Sharing via scientific collaboration networks

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6 April 2015

In this article I address the important topic of article sharing and how the scientific and publishing communities ought to support this rapidly evolving practice. This topic affects the entire scientific enterprise, in both markedly positive and potentially negative ways. It is therefore vitally important that all stakeholders—researchers, publishers, librarians, and sharing networks—fully understand the impacts and engage in mapping out fair use practice for new sharing tools.


When a scientist writes an article describing his or her latest research results, the authors usually share that article with colleagues who have a common interest in the topic. This sharing practice dates back to when the scholarly journal was first invented 350 years ago. Only the ease and methods of sharing have changed significantly, particularly after the journal articles went to online formats. In the print days, authors were often given or could purchase extra copies (post-prints) of their articles, which they could distribute to their research colleagues, students, or readers requesting a copy. With the widespread availability of photocopy machines, authors could replicate this process arbitrarily; readers could also make personal copies from the volume of the journals held by their institutional library.

Most scholarly publishers are comfortable with such sharing practices as long as they do not substitute for the publisher's own offerings and services, such as repackaging of articles for resale, or, in some cases, the posting the publisher’s final version on widely available institutional websites. The practice of article sharing became a much simpler task with online publishing—a simple keystroke can send copies to thousands of readers.

A new tool that has appeared over the last decade has made the practice of article sharing even simpler and more useful for the researcher—the advent of article sharing networks. The best known of these networks are very successful start-ups in terms of the number of users, ResearchGate (6 million members) and (30 million monthly visitors). These networks solicit researchers to establish collaboration networks and give users capabilities to upload versions of their articles to be shared with user-defined collaboration groups and, in some cases, members of the public.

These networks are becoming an increasingly popular means of article sharing and represent the latest incarnation of this important means of researcher collaboration. For this reason the scholarly publication community needs to support this new venture, but in a way that allows the practice to evolve as a useful tool without undue harm to the enterprise that published the article. Given that the business of scholarly publications is still dominated by the subscription model, if all publications are made instantly available to anyone on the day of publication, subscription income and the means of sustaining the value of the scholarly publishing enterprise would be at risk. When a majority of the publication business moves to an author-paid, open access model, this becomes less of a concern. But in my view, this transition will continue incrementally as it has done for the last ten years, and for certain fields (the humanities, for example) it may never be a viable model. 

For the last nine months I have had the honor of chairing a working group assembled by the International Association of STM Publishers to help establish some general guidelines for the use of such networks by all parties.

On February 9, the working group posted on the STM website a draft of voluntary principles for article sharing on scholarly collaboration networks and a series of related questions concerning the use of these networks. We have asked the wider research community to consider both the draft statement and the related questions and submit commentary to the STM site over a two-month consultation period that will conclude on April 10. Submitted commentary and supporters thus far can also be viewed on the STM website.

I invite all interested parties to review the principles and submit commentary by the end of this week. This feedback will help STM broaden the conversation beyond the group of publishers that initiated the conversation. For those interested, I offer some additional remarks on our efforts in an interview published by the Scholarly Kitchen on February 24.