13 January 2011

The Unacceptable Face of Copyright

Open access is about making copies of publicly-funded research available freely online. This stems from the belief that (a) having paid for it, the public has a right to see it and (b) a general view that access to knowledge should not be restricted to those that can pay for it (not least because it is precisely those that *cannot* pay who need it most).

Against that background, and of the growing success of open access in bringing knowledge to the developing countries, this is disgusting:

From 4 January Elsevier Journals withdrew access in Bangladesh to 1610 of its publications, including the Lancet stable of journals, which had been available through the World Health Organization’s Health Inter-Network for Access to Research Initiative (HINARI) programme. HINARI was set up in 2002 to enable not for profit institutions in developing countries to gain access online to more than 7000 biomedical and health titles either free or at very low cost.

Springer has withdrawn 588 of its journals from the programme in Bangladesh and Lippincott Williams and Wilkins 299 journals. The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society for Animal Science have withdrawn access to, respectively, two and three of their journals.

To add insult to injury, some of the articles published in those titles are by researchers who now cannot read them:

Tracey Koehlmoos, head of the health and family planning systems programme at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Dhaka, said, “We are a little less than 300 scientists eking out world class research on a shoestring budget without the purchasing power capacity of a big university in the West. HINARI has been our lifeline. My colleagues publish in many of these journals, and now we won’t even have access to our own papers.”

Companies publishing academic journals typically enjoy a profit margin of 30%; providing them free to scientists in *non-profit organisations* in developing countries will have an infinitesimal effect on their bottom lines.

It's sheer, unadulterated greed that seeks to squeeze some money out of those that have precious little of it, in effect stopping them spending it elsewhere where it is sorely needed. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that people will die as a knock-on consequence of that diversion of resources.

I do wonder how the well-paid fat-cats running these huge publishing conglomerates (disclosure: I once worked for part of Reed-Elsevier, so I have some experience of these things) look at themselves in the mirror after making decisions like this.

But at least their selfish and callous action does helpfully underline one of the big problems with copyright: the fact that it allows companies that didn't even produce the research that they publish, and to which they very often add very little value themselves, to decide who gets to read what ought to be the common heritage of humanity. In other words, it's an intellectual monopoly that is wielded with only profit maximisation in mind.

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Crosbie Fitch said...

The only acceptable face of copyright is its neutralisation, e.g. via copyleft licenses.

As to denying authors access to their own articles, even the UK Pirate Party denies me access to my own comments in their forum (when they closed them to non-members).

The desire to control people, to control what people can read or communicate is as much a mental illness and affliction of mankind as religion.

If it's not science and literature, it's government corruption, military abuse, or embarrassing information.

There's nothing wrong with privacy, and nothing intrinsically wrong with keeping things secret, but those things aren't about gagging or censoring people or denying them access to what they've produced or paid for, nor sharing the information they're privy to.

Howard said...

Excellent article. The original intent of scientific journals was to disseminate knowledge to a wider audience. This has been stifled by the way these Journals have sought to limit and control their distribution and price.
The practice of transferring copyright from the researchers to the Journal is a deeply negative and damaging process for Science.
What is needed is a new model for Scientific Publication, that bypasses these traditional Journals and also involves a new model of Peer-Review which has been exposed as deeply flawed if not completely broken.
Scientific publication of research needs to be rethought and remodelled.

Glyn Moody said...

@Howard: yes, you're right: from a historical viewpoint, things have gone horribly wrong... we clearly need to start again...

Crosbie Fitch said...

Publication of scientific research used to be just that: publication - delivery to the public - a public at liberty to use it and learn from it.

Whatever your thoughts on the merits of Queen Anne re-granting printers the monopolies they'd briefly lost, those monopolies are now unachievable - only the anachronistic privilege remains.

Nothing has changed for scientists except publishing traditions and conventions. Scientists can still publish, and now it doesn't even cost the public their liberty. Scientists can publish on the Web at next to no cost, and so the last thing they need is the privilege of deterring circulation, use, and criticism of their work.

Their peers remain free to review their work - at least those scientists not counter-intuitively attempting to prohibit such review, or restrict it to the more well heeled of their peers.

So really, nothing needs to be rethought or remodelled. Scientists know how to publish. They just need to neutralise the privileges that interfere with that process.

Effectively, the stupid scientists, that hide their work or attempt to tightly restrict its circulation instead of publishing it, will select themselves out of mankind's pool of knowledge. If your work is not freely shareable it is not effectively published, but consigned to the oblivion of obscurity.

And this, unfortunately, is what is happening to a lot of mankind's science and culture; because it is not publicly shareable it is evaporating through decomposition and decay. Libraries are prohibited from preserving mankind's knowledge due to Queen Anne's perversion of what it means to encourage learning (as opposed to her safety from sedition).

And we are all brainwashed into believing that copyright is as good and pure as the driven snow.

You can preserve an ineffective privilege and remain ignorant, or preserve mankind's knowledge and ability to learn and progress. The corporations prefer the former - but then they're immortal legal artifices whose human staff are fiducially obligated to pursue short-term profit, what do you expect?

It seems we must wait fifty years for all the people who have been indoctrinated by the sanctity of copyright to die out, and then the kids can eventually abolish it when they're in charge of the legislature. Until then, it's copyleft licensing.

Howard said...

Crosbie I believe many of your points are good and true.

However I suggest you are being naive or disingenuous in suggesting that scientists can just bypass the Journals and publish on the web.

Technically you are correct. They are free to do so.

But in practice they clearly cannot. They cannot because the whole financial structure supporting Research, as it is carried out today, prohibits them from doing so.

Researchers and Laboratories depend either on grants or income from commercial or private sources. In almost all cases this income is dependent on regular publication of research papers and unfortunately the reality of life is that almost all of these sources of income and grants demand that these papers be published in 'reputable' journals. They also demand that the Peer Review process be applied and assess the quality of the work done by those Peer Review Standards.

This is the reason the whole system needs to be rethought and restructured.

Journals can still exist. But they need to move to an open web site system. They need to open up Peer Review to whomever wishes to opine. The whole system needs to be democratised.

Crosbie Fitch said...

Howard, once you understand what is 'technically correct' you can then proceed to discover and join those who are already doing what is 'technically correct'. It's better than the defeatism of poo-pooing it as naive or disingenuous.

Moreover, education (as to what is incorrect vs correct) is more likely to improve things than lobbying government to undo the accretion of corruption that it has turned a blind eye to if not had a hand in. If people don't know that the system is corrupt then they won't seek a better alternative.

'Open access' journals are one sign that some academics have figured out there must be a better way. No doubt they fall short of your aspirations, but they are an example of an attempt to improve things.

I think peer review can become even more open than the process of editing Wikipedia pages, i.e. more meritocratic than Wikipedia's territorial hierarchy.