Are you on Researchgate?

August 14, 2014

By now probably most academic  researchers will have heard of Researchgate, which is often described as “a social networking site for researchers”, a sort of mix of Facebook and LinkedIn but with a heavy scholarly focus.  At the very least  you will probably have received an email from them.  You can follow people and endorse them for skills you think they might have (and hope that they endorse you right back!) and you can share with them.  There are a number of these outfits, and Mendeley being two other examples, but over the past eighteen months Researchgate has surged ahead of the opposition with the help of a $35 million investment from Bill Gates in June 2013. 

You can use Researchgate in a number of ways.  By identifying your areas of specialisation and asking questions of others with the same interests you can crowd-source solutions to problems and make connections with other scholars who like to interact in this way.  This is classic social networking and I haven’t really done much of this myself, but it could be a useful replacement for the old-style email discussion lists.  By following other researchers whose interests are close to your own you can keep current with work in your field and you can even use Researchgate to find a job in your field, LinkedIn style.

The major focus of Researchgate, however, is on publication sharing and it offer researchers a convenient means of showcasing their published works and making them available to others and, in turn, of accessing papers written by others.   To get some idea of the scope of this operation and of the uptake of Researchgate I looked at the representation on the site by staff from a single Massey department with 44 active researchers.  Thirty of them have active Researchgate profiles, with an average of just under 50 publications each.  Most of them have listed their research interests and about half have included photographs of themselves.  What is really interesting, though, is that on top of these 30 with “active” profiles (i.e. ones they have created) there are a further 6 researchers from the department who have had “dummy” profiles created for them and these list an impressive average of 58 articles each.  You can spot these accounts because rather than giving the researcher’s institution and department they have buttons asking “Do you know Researcher X?” and “Are you Researcher X?”  They exist because any of the authors of a publication can submit it to Researchgate – when they do the record for that publication lists all of the authors with clickable links to their profiles and publication lists.  Where an author doesn’t have an account a dummy profile is created to which any other article they have authored that appears on Researchgate can then be attached and the Do you know? and Are you? questions are asked.  This process is so efficient that one Massey author who appears never to have joined Researchgate nonetheless has a profile with 242 publications listed.  Do you know this person? Are you this person?

Publication sharing is a complex business and there are various ways in which this can be done on Researchgate –

  • The published version of a publication can be uploaded by one of its  authors for download  by anyone who finds it.  This is often done even when the copyright agreement with the publisher appears to disallow it.
  • If an article is openly available (generally from its publisher) then it can be externally linked to and downloaded.
  • An author manuscript (usually a postprint or “accepted manuscript”) can be uploaded as a means of complying with the publisher’s requirement that the published version not be used.
  • The publication can be requested directly from the author who uploaded it.  This conforms to the standard practice that authors are allowed to supply “reprints” of their work on request. 

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve done some number-crunching of journal articles in Researchgate and of my sample, which is still on the small side, it looks as if around 65-70% of “recent” articles are available from Researchgate via one of these channels.   Most of these (45% of all articles) are made available as requests from the author rather than as direct downloads  which suggests that most of the time authors want to “play by the rules”, and a further 5% are “external downloads” which don’t pose any sort of copyright issue,  but around 20% are “direct downloads” nearly all of which are forbidden fruit in the form of publishers’ PDFs.

The response from publishers to this has been very low-key.  Two years ago the primary document sharing network was Mendeley, but last year they were bought out by Elsevier who radically restricted the number of fellow-researchers with whom a document could be shared (from an unlimited number to, erm, three).  At the end of 2013 there was a flurry of activity, again from Elsevier, in the form of takedown notices to authors who had uploaded articles to  The press release explained the publisher’s position as follows

“The public availability of final published journal articles is fine for the open access articles we publish because their publishing costs are covered, for example, through a payment by author or funder. However, it is a problem for subscription/non-Open Access articles, where most publishers’ current business model is based on paid access post-publication. Hence we can’t allow published journal articles to be freely accessible on a large scale — especially not through other for-profit companies, who want to benefit from our and other publishers’ efforts. What library will continue to subscribe if a growing proportion of articles is available for free elsewhere?”

That’s nicely put, but the odd thing is that the full statement contains absolutely no mention of Researchgate, whose holdings by that point were several times larger than those of  If anyone had said “what about the elephant?” then Elsevier were clearly going to put the telescope to their blind eye and have a really good look around the room.  On the other hand here’s what they said about

“ … made final versions of articles publicly available. We’ve reached out to them to ensure they were aware of our policies and to explore user-friendly options for alignment, but unfortunately they were unwilling to engage with us.”

Puzzling.  I can think of two possible reasons for this omission though.  One is that Researchgate have not been unwilling to engage with the publishers and that some new iteration of the academic publishing model is in the making.  The other is that , like YouTube and the banks, Researchgate has simply become “too big to fail” and the fallout from legal action would mean that the game was not worth the candle.  Possibly the truth is a combination of the two, or something else entirely, but it would still be a bold library that would cancel a subscription (or, more accurately, a package) on the basis of openly available articles.

So where does that leave us?  Authors who sign copyright agreements should in all conscience stick to what they undertook to do, but if they don’t there’s no real risk that they will be given a takedown notice, let alone some sort of meaningful sanction like “we won’t publish any more of your work for the next year.”  As academic publications generally have multiple authors, any one of whom has the apparent right to submit to Researchgate, in most cases individual authors don’t even make a decision and working out questions of responsibility simply becomes too difficult.   There’s also a strong element of “everyone’s doing it” which we experience every time we exceed the speed limit simply to go with the flow on the motorway. 

There’s another element to this, however, which we do need to take seriously, and that’s to do with the provenance of the articles being uploaded to Researchgate and similar utilities.  Just as authors sign copyright agreements with publishers, so libraries sign license agreements with them to allow us to make their articles available to staff and students.  Our guidelines for the use of this material  specifically state that it is illegal to

  • post content to any non-secure public space such as a website or blog
  • use content for commercial purposes, or for the benefit of any party external to Massey University
  • distribute content to anyone who is not affiliated with Massey University, including non-Massey employers

So there, you’ve been told.  And now for the takeaway from all of this –

  • Be good.
  • You should definitely look to see if you are on Researchgate already.  A google search along the lines of Your Name Massey Researchgate will generally bring up a dummy profile is one exists.  If you can’t find it try googling for one of your publication titles with Researchgate tacked on at the end.  If you have co-authors and if you’ve published more than just one or two articles in recognised journals you can almost certainly expect to find yourself there.
  • If you are serious about your research profile then you probably need to take control of your Researchgate profile and make sure that you are represented by your best works.  Bear in mind that material on Researchgate is very accessible to Google and Google Scholar, but some researchers may now go to Researchgate as their first port of call.
  • Don’t forget other ways of making your work publicly available like Massey Research Online.  In order to make your work publicly accessible in this way you will need to play by the rules, which may include using accepted manuscripts rather than publisher PDFs, but you should really be doing this in any case.

I’m interested in developing my number-crunching into a larger project based on Researchgate so I’d be really interested in getting your feedback about the use of Researchgate, particularly about the efficacy (or otherwise) of requesting articles that are not available for download.

Bruce White
Science Librarian

Update 15th August

Richard Van Noorden, a blogger at Nature News, has just put out an excellent post called Online collaboration: Scientists and the social network which confirms the pre-eminence of Researchgate. Their survey of more than 3,000 scientists and engineers found that nearly 50% of them are regular visitors, a figure exceeded only by use of Google Scholar.

Van Noorden makes an interesting point about what I referred to “dummy profiles” for individual authors who have not signed up to Researchgate –

“Some of the apparent profiles on the site are not owned by real people, but are created automatically — and incompletely — by scraping details of people’s affiliations, publication records and PDFs, if available, from around the web.”

That is confirmed by my sample which shows that 21% of the articles that appeared in Researchgate had no author with a “real” Researchgate profile, but each author of these articles now has a dummy profile with the “Are you XXXXX?” question. And then in addition to Van Noorden’s list of ways in which you can end up in Researchgate, you will also acquire a profile if any co-author of anything you have written has submitted it. The nett result of this is that of my sample of 44 authors from a single Massey department only 8 did not (yet) appear to have a profile of some kind.

Some people object to this, but in a sense it’s no different from having your name show up in a database like Scopus. You published, the details are out there in the public domain, there’s no obvious privacy or copyright issue involved. Looking at my list of 65 articles with no signed-up authors, none of them has the actual publication available for Direct Download – instead you have to Request the full-text – but there are examples where a repository or a conference website has been trawled for papers which, if they’re not already on Researchgate, are made available as External Downloads.
Once again the message is simple. You may have got sick of receiving emails from Researchgate, you may have chosen not to look at it, you may have chosen not to sign up, but if you are a published academic author the answer to the question “ARE YOU ON RESEARCHGATE” is still likely to be YES. Check it out.

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