We’ve written previously about the underground sci-hub.tw, a repository of countless academic articles that was forced to relocate its domain following a 2015 shutdown by a U.S. federal court after a complaint filed by the academic publisher Elsevier.
Elsevier, along with the American Chemical Society (ACS), is filing a lawsuit against the German-based website ResearchGate, a site that “promotes itself as a professional network for scientists and researchers. The site claims 15 million members,” writes “Andy” of TorrentFreak, “who use the platform to ‘share, discover, and discuss research.’ It’s mission is to make research ‘open to all.’”
In egregious violation of copyright law, ResearchGate provides anyone connected to the Internet with a free trove of infringing digital copies of peer-reviewed published journal articles. ResearchGate has consciously designed and actively maintains the RG Website as a hub for obtaining infringing copies of those PJAs. ResearchGate is not a passive host of a forum where infringement just happens to occur. Rather, ResearchGate actively participates in the ongoing infringement, in which it directly engages by duplicating, displaying, and distributing unauthorized copies of PJAs [Published Journal Articles]. ResearchGate also intentionally facilitates, supports, and lures users into uploading and downloading unauthorized copies of PJAs. ResearchGate’s motive is simple. Its business model critically relies on the viral growth of its file sharing / download service. ResearchGate knows that copies of PJAs from journals attract and retain users. Thus, ResearchGate uses unauthorized copies of the PJAs to grow the traffic to its website, its base of registered users, the content on its site, and its revenues and investment from venture capital. ResearchGate knows exactly what is happening on its site and facilities, but it deliberately causes, and refrains from stopping, the infringement.
These are some weighty accusations, but despite the aggressive tone of the plaintiffs’ complaint, this is a bit of an oversimplification. Some, not all, of the research articles on the site are available for full download (though it allows members, who must verify they work in some research-related field, to request full-text access from the authors).
The complaint’s description also, predictably, doesn’t mention the benefits of the site beyond access to content. ResearchGates provides researchers with access to analytics related to who is citing and reading members’ papers, allows members to publish data from their research, and creates a network that facilitates collaboration with colleagues around the world. What makes the site different from Sci-Hub is that it does derive revenue from advertising on the site, which allows it to profit, the plaintiffs allege, from their copyrighted PJAs.
Here’s where the case takes a turn for the absurd: Elsevier makes a healthy profit margin of 35%, driven mostly by galloping increases in university subscription prices. In the suit, Elsevier and ACS demand the maximum statutory damages, $150,000 per infringed article.
If Elsevier and ACS prevail, it could very well mean the end of a site that has enabled over 15 million users to access original research, collaborate with colleagues, and make knowledge more open–all thanks to a law whose constitutional justification is “to promote science and useful arts.”