As a former director of a library and information center at a mid-sized, global biotech company, I was fortunate to have a budget that supported a very robust collection of copyright-compliant journals and other bibliographic data. I took pride in the fact that our researchers had easy, any-time access to the scientific articles they needed for their work and could share them with their colleagues. In fact, many of them joked about suffering from ‘information overload,’ or as one researcher liked to call it, ‘infobesity.’

But what happens when a start-up biotech company doesn’t have the luxury of such rich financial support? How do those researchers manage to keep abreast of scientific literature and make sure they haven’t missed anything that might inform their research, in either a positive or negative way? Is this perhaps a case of information underload?

Uncovering the Pain Points

I recently reached out to scientific researchers at eight small (less than 75 employees) life sciences companies to learn how they manage their information needs. We had candid conversations about their pain points in obtaining journal articles and talked quite a bit about their knowledge of copyright compliance.

The following six statements were identified by scientists in at least half of the companies:

  1. There is a need for full-text scholarly publications that are cumbersome to obtain
  2. Researchers are reading and citing more abstracts than full- text documents
  3. There is a lack of general oversight in maintaining the library function
  4. Individuals acquire information via inappropriate sources (such as old university library accounts or ResearchGate-type sites)
  5. There are little to no company guidelines for sharing articles
  6. Most have minimal knowledge of copyright compliance

Based on these conversations, it appears small companies are suffering from information underload—lacking access to timely, critical information that staff needs to optimally do their job. As well, these companies are lacking an organized structure to gain access to the information they need and to implement copyright-compliant behaviors.

Tackling the Problem

There is an organizational benefit to companies that maintain one central location where all articles (purchased, open access, and subscriptions) can be stored. This minimizes the time that researchers spend searching for the content they need. In small organizations, time is definitely money! And because abstracts sometimes do not accurately reflect the content of a scientific article, it behooves a small company to invest in subscriptions that offer researchers simple access to full-text articles.

Non-compliance with copyright often occurs quite innocently in small companies. For example, most online college libraries restrict use to current students—even though their accounts are still active post-graduation. Because of this, many post-docs at small companies report routinely downloading journal articles in this manner. Others turn to online social sharing sites like ResearchGate to download articles without realizing that more than a dozen academic publishers took ResearchGate to court in 2018, charging ‘massive infringement of peer-reviewed published journal articles.’ And while many people believe that all scientific articles can be shared freely among their colleagues, posted to blogs, or used in slide presentations, this is not the case. Usage rights vary based on the source of the material and what licenses your organization has in place, and using materials in an unauthorized way can occur if you don’t know where or how to check what can be shared.

Any time you share works that are copyright-protected — by email or instant message or on social media or in a slide deck — without checking permission, you risk putting your institution at reputational, legal and financial risk. And as importantly, sharing content unlawfully undermines the culture of integrity that is prized by most organizations, small or large.

Keep Learning:

Explore Copyright Clearance Center’s solutions for emerging life sciences companies.


Author: Jill Shuman

Jill Shuman is a former Director of Product Engagement at Copyright Clearance Center and currently a CCC Consultant. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University School of Medicine, where she has taught courses in grant writing, searching biomedical literature and expository writing. Prior to her role at CCC, Jill headed up the corporate library and Knowledge Management Centers at Shire, and also served as a healthcare research analyst and an award-winning science journalist. She is active in SLA, HBA, and the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). In 2016, Jill was the recipient of AMWA’s lifetime achievement award for her success in teaching more than 40 classes, workshops, and seminars. When not at work, she can be found reading (on an e-reader to make the print bigger), looking for her glasses, or writing children’s mysteries that feature sick children as super sleuths.
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