The owner of the large scholarly search engine Web of Science — Clarivate Analytics — has bought a start-up company whose tool gives researchers one-click, legal access to journal articles even when off campus.

Clarivate announced on 10 April that it had acquired the London-based company, called Kopernio, and said it will integrate the tool into its Web of Science database service, to which more than 7,500 institutions worldwide subscribe. It did not disclose the value of the deal.

Kopernio, which was created in 2017, offers a browser plugin — already available for free — that makes it easier for researchers to find and download literature. Academics hunting for research papers often need to sign into multiple websites and follow many links to locate a downloadable PDF, despite having legal access. Researchers might also not be able to read paywalled journals while off campus, even if their institution is a subscriber.

Kopernio reduces this frustration by detecting whether an academic has access to an article through their library’s subscription. It also hunts out free versions of papers if no subscription exists. Other popular tools exist to find freely available papers online, such as Unpaywall, another browser plugin. But — unlike Kopernio — these plugins don’t have knowledge of their users’ subscription agreements, so cannot log in to paywalled papers if no free versions can be found elsewhere. Some scholars shut out by paywalls turn to the pirate paper website Sci-Hub to find articles — and some visit Sci-Hub even when they have legal access to the paper they want, because they are so frustrated by complicated login processes. Kopernio might help stem that latter tide of visitors.

Different tack

Clavirate’s acquisition of Kopernio highlights the growing awareness that to fight piracy in scientific publishing, companies must make radical changes to how researchers search for and access journal articles, says Roger Schonfeld, director of the libraries and scholarly communication programme at Ithaka S+R, a non-profit consultancy based in New York City that advises academia on digital technology.

The move is a “very big step” towards making researchers’ lives easier, says David Worlock, an independent, UK-based publishing consultant. “This brings the library home,” he says.

Worlock adds that it sets Web of Science up to operate across the whole workflow of a researcher. For example, Clarivate-owned tools, such as Web of Science, the biobliometric software EndNote, and now Kopernio are being used by researchers during an increasing amount of their activities. “Critical to all of this is the neutrality of Clarivate. They are not a journal publisher,” he says.

Schonfeld is excited to see investment in improving how researchers discover and access scholarly literature. If Kopernio’s plugin gives researchers seamless access to publications, the demand for illicit alternatives such as Sci-Hub could begin to fall, he adds.

Annette Thomas, who leads Clarivate’s scientific and academic research division, says that bringing Kopernio together with Web of Science could provide new data analytics that would be valuable to researchers, publishers and librarians. For example, Kopernio could help to provide more accurate data to publishers and libraries about how often specific research articles and journals are accessed.

Jan Reichelt, one of Kopernio’s co-founders, will now become managing director of Web of Science. He previously co-created research management and social collaboration tool Mendeley, which was sold to publisher Elsevier in 2013.