Journal liberation: A primer

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.

Author: John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania.

5 thoughts on “Journal liberation: A primer”

  1. I wish it were easier to have software check for an open access copy. The work flow “find out that your university doesn’t have licensed fulltext; manually go to DOAR; enter the article citation manually; see what you get”, is not, I think, a great one.

    I’d like to have Umlaut, my link resolver, automatically check for an open access copy. The problem is there’s no good way to do this, because DOAR hits are not in fact reliably open access — DOAR repositories contain a whole lot of non-open access content too, despite DOAR’s published collection policy, and there is no standard distinction between open-access and non-open-access content in the repo’s OAI-PMH feeds.

    Even if we assume that DOAR content is likely enough to be open access to be worth presenting (not sure this is true), DOAR itself offers no API to search over DOAR members content. One would need to OAI-PMH harvest all the members and build an aggregated index — which is certainly do-able thanks to OAI-PMH, but a bit of a pain for each institution to do itself, it would be awfully nice if there were a public aggregated index of open access content (OAISter is not it, OAIster’s collection policy explicitly allows non-open-access content; DOAR pretends it is limited to open access content, but it is not so.)

    So, phew. I think someone solving these problems so we can more feasibly provide automated open access discoverability in our software systems, could significant help open access visibility.

  2. It sounds like what Jonathan is saying is “let’s have an open access directory with an API, so Umlaut can use it to automate this process for users.” Hear hear!

  3. John, a great article, as always. And I agree with almost everything in it. The Copyright situation here is different, of course, and potentially not nearly so liberal. I’m not at all clear about the precise legal situation if I access something in the US (OA there, following moves such as you describe) from the UK (but which is still owned by a publisher here). In practice I suspect one would not get sued!

    I did worry about a sentence near the end: “we have opportunities now to liberate scholarly research over the full course of scholarly history, if we act quickly and decisively”. The question is, who is the “we” in this sentence? If it were librarians, I could imagine a combined effort, whether organised or crowd-sourced, to achieve that liberation. But I suspect the real answer is that the “we” is “all of the authors or their heirs, for each and every separate article”. If so, that seems to translate into something that even my strongest moments of optimism can’t see happening on a large scale. Nor can I see any way of organising, or even crowd-sourcing such a group, which amounts to the entire scholarly community world-wide over the past 100 years or so, plus their heirs. Even leaving aside the lack of any retained evidence of the actual copyright situation on a case by case basis, in most cases.

    To give an example of the latter, I have taken care never to fully transfer copyright of articles. In the single case I can remember where that was needed (for a book chapter that I was keen to have included in Reg Carr’s tribute volume), I made sure I amended the publisher copyright form to retain sufficient rights to make an OA copy available in Edinburgh’s repository, ERA. When I was clearing out my office in Edinburgh preparatory to retirement, I saw and kept that form (the publisher had taken precautions to make it difficult or impossible for me to amend the electronic version). I have kept it, but it is now somewhere in half a dozen boxes of papers. My wife is not happy with these boxes and wants to to get rid of them, or reduce them. This form is very likely to be lost, even though when I think about it, I know it is important.

    But please, don’t let my pessimism dampen this enthusiasm, rather please let my doubts stimulate your ever active imagination to design solutions that I have so far completely missed!

  4. Thanks for all the comments!

    Jonathan: I think we’ll have to live with repositories that have a mix of open access (OA) and non-OA content, especially since comprehensive institutional repositories are likely to have both. A standard metadata field indicating OA fulltext for a given item would help; you sometimes see some indication of this in metadata, but there doesn’t seem to be one agreed-upon way of doing this within OAI DC export.

    When I’m searching manually for OA versions of articles, I often have better luck with Google Scholar (or, if I have a snippet of text, regular Google search) than with DOAR or OAIster; but you have to manually check which copies you can get access to.

    Jodi: A shared article-level OA directory would be great; though it would be larger than the shared book catalogs we’re now trying to cope with. Not that I think it’s unthinkable, especially if we find ways of integrating it with existing TOC services and bibliographic citation/sharing services. But there are definitely challenges to coordinating and maintaining it. I may expand on them in a future blog post.

    Which brings me to Chris’s insightful comment: No, I don’t think it’s likely we’d liberate *all* articles there are. But we (in the large sense of “we” that includes authors, librarians, engaged readers, and some publishers as well) can potentially still liberate a lot. And at least in the US, there’s no time period that’s out of reach for article liberation, by one or other of the techniques I’ve described above; hence my statement about opportunities over “the full course of scholarly history”. How much we liberate largely depends on our degree of interest and knowledge, and a sense of how much it’s worth expending effort to liberate, compared to the limited-access status quo. (Of course, the pricing and accessibility of journals plays a part in that comparison.)

    Liberation may be more difficult in places like the UK, which as far as I know never had the early escape to the public domain that copyright renewal requirements give. Nor am I aware of things like termination of transfer or orphan works provisions that might provide other ways of getting older articles online. But there may be other avenues there you can tell us about, or help get established there.

    And authors and repositories can also help by tracking rights; so if you do find that book chapter rights retention letter, perhaps it (or a summary of it) could be maintained in ERA along with the chapter itself.

  5. Thanks for the response, John. Yes, in the UK we never had that renewable copyright scenario advantage (and sometimes I could just spit, realising that you guys had it and gave it up!). And I think one of the casualties in the “washup” period immediately before the recent election, when the Digital Economy Act was rushed through here (against considerable opposition) was an orphan works clause, vociferously and successfully opposed by photographers & their licensing society.

    It’s not clear to me what anyone other than the rights owners can do to liberate their stuff, so I didn’t quite “get” your grouping of “authors, librarians, engaged readers, and some publishers”. But indeed it might work better in the US.

    However, I think your last comment is magnificent and deserves to be trumpeted from the rooftops of academia. Let your repository keep your rights agreements! What a great idea!

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