outreach surrounding copyright topics and refer users with questions pertaining to copyright to reliable resources. However, library workers should avoid providing legal advice. They may provide information about the law and copyright, but should recommend that patrons consult an attorney for legal advice. [emphasis added]

I can’t answer the member’s questions for any particular library. But based on the ALA Statement of Ethics, its further comments on copyright, and risk management principles drawn from the law, I can suggest a methodology for a library to apply when asking them.

First, if a librarian, using their own observations, and applying ALA ethics, believes a source to be dubious,  it is clear that they are ethically obligated to “us[e] both good judgment and risk mitigation practices” about “relevant to library activities,” and to work with decision-makers at their institution to develop a clear position on that source.

This is not a simple nor easy exercise.  Further (and frustratingly, for some) it may vary from institution to institution.  Some libraries dance on the cutting edge of copyright.  Others err on the side of caution.  The decision to do either should be based on an informed assessment that considers the library’s mission, insurance, tolerance of risk, and its comfort level with the status quo.  

The member is already applying personal experience and modeling this balancing.  Remember the last part of the question: I am personally very hesitant to refer anyone to ResearchGate, as I find most faculty researchers are not aware of who truly holds the copyright to their published articles.

To that type of informed concern, there are two considerations I would add for libraries making this type of determination:

1) Under Section 108 of the Copyright Act, a library’s exemption from infringement can turn on their lack of awareness of a scheme to make exploitive commercial copies.  Your library’s insurance may also deny coverage if a library is knowingly referring users to an infringer.  So, if your institution is aware that a source is an infringer (which is different from suspecting a source is an infringer), that is a factor to balance.

2) On the flip side, libraries should not be willing (and generally have not been willing) to roll over to support the unchecked dominance of traditional commercial publishers.  Without pushback, rates will continue to go up, while terms will get more onerous.   But there is a difference between thoughtful pushback (like the current, organized fight against the McMillan Embargo[8]), and systematic copyright infringement (like Napster).  

Questions like this one show that librarians are thinking about the difference.  

Thanks for a great question.  It will be interesting to see if the case against ResearchGate goes the distance, and to see libraries decide where they stand.



[1] When this question first put the name in my brain, the “g” was lowercase.  

[2] For over ten years, I was in-house counsel at a university, and had a reason to read “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” every week.  Every year the Chronicle reported on one research-based scandal after another; it’s a miracle I didn’t hear the term “ResearchGate” before this!

[3] As of December 8, 2019, you can see this on ResearchGate’s Intellectual Property Policy.

[4] Am. Chem. Soc'y v. ResearchGate GmbH, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98372, 2019 WL 2450976.

[5] Yes, this is one monster paragraph within the law suit. 

[6] As of December 8, 2019, found at http://www.ala.org/tools/ethics

 

Tags: Copyright, DMCA, Ethics, Fair Use, Laws, Photocopies

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