Invitation to participate in a new project: Help open journals’ deep backfiles

As I’ve noted here previously, there’s a wealth of serial content published in the 20th century that’s in the public domain, but not yet freely available online, often due to uncertainty about its copyright (and the resulting hesitation to digitize it).  Thanks to IMLS-supported work we did at Penn, we’ve produced a complete inventory of serials from the first half of the 20th century that still have active copyright renewals associated with them. And I’ve noted that there was far more serial material without active copyright, as late as the 1960s or even later.  We’ve also produced a guide to determining whether particular serial content you may be interested in is in the public domain.

Now that we’ve spent a lot of time surveying what is still in copyright though, it’s worth turning more focused attention to serial content that isn’t in copyright, but still of interest to researchers.  One way we can identify journals whose older issues (sometimes known as their “deep backfiles”) are still of interest to researchers and libraries is to see which ones are included in packages that are sold or licensed to libraries.   Major vendors of online journals publish spreadsheets of their backfile offerings, keyed by ISSN.  And now, thanks to an increasing amount of serial information in Wikidata (including links to our serials knowledge base) it’s possible to systematically construct inventories of serials in these packages that include, or might include, public domain and other openly accessible content.

We’ve now done that, for packages from some of the big online journal publishers (as of today, including Elsevier, SAGE, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley).  We’ve also included inventories for the JSTOR journal platform, which has deep backfiles of sought-after journals from many publishers.  The inventories can be found here, and they include information we’ve gathered about first copyright renewals, when known, and also about free online volumes and issues that we know about.

Many of the journals in our inventory tables have “Unknown” under the “first renewal” column.  That’s where you can help.  If you find journals of interest to you in any of these tables, you can research their copyrights and send us what you find out.  Thanks to our prior inventory work, the process can be boiled down to a few basic steps:

  1. Find a journal of interest to you in one of the tables.
  2. If its first renewal is reported in the table as “Unknown”, look to see if it’s mentioned in our “first copyright renewals for periodicals” inventory.  (While most journals listed there are now linked with Wikidata, those that are not may still report “Unknown” in our tables.  We’re trying to fill those in as soon as we can manage.)
  3. If you don’t find the journal listed there, then search for it in the Copyright Office’s registered works database.  (We describe how to search that database in Appendix A of our “Determining copyright status of serial issues” guide.)
  4. Use the “contact us” link in the journal’s row in our inventory table to go to a form where you can tell us the earliest renewed item you found for the journal in steps 2 and/or 3.  Also tell us, if you know, whether the journal was published in the United States, or only elsewhere.   (Works not published in the US might be exempt from copyright renewal requirements.)

After you send this information, we’ll update our knowledge base and tables accordingly (possibly after doing our own verification).  You can also use the “contact us” form to inform us of free online issues we don’t yet mention, or contribute more detailed copyright information about a particular journal if you’re so inclined.  All copyright and listings data we publish will be put in the public domain via a CC0 dedication.

If you’re willing and able to contribute information for a large number of serials, there may be more efficient ways for us to exchange information, and I invite you to get in touch with me.  Also, if time permits, we can do our own research on serials that you’re interested in, so if you find a favorite in the tables and aren’t confident about researching it yourself, just follow its “contact us” link, and click on the “submit” button near the bottom of the form that comes up.

All of the journal providers mentioned above (none of whom have had any involvement with this project to date) also offer extensive archives of content that’s still under copyright.   Their newer journals from the era of automatic copyright renewals (1964 and later) aren’t generally represented in the tables we currently provide, which focus on the mostly-older content that’s openly or potentially openly available.  You can follow the links on the provider names above to get information on the complete offerings of those providers available for subscription or purchase.

Our Deep Backfile project is very much a work in progress, but I think it’s far enough along now to be useful for folks interested in finding and sharing information about serials in the public domain of research interest. I’m looking forward to hearing others’ thoughts, questions, and suggestions, and to making our knowledge base more populated and useful.



About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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