Saturday, January 25, 2003

Copyright and open access

Juanita B. passed on a link to Peter Suber's article Removing the Barriers to Research - an interesting look at the benefits of open access to academic research. I'm interested for two reasons: First, I've been designing a web site that helps disseminate current research and provide means for interacting with researchers - and it never ceases to amaze (and disappoint) me that some researchers are completely against this sort of thing (a position that makes my job really difficult sometimes). Maybe this article will help answer some of their concerns... And second, I am interested in ways to copyright my own research.

So here's his basic argument:

"Most copyright holders want to charge for access to their work (erect price barriers) and block access to those who haven't paid (erect permission barriers). But this is dictated by their economic interests, not by copyright law. They have the right to make price and permission barriers disappear if they wish. The secret of open access is to keep copyright in the hands of those who desire open access. There is no need to abolish, reform, or violate copyright law... If scientists and scholars transfer their copyright to a traditional publisher, then the publisher will typically not consent to open access. On the contrary, traditional publishers erect price and permission barriers precisely to prevent open access. However, if authors retain copyright, then they will consent to open access, at least for the research articles for which they expect no payment. If they write for impact and not for money, then they want the widest possible dissemination of their work, which requires that their work be online free of charge and free of the usage limitations imposed by most licensing terms."

In principle, this makes perfect sense to me - although I think he underestimates scholarly resistance and/or overestimates scholarly goodwill. When I was doing my PhD coursework, I was the *only* one in class who thought that open access was a good idea. My professors and fellow students repeatedly expressed concern that someone would "steal" their ideas - and subsequently get access to academic positions and funding that "rightfully" belonged to them. Certainly, as a grad student, I am constantly pushed to publish in peer-reviewed journals - and I think this is a reasonable requirement. What I don't think is reasonable is that, in doing so, I must transfer copyright and licensing privileges to the publisher.

The content on this site is most closely related to pre-print archives. None of the essay content has been peer-reviewed beyond successfully defending my position to my committee. But it's my work, and I feel I should be able to do with it as I see fit. Can someone "steal" my ideas? Sure. Do I care? Yes and no. I mean, I *want* people to take my ideas and do something with them. And all I ask in return is that they give me credit and don't make any money from it. I don't even have a problem with derivative works, and am quite pleased with the Creative Commons share-alike license - in which someone can make a derivative work but only if they use the same license I do. In effect, I am willing to share with you only if you are willing to share with others ;) I like this idea of reciprocity, and gifts never come without obligation.

So, if I did what I was taught to do - none of my research would be publically available. I'm the first person to admit there is nothing earth-shattering in my research (I'll never win the Nobel Prize for Deep Thought) but that doesn't mean there's nothing useful here. More importantly to me, it may be considered useful by people *outside* the academy who might otherwise never have access to my work. After all, how many non-academics read research journals? And this is where I tend to disagree with Suber's article: he says that publishers don't adopt open access as a political statement. In my case, that is most certainly part of it. (Independent publishing is always political.) My research is funded by public monies, and I believe I have an obligation to make my research available to the public (and not just other academics).

Phew. Rant over.


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