ResearchGate, Elsevier, Article Sharing, and You

Photo by Michael Wolfe, public domain by CC 0 waiver.

Photo by Michael Wolfe, public domain by CC 0 waiver.

ResearchGate and the titans of scholarly publishing have had a rancorous couple of weeks. Publishers are sending, by their account, millions of copyright “takedown” notices—demands to remove content that online intermediaries are generally obliged to obey. And now Elsevier and the American Chemical Society have filed suit against ResearchGate in Germany. We don’t yet have specifics on the nature of the lawsuit, but it demonstrates how motivated the publishing industry is to stem the tide of article sharing.

Although the fight seems largely to be between big business (and big societies), at the heart of it is something a little closer to home: the scholarship that Elsevier authors and ResearchGate users—that is, by and large, you—create. So where do you fit into all of this? Appearances notwithstanding, you’re right at the center.

More precisely, your place lies somewhere between the paperwork you’re asked to sign when you publish and the policies your journal has adopted regarding the sharing of their articles. Your publishing agreements set out the basic groundrules—what rights your publisher has, and what rights you have, to your work. Publisher policies can amend this framework somewhat, providing you greater latitude to share your work than the original agreement might have done. But, other than when articles are published on Open Access terms, these arrangements are typically relatively restrictive about when and how article sharing is allowed. A common practice is to only allow distribution of the “author’s final version”—the one that follows peer-review but comes before publisher edits and typesetting—and then to restrict the kinds of places where those versions can be shared.

Authors often don’t comply with these restrictions, but, for many publishers, ResearchGate is an easier target than authors themselves. There’s only one ResearchGate (and only a handful of ResearchGate-like companies), whereas there are countless authors. And, frankly, many are reticent to blame the authors on which they depend rather than the intermediaries they could happily live without. But, all the same, users of ResearchGate or can expect to receive notices from their publishers, and to see some portion of the work they’ve posted be “taken down” and disappear from view.

The key takeaway is that if you value the sharing that ResearchGate provides, there are better ways to go about doing it. The UC Open Access policies, for instance, preserve your right to share your work in many circumstances, and they are worth knowing. Publishing in Open Access journals with Creative Commons licenses is the best, surest path to being free to share your scholarship where you like in its final, published form. And if you read your publisher’s policies, you may find other outlets for sharing your work where it won’t be casually taken down.

And if you need support, come ask for help at the the scholarly communications program. By design, there is quite a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt going around regarding how to properly share your work, but there need not be. There are many lawful, effective options and we can walk you through that process. So, poke through some of the helpful links below, and you can always get in touch with us for assistance at

How eScholarship handles takedown notices

The Authors Alliance on knowing your rights when it comes to takedown notices

The SHERPA/RoMEO database of publisher copyright and self-archiving policies