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 furloughs, sent 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.
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.