As we’ve noted, the main reason the Sci-Hub site is so popular with academics is not because it is free — researchers generally have free access to papers anyway — but because it is so easy to use. Among other things, it provides a centralized store of a huge number of papers — 58 million at the time of writing — that can be downloaded with a single click. But an interesting post on the Green Tea and Velociraptors blog points out Sci-Hub’s holdings are beaten by the total number of papers available on the ResearchGate site, which has 12 million members:
The platform boasts that 2.5 million published outputs are uploaded by its users every month, equivalent to around the total number of published scholarly research articles each year. The site claims to have around 100 million published articles, which is very impressive seeing as only around 20-25 million have ever been published Open Access [OA].
The same post points out that many of those 100 million articles seem to be unauthorized copies:
Based on a random sample of English language articles drawn from ResearchGate, the study [published last month] showed that 201 (51.3%) out of 392 non-OA articles infringed the copyright and were non-compliant with publishers’ policy. While this sample size was small, there is no reason to think that the same cannot be said if we scale up to consider the entire corpus of articles shared on RG. This means that around half, or approximately 50 million, research papers on RG are most likely illegally hosted.
If that analysis is correct, it would seem that ResearchGate holds roughly as many unauthorized copies of academic papers as Sci-Hub. Despite that fact, ResearchGate has just revealed that back in November 2015, it received investments totalling $52.6 million from some rather starry names, including that famous hater of pirates, Bill Gates:
Wellcome Trust, Goldman Sachs Investment Partners, and Four Rivers Group with participation from Ashton Kutcher, Groupe Arnault, Xavier Niel, and existing investors Bill Gates, Tenaya Capital, Benchmark, and Founders Fund.
ResearchGate says it is the responsibility of the uploader to make sure that they have the necessary rights to post material to the site:
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. For this reason, we request that you fully investigate and confirm that you have sufficient rights to post particular content to ResearchGate before you post such content. As a general matter, if you are an author publishing in a journal, you may be allowed to publish certain versions of your article, but not others, and privately share certain content with others. However, many journals restrict publication of final versions and impose limitations on private sharing.
As that notes, authors are typically only allowed to post certain versions of their papers — usually early ones. But most researchers don’t bother with that detail, and simply upload the final version to ResearchGate, which is probably why the recent analysis mentioned by the Tea and Velociraptors blog found so many unauthorized copies. Along with laziness, or ignorance of the niceties here, another factor driving this phenomenon may be that academics are aware that much of their work has been paid for by the public, and therefore feel the definitive results should be disseminated as widely as possible.
Still, the contrast between ResearchGate, which has received major investments from some rather big names, and Sci-Hub, which is currently being pursued in the courts by Elsevier, is stark, given that their respective holdings turn out to be so similar. It’s another indication that the academic publishing system is broken, and that copyright is an irrelevance as far as millions of researchers are concerned.