Sunday, October 01, 2006


Miguel Guhlin linked to this on his blog:

There has been a major shift in how (some) Scientific Publishers see the purpose and practice of scholarly communication. Listening to the words used, “database” has replaced “journal” and “users” has replaced “readers”. I suspect the latter word conflates “purchasing officers” with “readers” into an unhappy anonymous entity. Moreover there is a tension between the publisher and the users - significant content is illegally downloaded and an important role of the publisher is acting as “policeman” making sure that content is not stolen. ...[snip]... Now, I have never advocated breaking or abolishing copyright, but it is clear that this is creating a tension in the publisher/reader community. I’ve been involved in setting or being on the board of scientific journals and I see their major purpose as enhancing scholarly communication. I’m worried that we are losing sight of this, where journals in non-profit organisations are seen as a way of subsiding other activities of the society. If the publishers see “users” as a group who have a major motive to steal content, I suspect things will get worse. At some stage we seem to have flipped from a community where publishers interpreted the wishes of the community and served them - for a reasonable fee - to a world where publishers make the rules and police their non-compliance. Did anyone in the reader community:
* actually ask for journals to be transformed to databases?
* actually ask for content to be limited in time to the duration of a subscription (we used to have physical journals we could take home and even hand down to our descendants or give to needy institutions)
It worries me that this has happened almost silently. I remember in ca. 1970 (when I was too inexperienced to notice) that authors were asked to transfer copyright to publishers. These requests came from trusted societies - national societies and international unions (At that stage there were essentially no commercial publishers - Pergamon was a few years later). I didn’t think twice about it - but it was one of the biggest mistakes of my scientific life. Are we sleepwalking into something just as serious? Objectively I have some sympathy with publishers whose content is illegally downloaded - I do believe in copyright. But pragmatically is the way forward to be increasingly draconian with readers (sorry, users)?

Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - petermr’s blog » Blog Archive » Do you read journals, or “use a database”?

Reading this reminded me of something else I'd come across recently...

British Academy Says Copyright Hindering Scholarship
A report from the British Academy, to be launched on 18 September, expresses fears that the copyright system may in important respects be impeding, rather than stimulating, the production of new ideas and new scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. ...[snip]... Existing UK law provides exemption from copyright for fair dealing with material for purposes of private study and non-commercial research, and for criticism and review. "There is, however, little clarity about the precise scope of these exemptions, and an absence of case law" said John Kay, who is Chair of the Working Group which oversaw the Review. "Publishers are risk-averse, and themselves defensive of existing copyrights. "The situation is aggravated by the increasingly aggressive defence of copyright by commercial rights holders, and the growing role - most of all in music - of media businesses with no interest in or understanding of the needs of scholarship. It is also aggravated by the unsatisfactory EU Database Directive, which is at once vague and wide-ranging, and by the development of digital rights management systems, which may enable publishers to use technology to circumvent the exceptions to copyright which are contained in current legislation. ...[snip]... This report parallels a report from the Royal Society, 'Keeping science open: the effects of intellectual property on the conduct of science (2003),' which expresses related worries about the ways in which intellectual property, its interpretation and its use, impact on the progress of science.

Managing Information News (found via Stephen Downes' blog)

Together, these blog entries paint a disturbing picture of publishers as an hindrance to research. I'm sure there's plenty more examples out there.

The comment at the end of the Cambridge blog is one I can empathise with. I do believe in copyright, but in proportion -- at what point will it become impossible to even quote a single sentence from a published work without first acquiring the express permission of the publisher (presumably for a fee)?

Stephen Downes has argued that locking down the use of other people's words is in itself a type of theft; his article in the April 2003 edition of the Journal of the United States Distance Learning Association (the link is on Stephen's blog, under the title Copyright, Ethics and Theft) eloquently outlines his thoughts on the subject.

Regardless of whether or not you believe in the concept of copyright, it should be becoming apparent to everyone that the Internet and associated technologies have created a situation that current laws about copyright and ownership do not properly address, and in fact cannot address while they remain tied to ideas about ownership that fail to recognise how the Internet has changed the landscape of expression and distribution of information.

The only people who could possibly be happy about the situation are lawyers.

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