Does ResearchGate's promotion of user/author 'self-archiving' help or harm the cause of open access publishing?

ResearchGate has adopted a strategy of asking authors to 'self-archive' their copyrighted works on the RG site as a way of facilitating greater access to scientific information to the world at large. The legal argument they base this strategy on is that many copyrighted articles allow authors to put their own articles up on their own private sites, such as an academic webpage, ie., 'self-archiving.' ResearchGate argues that our profiles on their site count as 'personal websites.' This strategy allows ResearchGate to accomplish what they could not otherwise accomplish without a large, rapid lawsuit: they are creating a repository of free scientific publications that increases their traffic and user base and substantially increases the commercial value of RG as a for-profit entity. In an interesting thread (, RG staff very clearly promote this idea and encourage authors to 'err' on the side of providing access over protecting copyright. This is a clever strategy as it places on authors the risk of copyright violation and creates a significant challenge for publishers to enforce their copyright as they would essentially have to police RG and direct their challenges to individual authors rather than at RG (though notably RG is the one gaining commercial value).

RG promotes this strategy under the banner of ushering in a new era where scientific knowledge is more widely and freely available and not constricted by (implied) greedy publishers. However, it should be clear that what they are doing is shifting the commercial value of scientific publications-- value created by funding sources, scientists, authors and publishers-- to themselves. Their site, through traffic and user base, becomes valuable (like facebook) as a distribution hub for scientific papers and a vehicle for marketing and advertising. The more that papers can be obtained freely from RG, the less opportunity there is for those that create that value, mainly authors and publishers, to profit from it. If RG were successful, why would anyone ever pay for an article? Publishers would be forced out of business. This even applies to open access journals. Frontiers, for example, creates value. They have not only a site/platform, but have created the infrastructure to review and publish papers. They offer value to authors. If many people download one of my Frontiers papers, I am asked to submit a review, providing me an opportunity to further highlight my work. No such value is offered here. In contrast, everytime someone obtains my Frontiers paper from here instead of the Frontiers website, that represents site traffic diverted from Frontiers to RG, again increasing the commercial value of RG at the expense of those that created the value, in this case Frontiers (and me, for that matter, as I am not credited with a download on the Frontiers site).

Of course, it seems predictable that publishers will eventually sue RG. Publishers cannot let RG work around copyright via individual authors to create a free repository that transfers the commercial value of scientific publications from publishers to RG. So why does RG pursue this strategy? Here is my hypothesis. RG knows that eventually they will be challenged in court. However, if by the time that happens they have amassed a huge respository and distribution system, they may be in the position to bargain, much like Apple did with the music recording industry. One possible scenario is that RG agrees to disribute scientific articles for a nominal fee (similar to the .99 song of iTunes), a portion of which goes to publishers and a portion of which goes to RG. Of course, this is only one outcome. A different one is that publishers sue and then crack down on legitimate self-archiving, actually causing a tightening of the ability to distribute one's work to others.

In my opinion, this strategy RG has employed to create a free repository of scientific papers and greatly enhance their commercial value is unethical (and may eventually be deemed illegal). I think an ethical and honest approach would involve negotiating with publishers and recognizing and protecting the value that has been created by others instead of trying to simply transfer that value to themselves, in a sense stealing it. I strongly support open access and believe scientific knowledge, particularly that derived from public funding, should be made available to all. But there are a lot of legitimate efforts to achieve this underway, including PubMed Central, various open access journals (notably PloS and Frontiers) and changes in policies with traditional publishers. I think RG is not helping further the cause of open access, but by deviously transferring commercial value from authors and publishers to themselves by using authors to create a free repository and distribution system, to which they add no value, that will work against open access in the long run. I for one refuse to publish or 'self-archive' my papers on this site as I think it is fundamentally dishonest and exploiting me to increase their commercial value. What are your thoughts?