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We encourage you to share your article widely – but not too much

15/09/2021

Has anyone else noticed the conflict of advice that exists in the Springer Nature (SN) SharedIt initiative? On the face of it, it appears a good thing – actively encouraging authors to share their research – until you get into the weeds of what is permitted and required. [Added emphasis in quotations are all mine]

SN states that it 

wants researchers to share content easily

and that it wishes 

to enable researchers to share articles of interest with collaborators and colleagues. We also wish to enable authors to share their research articles widely” 

and proudly trumpets that using its SharedIt initiative 

links to view-only, full-text subscription research articles can be posted anywhere – including on social media platforms, author websites and in institutional repositories – so researchers can share research with colleagues and general audiences.” 

For now, let’s skate over the fact that this initiative is ‘read only’. As a SN author at this point, you might think – great. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

Those pesky Terms & Conditions

You have been sent the SharedIt link to your article and are excited because you’re told that you:

Can post shareable links to view-only versions of [your] peer-reviewed research paper anywhere, including via social channels, institutional repositories and authors’ own websites as well as scholarly collaborative networks.”

It says ‘anywhere.’ Excellent. Then you read the SharedIt Terms & Conditions (Ts & Cs). 

We support a reasonable amount of sharing of content by authors, subscribers and authorised users (“Users”), for small-scale personal, non-commercial use provided that you maintain all copyright and other proprietary notices.

This is quite a difference: only a reasonable amount of sharing is supported. That is a long way from anywhere. It certainly doesn’t sound like the “wish to enable authors to share their research articles widely” SN started out with. ‘Small-scale’ is even more limiting. I would have expected researchers might want ‘mega-scale’, worldwide interest in and access to their hard-won work.

Sharing for subscribers too

Not only can authors distribute links to their papers, but subscribers to the journal can obtain SharedIt links for articles to which they have access, and which they can disseminate. This includes anyone at a university eligible to use a university subscription to the journal, which may be many thousands of individuals at a single institution, to distribute the link.

SharedIt allows you to share research articles you or your institution have subscribed to in a legitimate way, facilitating discussions and collaborations with other researchers who may not have a subscription.”

The instructions state that: Reasonable sharing is encouraged for non-commercial, personal useand that subscribers can “share links to free-to-read versions of research articles anywhere.” That term again – ‘reasonable.’

More Ts & Cs

As a distributor of the link, you automatically agree to the Ts & Cs (“By using the unique SharedIt URL (“shareable link”), you agree to these terms of use (“Terms”)”). But it continues:

“By sharing, or receiving our content from a shared source, Users agree to be bound by these SharedIt Terms of Use.”

Or receiving.’ Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but I don’t grasp how the ‘Users’ (‘authors, subscribers and authorised users) who have agreed to these Ts & Cs can be responsible for the actions of the person receiving content via the link – who, given the trumpeting, could be any random person who’s found it via Twitter or other social channels or scholarly network where the author has posted it (see above). Someone, please correct me if I’m wrong.

But it gets even more confusing. The T’s & Cs state that:

“Users may occasionally share a shareable link to a read-only version of the full text article”.

We’ve had reasonableamount of sharing, then ‘small scale’ use. Now we are down to occasionally share. To me, the initial encouragement to share widely is becoming increasingly restricted. It is a long way off the “See Your Research Soar with SharedIt” headline on the SN ‘media plan’ for authors. Rather a case of clipped wings.

I also don’t understand how the insistence on limited (reasonable/small-scale/occasional) sharing, aligns with SN’s touting the large numbers of links distributed and accessed (“Over 3.25 million articles accessed in SharedIt’s first year”). It really seems like SN is trying to have it both ways. 

Finally, the following clause is very odd.

“Please ensure that you have the express consent of the recipient to send the link to their email address or contact details.”

This is, frankly, bizarre. I’m not aware of any author who would wish to contact a colleague to ask their consent prior to emailing them a link to an article they had written, and in which the recipient may be interested. Even if this may be intended to discourage authors from mass mailing their article to colleagues, the way in which this request is framed entails that prior consent for mailing must be asked of every potential recipient of the link.

Authors, Researchers, University members and others with subscription access beware?

If you obtain a SharedIt link, make sure that:

 1. you only use it occasionally, or reasonably, and make ‘small-scale’ use of it. Don’t get caught out sharing the links too much;

 2. people who receive the link you share abide by the SN SharedIt Ts & Cs;

 3. you obtain the express permission of the recipient before sending the link to their email address or contact details;

or you will be in breach of the SharedIt Ts & Cs that you agreed to by using the link. This is a publisher that is very keen to control authors’ use of the content they created and contributed to the publisher (I refer particularly to SN’s insistence on embargos for Author Accepted Manuscripts (AAMs), requiring that authors sign a contract that they know contradicts an existing agreement the author has with their cOAlition S funder, to apply a CC BY licence to their AAM). Would this publisher really take action against authors for breaking SharedIt terms?

Conclusion

That SN “wish to enable researchers to share articles of interest” sounds wholesome and sensible. It certainly is good PR. The (then) Chief Publishing Officer of SN stated it even more strongly:

For too long ‘sharing’ has been a difficult word in academic publishing. We believe we work at the behest of our authors and subscribers, and as the ability to share their work and collaborate around new research is critical to them, it needs to be critical to us as well.”

[Steven Inchcoombe, Chief Publishing Officer, Springer Nature, 27 Nov 2017] 

 

However, scratching the surface by scrutinizing the T&Cs reveals a clear reticence to make sharing either as easy for authors or as wide as we might have been led to believe. To my mind, ‘sharing’ remains a difficult word in academic publishing. ‘Sharing’ is adopted because it sounds good, but in this ‘publisher’ definition of the word, it is not used in the open science sense of the word: in publisher-speak, it means limited distribution, access and re-use.

Inchcoombe adds:

“Research needs to be as discoverable, accessible, understandable, and as shareable as possible… All of this underlines our commitment to enabling new research findings to be read and used by those who support and enable research, by those who help these findings to be applied for the benefit of all, as well as the interested wider public. 

While SN heralds the wide use of and accesses via SharedIt, the Ts and Cs offer a different perspective. Plus, despite a commitment to enabling research findings to be read and used, the links provide read-only access. Clearly, permissions only partially match the fine words.

The cOAlition S Rights Retention Strategy (RRS) is designed to address exactly the problem that SN describes, i.e. sharingresearch articles you or your institution have subscribed to in a legitimate way, facilitating discussions and collaborations with other researchers who may not have a subscription.” The difference with the RRS being that legitimacy is achieved by sufficient rights for sharing and reusing the AAM retained by the author – not reliant on restrictive permissions imposed by the publisher. SN insists on imposing embargoes, on AAMs, even when many researchers publicise they do not want them (see for example this statement).

The point I am making here is the discrepancy between the SN rhetoric on sharing and the restrictions SN attempts to impose on sharing when you closely examine the small print that authors and subscribers actually agree to via use of the links. 

SN, if you really want to demonstrate your commitment for findings to be ‘read and used,’ and to support authors for whom sharing work is ‘critical’ (Inchcoombe, 2017), then simply open up all articles or, at the very least, don’t put barriers in the way of authors using copies of their own work via authors’ rights retention.



Sally Rumsey

Sally Rumsey is Jisc’s cOAlition S OA Expert. She was, until Dec 2019, Head of Scholarly Communications & RDM, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. From 2006 she managed the University’s repository service for research outputs, Oxford University Research Archive (ORA and ORA-Data), advised on scholarly communications, and drafted University policies and documents about open access. She liaised with Oxford researchers to define library support requirements for Open Scholarship. Sally is a member of the UKSCL (Scholarly Communications Licence) group and represented Oxford University on LERU (League of European Universities) OA Info-Group. Recent presentations include numerous about cOAlition S Rights Retention Strategy. She was previously e-Services Librarian and manager of the repository at the London School of Economics.