Thursday, April 12, 2018

Your Tax Dollars At Work

When I was writing Pre-publication Peer Review Subtracts Value, Springer wanted to charge me $39.95 for access to Comparing Published Scientific Journal Articles to Their Pre-print Versions by Martin Klein et al. This despite the fact that the copyright notice said:
This is a U.S. government work and its text is not subject to copyright protection in the United States
Fortunately, you can now follow the link to the final version at I'm not the only one annoyed by the publishers charging for access to papers not subject to copyright. Below the fold, some more on this scam.

Twelve days before I posted Pre-publication Peer Review Subtracts Value Barbara Fister ran into this issue and was annoyed enough to use ALL CAPS on Twitter. Eight days after my post she posted Public Domain -- Just Kidding!:
Anyway, [the interlibrary loan manager] was startled to see that the publisher wanted $38 per copy for an article that clearly stated on its first page was in the public domain. It wasn’t copyrighted! But the version the publishers put out was. Sort of. The publisher “added value” (according to their website “such as formatting or copy editing”). Unless the authors of the article that was in the public domain paid the publishers of the journal $3,000, readers and libraries would have to pay for it.
Vicky Reich researched the issue and wrote:
The publishers (apparently Wiley’s contract for example) take the position that the responsibility of making government authored articles freely available falls on the government, and that it’s perfectly reasonable for publishers to charge for the version they publish. This approach seems to have librarian acceptance.
Three questions:
  • Does the government accept that they have this responsibility? Clearly no.
  • Should librarians accept this ineffectual transfer of responsibility to the government? Clearly no, it is costing them a lot of money.
  • Should tax-payers accept this situation? Clearly no, they are being prevented from accessing work that they paid for and which is in the public domain.
Carl Malamud's audit of the academic literature suggests this isn't a minor problem. He tweeted:
Public Resource has been conducting an intensive audit of the scholarly literature. We have focused on works of the U.S. government. Our audit has determined that 1,264,429 journal articles authored by federal employees or officers are potentially void of copyright.
That's a lot of articles.


Chris Rusbridge said...

Of course if you go down to a decent bookstore you can buy a copy of Shakespeare's Plays, for real (and not inconsiderable) money!

I do worry about this, as intuitively it seems wrong in the examples you quote (and similar ones from Ross Mounce and others). But there seems to be nothing wrong with asking someone to pay for a public domain work. OTOH, having got a copy, it is presumably perfectly OK to make it freely available... perhaps after neutralising the formatting a bit!

I'll ask a friend of mine who's into (C).

David. said...

Chris, I have three points:

1. You could have used the example of the Bible. Printing and distributing the Bible or Shakespeare in book form incurs significant costs, which have to be covered. Springer distributing Klein et al to me incurs no significant cost whatsoever. The PDF is 441,445 bytes, so they are charging 9 cents/KB. My mobile phone carrier charges me about $55/month for 1GB/month, and throws in free phone calls, texts, and slower data over the 1GB. So my mobile phone carrier is over 1,600 times cheaper (even ignoring the phone calls, texts, and slower data). So $39.95 per article bears absolutely no relationship to cost.

2. Works such as Shakespeare were copyright, and the authors (presumably) got paid from their publishers and in his case from the performances. In those days, the copyright eventually expired, so the works entered the public domain after having been monetized through copyright. Alas, thanks to Mickey Mouse, that no longer happens.

3. The purpose of copyright is "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors ... the exclusive Right to their ... Writings". In the case of US government works in the US, the authors' "Progress of Science and useful Arts" was already rewarded by the federal government using my tax dollars. The authors don't need copyright to monetize their work, not that any of Springer's $39.95/article would get to them. As a US taxpayer, I paid for this work on terms that were supposed to make it available to me. But the publishers, the government, and the librarians are conspiring together to deprive me of access to work for which I paid.

David. said...

Dario Taraborelli's The citation graph is one of humankind's most important intellectual achievements points out that it isn't just articles:

"Raw citation data being non-copyrightable, it's ironic that the vision of building a comprehensive index of scientific literature has turned into a billion-dollar business, with academic institutions paying cripplingly expensive annual subscriptions for access and the public locked out."

The piece is about the Initiative for Open Citations, which in its first year has made significant progress:

"the fraction of indexed scientific articles with open citation data (as measured by Crossref) has surpassed 50% and the number of participating publishers has risen to 490. Over half a billion references are now openly available to the public without any copyright restriction."

But I'm shocked to see the usual suspects "Elsevier, IEEE, Wolters Kluwer Health, IOP Publishing, ACS" as the only significant hold-outs.

Fazal Majid said...

The government does sometimes accept responsibility for free distribution of copyright free information:

David. said...

Fazal, the documents the GPO publishes are not scientific articles submitted to journals by government scientists, which is what this post is about.