Everybody's Libraries

October 29, 2010

September 8, 2010

June 11, 2010

Journal liberation: A primer

Filed under: copyright,libraries,open access,publishing,sharing — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 10:07 am

As Dorothea Salo recently noted, the problem of limited access to high-priced scholarly journals may be reaching a crisis point.  Researchers that are not at a university, or are at a not-so-wealthy one, have long been frustrated by journals that are too expensive for them to read (except via slow and cumbersome inter-library loan, or distant library visits).  Now, major universities are feeling the pain as well, as bad economic news has forced budget cuts in many research libraries, even as further price increases are expected for scholarly journals.  This has forced many libraries to consider dropping even the most prestigious journals, when their prices have risen too high to afford.

Recently, for instance, the University of California, which has been subject to significant budget cuts and furloughssent out a letter in protest of Nature Publishing Group’s proposal to raise their subscription fees by 400%.  The letter raised the possibility of cancelling all university subscriptions to NPG, and having scholars boycott the publisher.

Given that Nature is one of the most prestigious academic journals now publishing, one that has both groundbreaking current articles and a rich history of older articles, these are strong words.  But dropping subscriptions to journals like Nature might not be as as much of a hardship for readers as it once might have been.  Increasingly, it’s possible to liberate the research content of academic journals, both new and old, for the world.  And, as I’ll explain below, now may be an especially opportune time to do that.

Liberating new content

While some of the content of journals like Nature is produced by the journal’s editorial staff or other writers for hire, the research papers are typically written by outside researchers, employed by universities and other research institutions.  These researchers hold the original copyright to their articles, and even if they sign an agreement with a journal to hand over rights to them (as they commonly do), they retain whatever rights they don’t sign over.  For many journals, including the ones published by Nature Publishing Group, researchers retain the right to post the accepted version of their paper (known as a “preprint”) in local repositories.  (According to the Romeo database, they can also eventually post the “postprint”– the final draft resulting after peer review, but before actual publication in the journal– under certain conditions.)  These drafts aren’t necessarily identical to the version of record published in the journal itself, but they usually contain the same essential information.

So if you, as a reader, find a reference to a Nature paper that you can’t access, you can search to see if the authors have placed a free copy in an open access repository. If they haven’t, you can contact one of them to encourage them do do so.  To find out more about providing open access to research papers, see this guide.

If a journal’s normal policies don’t allow authors to share their work freely in an open access repository, authors  may still be able to retain their rights with a contract addendum or negotiation.  When that hasn’t worked, some academics have decided to publish in, or review for, other journals, as the California letter suggests.  (When pushed too far, some professors have even resigned en masse from editorial boards to start new journals that are friendlier to authors and readers.

If nothing else, scholarly and copyright conventions generally respect the right of authors to send individual copies of their papers to colleagues that request them.  Some repository software includes features that make such copies extremely easy to request and send out.  So even if you can’t find a free copy of a paper online already, you can often get one if you ask an author for it.

Liberating historic content

Many journals, including Nature, are important not only for their current papers, but for the historic record of past research contained in their back issues.  Those issues may be difficult to get a hold of, especially as many libraries drop print subscriptions, deaccession old journal volumes, or place them in remote storage.  And electronic access to old content, when it’s available at all, can be surprisingly expensive.  For instance, if I want to read this 3-paragraph letter to the editor from 1872 on Nature‘s web site, and I’m not signed in at a subscribing institution, the publisher asks me to pay them $32 to read it in full.

Fortunately, sufficiently old journals are in the public domain, and digitization projects are increasingly making them available for free.  At this point, nearly all volumes of Nature published before 1922 can now be read freely online, thanks to scans made available to the public by the University of Wisconsin, Google, and Hathi Trust.  I can therefore read the letters from that 1872 issue, on this page, without having to pay $32.

Mass digitization projects typically stop providing public access to content published after 1922, because copyright renewals after that year might still be in force.  However, most scholarly journals– including, as it turns out, Nature — did not file copyright renewals.  Because of this, Nature issues are actually in the public domain in the US all the way through 1963 (after which copyright renewal became automatic).  By researching copyrights for journals, we can potentially liberate lots of scholarly content that would otherwise be inaccessible to many. You can read more about journal non-renewal in this presentation, and research copyright renewals via this site.

Those knowledgeable about copyright renewal requirements may worry that the renewal requirement doesn’t apply to Nature, since it originates in the UK, and renewal requirements currently only apply to material that was published in the US before, or around the same time as, it was published abroad.  However, offering to distribute copies in the US counts as US publication for the purposes of copyright law.  Nature did just that when they offered foreign subscriptions to journal issues and sent them to the US; and as one can see from the stamp of receipt on this page, American universities were receiving copies within 30 days of the issue date, which is soon enough to retain the US renewal requirement.  Using similar evidence, one can establish US renewal requirements for many other journals originating in other countries.

Minding the gap

This still leaves a potential gap between the end of the public domain period and the present.  That gap is only going to grow wider over time, as copyright extensions continue to freeze the growth of the public domain in the US.

But the gap is not yet insurmountable, particularly for journals that are public domain into the 1960s.  If a paper published in 1964 included an author who was a graduate student or a young researcher, that author may well be still alive (and maybe even be still working) today, 46 years later.  It’s not too late to try to track authors down (or their immediate heirs), and encourage and help them to liberate their old work.

Moreover, even if those authors signed away all their rights to journal publishers long ago, or don’t remember if they still have any rights over their own work, they (or their heirs) may have an opportunity to reclaim their rights.  For some journal contributions between 1964 and 1977, copyright may have reverted to authors (or their heirs) at the time of copyright renewal, 28 years after initial publication.  In other cases, authors or heirs can reclaim rights assigned to others, using a termination of transfer.  Once authors regain their rights over their articles, they are free to do whatever they like with them, including making them freely available.

The rules for reversion of author’s rights are rather arcane, and I won’t attempt to explain them all here.  Terminations of transfer, though, involve various time windows when authors have the chance to give notice of termination, and reclaim their rights.  Some of the relevant windows are open right now.   In particular, if I’ve done the math correctly, 2010 marks the first year one can give notice to terminate the transfer of a paper copyrighted in 1964, the earliest year in which most journal papers are still under US copyright.  (The actual termination of a 1964 copyright’s transfer won’t take effect for another 10 years, though.)  There’s another window open now for copyright transfers from 1978 to 1985; some of those terminations can take effect as early as 2013.  In the future, additional years will become available for author recovery of copyrights assigned to someone else.  To find out more about taking back rights you, or researchers you know, may have signed away decades ago, see this tool from Creative Commons.

Recognizing opportunity

To sum up, we have opportunities now to liberate scholarly research over the full course of scholarly history, if we act quickly and decisively.  New research can be made freely available through open access repositories and journals.  Older research can be made freely available by establishing its public domain status, and making digitizations freely available.  And much of the research in the not-so-distant past, still subject to copyright, can be made freely available by looking back through publication lists, tracking down researchers and rights information, and where appropriate reclaiming rights previously assigned to journals.

Journal publishing plays an important role in the certification, dissemination, and preservation of scholarly information.  The research content of journals, however, is ultimately the product of scholars themselves, for the benefit of scholars and other knowledge seekers everywhere.   However the current dispute is ultimately resolved between Nature Publishing Group and the University of California, we would do well to remember the opportunities we have to liberate journal content for all.

March 23, 2010

Lots of conversation keeps stuff sustainable

Filed under: libraries,people,preservation,sharing — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 10:12 pm

Among the hats I wear at my place of work is that of LOCKSS cache administrator. LOCKSS is a useful distributed preservation system built around the principle “Lots of copies keep stuff safe” (whose initials give the system its name).  The idea is that, with the cooperation of publishers, a bunch of libraries each harvest copies of selected online content, and keep backups on our own LOCKSS caches, which are hooked up to local library proxy services.  Then, if the material ever becomes inaccessible from the publisher, our users will automatically be routed to our local copies.  Each LOCKSS cache also periodically checks with other LOCKSS caches to ensure that our copies are still in good shape, and to repair or replace copies that have been lost or damaged.  (Various security features protect against leaks of restricted content, or unauthorized revisions of content.)

LOCKSS is open source software that runs on commodity hardware.  It was originally envisioned to run virtually automatically.  As Chris Dobson described the ideal in a 2003 Searcher article, “Take a computer a generation past its prime…. Hook it up to the Internet and put it in a closet. Stick in the LOCKSS CD-ROM and boot it up. Close the closet door.”  And then presumably walk away and forget about it.

Of course, it’s not that simple in practice, particularly if your library is proactive about its preservation strategy.  The thing about preservation at scale is there’s always something that needs attention.  It might be something technical, or content-related, or planning-related, but preserving a growing collection requires ongoing thought.  And if you want to think as clearly and sensibly as you can, you’ll want to collaborate.

Right now, for instance, I’m trying to get my cache to harvest the full run of a journal that’s just been made available for LOCKSS harvesting, where we hope to provide post-cancellation access through LOCKSS.  Someone at Stanford just gave me a useful tip on how to give this journal priority over the other volumes I’ve got queued up for harvest.  Unfortunately, I can’t try it out until I get my cache back up after it failed to reboot cleanly after a power failure. While I wait to hear back instructions about how best to remedy this, I wonder whether switching to a new Linux-based version of LOCKSS might make such operating system-level problems easier to deal with.  But it would be useful to hear from folks who are running that version to see what their experience has been.

Meanwhile, we’re wondering how best to approach new publishers who have content that our bibliographers would like to preserve via LOCKSS. Our special collections folks wonder whether we should preserve some of our own home-grown content via a private LOCKSS network.  I’m also doing some ongoing monitoring and testing of our LOCKSS cache’s behavior (some of which I’ve reported on earlier), and would be interested in knowing if others are seeing some of the same kinds of things that I see on the cache I administer.

In short, there are a lot of things to think about, when LOCKSS plays a significant role in a preservation plan.  And a lot of the issues I’ve mentioned above are ones that others may be thinking about as well.  So let’s talk about them.  As the LOCKSS group has said, “”A vibrant, active, and engaged user community is key to the success of Open-Source efforts like LOCKSS.”

One thing you need for such an engaged community is a forum for them to talk to each other.  As it turns out, the LOCKSS group at Stanford tell me they created a LOCKSS Forum mailing list a while back, but I haven’t yet seen it publicized.   Its information page is at https://mailman.stanford.edu/mailman/listinfo/lockss-forum .  (Currently, archived email messages are not visible on the open web, though this may change in the future.)  If you’re interested in talking with others about how you use or might use LOCKSS to preserve access to digital content, I invite you to sign up and help get the conversation going.

December 10, 2009

December 4, 2009

December 1, 2009

Respecting failure: Some thoughts, and a proposal

Filed under: failure,libraries — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 8:02 pm

Last month’s Digital Library Federation forum involved a number of interesting discussions, both at the conference site and online.  This forum, different from previous ones, centered around discussions of strategies for innovation in libraries.  It also involved discussions of the future of DLF itself, which earlier this year ended its independent existence and was merged into CLIR.

One theme that quickly emerged in discussions was the importance of failure.  It’s a topic we often feel uncomfortable discussing, especially when we had a hand in whatever failed.  Part of the discomfort in the digital library community has to do with the dual nature of what many of us do: We manage programs and services, and we also try to innovate.  As managers, we don’t want our programs to fail.  (If that happens anyway, we’d at least like to avoid being blamed for the failure.)  And libraries have long-term ongoing service and preservation obligations that make certain kinds of catastrophic failure unacceptable.

But as innovators, we want to be open to failure as a way of learning.  “Fail faster!” is a common slogan of innovative labs and ventures, and knowing the “thousands of ways that don’t work” (part of a quote often attributed to Thomas Edison) help us better understand the ways that do.  I’ve mentioned before that my most widely-cited paper was written about the failure of a software development project I helped work on.  And a new scientific theory isn’t usually worth considering until it is capable of failure– that is, it makes definite predictions that subsequent observations can either confirm or refute.

If we are really serious about innovating, we need to respect failure, and leave room for it.  We need to let people try things that might not work, allow time for encountering dead ends, have contingency plans that let us continue to carry out our missions even as failures occur, and note both what worked and what didn’t in the things we try.  It’s especially useful to note things that we found didn’t work before they were obvious to others, since we might well save others a lot of time avoiding the same pitfalls.

How should these failures be reported, though?  It’s often easier and more gratifying to publish stories of success than stories of failure.  And if we talk about our failures in public, whether in a journal, at a conference of like-minded professionals, or even in a blog or tweet, we may have good reason to worry that it might hurt our own positions in our organizations, or the work that we do.

The question was raised at the DLF Forum whether future forums could be a “safe” place to discuss failures.  I’m not sure any public gathering can be an entirely safe place for that.  People you see are identifiable, and word tends to spread over time, particularly when a large number of people are present.

One alternative that’s been proposed to address this problem, and still make useful information about failure available to a wide audience, is to anonymize reports.  We can still learn a lot from failures in our field even if we don’t know exactly who failed and where.  And perhaps anonymity can produce more useful information about failure, by producing more “safe” places to talk about it.

So, I’d like to try a little experiment.  From now until the end of February, I invite folks involved in library-related failures to send me reports of their failures, for possible publication in this blog.  I will choose which ones to publish (and may or may not request revisions), but whether or not they get published, I will do my best not to disclose your identity.  (I can’t absolutely prevent email hacks or subpoenas, but I consider them unlikely.)  Please clearly note the start and end of the report you’re submitting for publication; I’ll assume any information that might help identify you or your organization in the middle of the report is information that you’re comfortable disclosing.  Reports should be sent to the email address shown on this page.

I’m interested in particular in failures of initiatives you were personally involved with, and what can be learned from the failures. While others may also be involved in the failures, I’m not particularly interested in reports intended primarily to focus blame on a particular third party.  You should use similar care to obscure the identities of others involved as you do in obscuring your own identity.

Some folks may feel more comfortable working with someone else, or under different selection criteria than the ones I use.  So I invite others to make similar offers if they see fit (and I might mention them here if I hear about any similar offers).

Will this produce something useful to the library community?   I don’t know yet, but it seems worth risking a bit of failure to find out.   If you have any suggestions about the proposal, or have some ideas of kinds of reports you’d like to see, feel free to mention them in the comments.  And if you have a report you’d like to make, send me email.

June 10, 2009

Learn more about ILS discovery interfaces

Filed under: architecture,discovery,libraries — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 1:01 pm

I’m presenting today at a NISO webinar on interoperability, giving an overview of the work I did with a Digital Library Federation task group to produce recommendations for standard APIs for ILS’s supporting information discovery applications.

I’ll include a link to my presentation later today, after the webinar is over.   I’m also happy to answer questions here about the ILS-DI work.  (I’ve also covered that work here before in the blog.)

To help folks keep track of ILS-DI implementations and related activities, I’ve also created a new page on this site linking to the recommendation, implementations and followons, and related projects.  I’ve started it with just the basics, but plan to fill in more information shortly.

Update: I’ve now posted my slides and speaker notes.

May 16, 2009

May 15, 2009

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