Sharing journals freely online

What are all the research journals that anyone can read freely online?  The answer is harder to determine than you might think.  Most research library catalogs can be searched for online serials (here’s what Penn Libraries gives access to, for instance), but it’s often hard for unaffiliated readers to determine what they can get access to, and what will throw up a paywall when they try following a link.

Current research

The best-known listing of current free research journals has been the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), a comprehensive listing of free-to-read research journals in all areas of scholarship. Given the ease with which anyone can throw up a web site and call it a “journal” regardless of its quality or its viability, some have worried that the directory might be a little too comprehensive to be useful.  A couple of years ago, though, DOAJ instituted more stringent criteria for what it accepts, and it recently weeded its listings of journals that did not reapply under its new criteria, or did not meet its requirements.   This week I am pleased to welcome over 8,000 of its journals to the extended-shelves listings of The Online Books Page.  The catalog entries are automatically derived from the data DOAJ provides; I’m also happy to create curated entries with more detailed cataloging on readers’ request.

Historic research

Scholarly journals go back centuries.  Many of these journals (and other periodicals) remain of interest to current scholars, whether they’re interested in the history of science and culture, the state of the natural world prior to recent environmental changes, or analyses and source documents that remain directly relevant to current scholarship.  Many older serials are also included in The Online Books Page’s extended shelves courtesy of HathiTrust, which currently offers over 130,000 serial records with at least some free-to-read content.  Many of these records are not for research journals, of course, and those that are can sometimes be fragmentary or hard to navigate.  I’m also happy to create organized, curated records for journals offered by HathiTrust and others at readers’ request.

It’s important work to organize and publicize these records, because many of these journals that go back a long way don’t make their content freely available in the first place one might look.  Recently I indexed five journals founded over a century ago that are still used enough to be included in Harvard’s 250 most popular works: Isis, The Journal of Comparative Neurology, The Journal of Infectious Diseases, The Journal of Roman Studies, and The Philosophical Review.  All five had public domain content offered at their official journal site, or JSTOR, behind paywalls (with fees for access ranging from $10 to $42 per article) that was available for free elsewhere online.  I’d much rather have readers find the free content than be stymied by a paywall.  So I’m compiling free links for these and other journals with public domain runs, whether they can be found at Hathitrust, JSTOR (which does make some early journal content, including from some of these journals, freely available), or other sites.

For many of these journals, the public domain extends as late as the 1960s due to non-renewal of copyright, so I’m also tracking when copyright renewals actually start for these journals.  I’ve done a complete inventory of serials published until 1950 that renewed their own copyrights up to 1977.  Some scholarly journals are in this list, but most are not, and many that are did not renew copyrights for many years beyond 1922.  (For the five journals mentioned above, for instance, the first copyright-renewed issues were published in 1941, 1964, 1959, 1964, and 1964 respectively– 1964 being the first year for which renewals were automatic.)

Even so, major projects like HathiTrust and JSTOR have generally stopped opening journal content at 1922, partly out of a concern for the complexity of serial copyright research.  In particular, contributions to serials could have their own copyright renewals separate from renewals for the serials themselves.  Could this keep some unrenewed serials out of the public domain?  To answer this question, I’ve also started surveying information on contribution renewals, and adding information on those renewals to my inventory.  Having recently completed this survey for all 1920s serials, I can report that so far individual contributions to scholarly journals were almost never copyright-renewed on their own.  (Individual short stories, and articles for general-interest popular magazines, often were, but not articles intended for scientific or scholarly audiences.)  I’ll post an update if the situation changes in the 1930s or later. So far, though, it’s looking like, at least for research journals, serial digitization projects can start opening issues past 1922 with little risk.  There are some review requirements, but they’re comparable in complexity to the Copyright Review Management System that HathiTrust has used to successfully open access to hundreds of thousands of post-1922 public domain book volumes.

Recent research

Let’s not forget that a lot more recent research is also available freely online, often from journal publishers themselves.  DOAJ only tracks journals that make their content open access immediately, but there are also many journals that make their content freely readable online a few months or years after initial publication.  This content can then be found in repositories like PubMedCentral (see the journals noted as “Full” in the “participation” column), publishing platforms like Highwire Press (see the journals with entries in the “free back issues” column), or individual publishers’ programs such as Elsevier’s Open Archives.

Why are publishers leaving money on the table by making old but copyrighted content freely available instead of charging for it?  Often it’s because it’s what’s makes their supporters– scholars and their funders– happy.  NIH, which runs PubMedCentral, already mandates open access to research it funds, and many of the journals that fully participate in PubMedCentral’s free issue program are largely filled with NIH-backed research.  Similarly, I suspect that the high proportion of math journals in Elsevier’s Open Archives selection has something to do with the high proportion of mathematicians in the Cost of Knowledge protest against Elsevier.  When researchers, and their affiliated organizations, make their voices heard, publishers listen.

I’m happy to include listings for  significant free runs of significant research journals on The Online Books Page as well, whether they’re open access from the get-go or after a delay.  I won’t list journals that only make the occasional paid-for article available through a “hybrid” program, or those that only have sporadic “free sample” issues.  But if a journal you value has at least a continuous year’s worth of full-sized, complete issues permanently freely available, please let me know about it and I’ll be glad to check it out.

Sharing journal information

I’m not simply trying to build up my own website, though– I want to spread this information around, so that people can easily find free research journal content wherever they go.  Right now, I have a Dublin Core OAI feed for all curated Online Books Page listings as well as a monthly dump of my raw data file, both CC0-licensed.  But I think I could do more to get free journal information to libraries and other interested parties.  I don’t have MARC records for my listings at the moment, but I suspect that holdings information– what issues of which journals are freely available, and from whom– is more useful for me to provide than bibliographic descriptions of the journals (which can already be obtained from various other sources).  Would a KBART file, published online or made available to initiatives like the Global Open Knowledgebase, be useful?  Or would something else work better to get this free journal information more widely known and used?

Issues and volumes vs. articles

Of course, many articles are made available online individually as well, as many journal publishers allow.  I don’t have the resources at this point to track articles at an individual level, but there are a growing number of other efforts that do, whether they’re proprietary but comprehensive search platforms like Google Scholar and Web of Science, disciplinary repositories like ArXiV and SSRN, institutional repositories and their aggregators like SHARE and BASE, or outright bootleg sites like Sci-Hub.  We know from them that it’s possible to index and provide access to the scholarly knowledge exchange at a global scale, but doing it accurately, openly, comprehensively, sustainably, and ethically is a bigger challenge.   I think it’s a challenge that the academic community can solve if we make it a priority.  We created the research; let’s also make it easy for the world to access it, learn from it, and put it to work.  Let’s make open access to research articles the norm, not the exception.

And as part of that, if you’d like to help me highlight and share information on free, authorized sources for online journal content, please alert me to relevant journals, make suggestions in the comments here, or get in touch with me offline.

Public Domain Day 2016: Freezes and thaws

For most of the past 55 years, the public domain in the United States has gone through a series of partial or complete freezes.  We’ve gotten used to them by now.  A thaw is coming soon, though, if there are no further changes in US copyright terms.  But right now, our government is trying to export freezes abroad, and is on the brink of succeeding.   And our own thaw is not yet a sure thing.

The freezes began in 1962, when Congress extended the length of copyright renewal terms in anticipation of an overhaul of copyright law.  Copyrights from 1906 that had been expiring over the course of that year stopped expiring.  The first extension was for a little over 3 years, but Congress kept passing new extensions before the old extensions ran out, until the 1976 Copyright Act established new, longer terms for copyright.  The 1906 copyrights that were frozen in 1962 would not enter the public domain until the start of 1982.

The freeze of the public domain in the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t complete.  Unrenewed copyrights continued to expire after 28 years, and works published without a copyright notice entered the public domain right away.  In 1982, all the traditional routes to the public domain were open again: age, non-renewal, publication without notice, and so on.  But that would only last about 7 years.   In 1989, the non-notice route was frozen out: from then on, anything published, or even written down, was automatically copyrighted, whether the author intended that or not.  In 1992, the non-renewal route was frozen out: copyrights would automatically run a full term whether or not the author or their heirs applied for a renewal.  In 1996, many non-US works were removed from the public domain, and returned to copyright, as if they had always been published with notice and renewals.  And finally in 1998, copyright expiration due to sheer age was also frozen out.  Due to a copyright extension passed that year, no more old published works would enter the public domain for another 20 years.  The freeze of the public domain became virtually complete at that point, with the trailing edge of copyrights stuck at the end of 1922.  It’s still there today.

But a thaw is in sight.  Just 3 years from now, in 2019, works published in 1923 that are still under copyright are scheduled to finally enter the public domain in the US.  Assuming we manage to stop any further copyright extensions, we’ll see another year’s worth of copyrights enter the public domain every January 1 from then on– just as happens in many other countries around the world.  Today, in most of Europe, and other countries that follow life+70 years terms, works by authors who died in 1945 (including everyone who died in World War II) finally enter the public domain.  In Canada, and other countries that follow the life+50 years terms of the Berne Convention, works by authors who died in 1965 enter the public domain.  The Public Domain Review shows some of the more famous people in these groups, and there are many more documented at Wikipedia.

But this may be the last year for a long while that people in Canada, and some other countries, see new works enter the public domain.  This past year, trade representatives from Canada, the US, and various other countries approved the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that includes a requirement pushed by the US to extend copyrights to life+70 years.  Those extensions would take place as soon as the TPP is ratified by a sufficient number of governments. In Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam, that would mean a 20-year freeze in the public domain, potentially coming into effect just before the US’s 20-year near-total freeze is scheduled to end.

Supporters of the public domain should not take either the pending freezes or the pending thaws for granted.  When the TPP was agreed on this past October, the leaders of the US and Canadian governments  were strong TPP supporters.  But the government of Canada has changed since then, and it looks like the US government might not put TPP to a vote until after the 2016 elections.  Canada’s new government, and some of the leading US candidates, seem to be more on the fence about TPP than their predecessors.  Organized public action could well shift their stance, in either direction.

While we’re awaiting a thaw in the US, we can still map out and digitize more of the public domain we have.  HathiTrust has been doing a wonderful job opening access to hundreds of thousands of post-1922 public domain books via its copyright review activities.   But other categories of unrenewed copyrights are not yet as well lit up.  For instance, Duke’s summary of the 1959 copyrights that could have been expiring today mentions 3 scholarly journals– Nature, Science, and JAMA, whose 1959 articles are behind paywalls at their publishers’ sites.  But it turns out that none of those journals renewed copyrights for their 1959 issues — the first issue to be renewed of any of them was the January 9, 1960 issue of JAMA — so we can digitize and open access to much of that content without waiting for the publishers to do so.

In the next three years, I’d love to see digital projects in the US make the post-1922 public domain as visible and comprehensive online as the pre-1923 public domain is now.  And then, if we ensure the thaw comes on schedule in the US, and we stave off freezes elsewhere, I hope we can quickly make another full year’s worth of public domain available every New Year’s Day.  Maybe once we get used to that happening in the US, we’ll be less likely to allow the public domain to freeze up again.
Happy Public Domain Day!  May we all soon have ample reason to celebrate it every year, all around the world.


Early journals from JSTOR and others

Earlier this month,  JSTOR announced that it would provide  free open access to their earliest scholarly journal content, published before 1923.  All of this material should be old enough to be in the public domain.  (Or at least it is in the US.  Since copyrights can last longer elsewhere, JSTOR is only showing pre-1870 volumes openly outside the US.)  I was very pleased to hear they would be opening up this content; it’s something I’d asked them to consider ever since they ended a small trial of open, public domain volumes in their early years.

Lots of early  journal content now openly readable online

The time was ripe to open access at JSTOR.  (And not just because of growing discontent over limited access to public domain and publicly funded research.) Thanks to mass-digitization initiatives and other projects, much of the early journal content found in JSTOR is now also available from other sources.  For instance, after Gregory Maxwell posted a torrent of pre-1923 JSTOR volumes of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, I surveyed various free digital text sites and found nearly all the same volumes, and more, available for free from Hathi Trust, Google, the Internet Archive, Gallica, PubMed Central, and the Royal Society itself.  The content needed to be organized to be usefully browsable across sites, but that required a bit of basic librarianship and a bit of time.

Philosophical Transactions is not an anomaly.  After collating volumes of this journal, I looked at the first ten journals that signed on to JSTOR back in the mid-1990s.  (The list can be found below.)  I again found that nearly all of pre-1923 content of these journals was also available from various free online sites.  Now, when you look them up on The Online Books Page, you’ll find links to both the JSTOR copies and the copies at other sites.

Comparing the sites that provide this content is enlightening.  In general, the JSTOR copies are better presented,  with article-level tables of contents, cross-volume searching, article downloads, and consistently high scan quality.  But the copies at other sites are generally usable as well, and sometimes include interesting non-editorial material, such as advertisements, that might not be present in JSTOR’s archive.  By opening up access to its early content now, though, JSTOR will remain the preferred access point to this early content for most researchers — and that, hopefully, will help attract and sustain paid support for the larger body of scholarly content that JSTOR provides and preserves for its subscribers.

And there’s a lot more in the public domain

JSTOR currently only provides open access for volumes up to 1922 (or up to 1869, if you’re not in the US).   But there’s lots more public domain journal content that can be made available.  Looking again at the initial ten JSTOR journals, I found that all of them have additional public domain content that is currently not available as open access on JSTOR, or as of yet on other sites.  That’s because journals published in the US before 1964 had to renew their copyrights after 28 years or enter the public domain.  But most scholarly journals, including these 10, did not renew the copyrights to all their issues.  Here’s a list of the 10 journals, and their first issue copyright renewals:

  1. The American Historical Review – began 1895; issues first renewed in 1931
  2. Econometrica – began 1933; issues first renewed in 1942
  3. The American Economic Review – began 1911; issues not renewed before 1964 (when renewal became automatic)
  4. Journal of Political Economy – began 1892; issues first renewed in 1953
  5. Journal of Modern History – began 1929, issues first renewed in 1953
  6. The William and Mary Quarterly – began 1892; issues first renewed in 1946
  7. The Quarterly Journal of Economics – began 1886; issues first renewed in 1934
  8. The Mississippi Valley Historical Review (now the Journal of American History) – began 1914; issues first renewed in 1939
  9. Speculum – began 1926; issues first renewed in 1934
  10. Review of Economic Statistics (now the Review of Economics and Statistics) – began 1919; issues first renewed in 1935

This list reflects more proactive renewal policies than were typical for scholarly journals. A few years ago, I did a survey of JSTOR journals (summarized in this presentation) that were publishing between 1923 and 1950, and found that only 49 out of 298, or about 1/6, renewed any of their issue copyrights for that time period.  (JSTOR has since added more journals covering this time period, so the numbers will be different now, but I suspect the renewal rate won’t be any higher now than it was then.)

Currently JSTOR has no plans to open up access to post-1922 journal volumes.  But many of those volumes have been digitized, and are in Google’s or Hathi Trust’s collections; or they could be digitized by contributors to the Internet Archive or similar text archives.

If someone does want to open up these volumes, they should re-check their copyright status.   In particular, I have not yet checked the copyright status of individual articles in these journals, which can in theory be renewed separately.  In practice, I’ve found this rarely done for scholarly articles, but not completely unknown.  It might be feasible for me to do a “first article renewal” inventory for journals, like I’ve done for first issue renewal, which could speed up clearances.

Opportunities for open librarianship

JSTOR’s recent open access release of early journals, then, is just the beginning of the open access historic journal content that can be available online.  JSTOR provides a valuable service to libraries in providing and preserving comprehensive digital back runs of major scholarly journals, both public domain and copyrighted.  But while our libraries pay for that service, let’s also remember our mission to provide access to knowledge for all whenever possible.  JSTOR’s contribution in opening  its pre-1923 journal volumes is a much-appreciated contribution to a high-quality open record of early scholarship.  We can build on that further, with copyright research, digitization, and some basic public librarianship.  (I’ve discussed the basics of journal liberation in previous posts.)

For my part, I plan to start by gradually incorporating the open access JSTOR offerings into the serial listings of the Online Books Page, as time permits.  I can also gather further copyright information on these and other journals as I bring them in.  I’m also happy to hear about more journals that are or can go online (whether they’re JSTOR journals or not); you can submit them via my suggestion interface.

How about you?  What would you like to see from the early scholarly record, and what can you do to help open it up?

You do the math

I recently heard from Peter Murray-Rust that the Central European Journal of Mathematics (CEJM) is looking for graduate students to edit the language of papers they publish.  CEJM is co-published by Versita and Springer Science+Business Media.

Would-be editors are promised their name on the masthead, and references and recommendations from the folks who run the journal.  These perks are tempting to a student (or postdoc) hoping for stable employment, but you can get such benefits working with just about any scholarly journal.  There’s no mention of actual pay for any of this editing work.  (Nor is there any pay for the associate editors they also seek, though those editors are also promised access to the journal’s content.)

The reader’s side of things looks rather different, when it comes to paying. If we look at Springer’s price lists for 2011, for instance, we see that the list price for a 1-year institutional subscription to CEJM is $1401 US for “print and free access or e-only”, or $1681 US for “enhanced access”.  An additional $42 is assessed for postage and handling, presumably waived if you only get the electronic version, but charged otherwise.

This is a high subscription rate even by the standards of commercial math journals.  At universities like mine, scholars don’t pay for the journal directly, but the money the library uses for the subscription is money that can’t be used to buy monographs, or to buy non-Springer journals, or to improve library service to our mathematics scholars.  Mind you, many universities get this journal as part of a larger package deal with Springer.  This typically lowers the price for each journal, but the package often includes a number of lower-interest journals that wouldn’t otherwise be bought.  Large amounts of money are tied up in these “big deals” with large for-profit publishers such as Springer.

If you can’t, or won’t, lay out the money for a subscription or larger package, readers can pay for articles one at a time.  When I tried to look at a recent CEJM article from home, for instance, I was asked to pay $34 before I could read it.  Another option is author-paid open access.  CEJM authors who want to make their papers available through the journal without a paywall can do so through Springer’s Open Choice program.  This will cost the author $3000 US.

So there’s plenty of money involved in this journal.  It’s just that none of it goes to the editors they’re seeking.  Or to the authors of the papers, who submit them for free (or with a $3000 payment).  Or to the peer reviewers of the papers, if this journal works like most other scholarly journals and uses volunteer scholars as referees.  A scholar might justifiably wonder all this money is going, or what value they get in return for it.

As the editor job ads imply, much of what scholars get out of editing and publishing in journals like these is recognition and prestige.  That, indeed, has value, but the cost-value function can be optimized much better than in this case.  CEJM’s website mentions that it’s tracked by major citation services, and has a 0.361 impact factor (a number often used, despite some notable problems, to give a general sense of a journal’s prestige).  Looking through the mathematics section of the Directory of Open Access Journals, I find a number of scholarly journals that are also tracked by citation services, but don’t charge anything to readers, and as far as I can tell don’t charge anything to authors either.   Here are some of them:

Central Europe, besides being the home of CEJM, is also the home of several open access math journals such as Documenta Mathematica (Germany), the Balkan Journal of Geometry and its Applications (Romania), and the Electronic Journal of Qualitative Theory of Differential Equations (Hungary).  For what it’s worth, all of these journals, and all the other open access journals mentioned in this post, currently show higher impact factors in Journal Citation Reports than CEJM does.

Free math journals aren’t limited to central Europe.  Here in the US, the American Mathematical Society makes the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society free to read online, through the generosity of its members.  And on the campus where I work, Penn’s math department sponsors the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics.

A number of other universities also sponsor open-access journals, promoting their programs, and the findings of scholars worldwide, with low overhead.  For instance, there are two relatively high-impact math journals from Japanese universities: the Kyushu Journal of Mathematics and the Osaka Journal of Mathematics.  The latter journal’s online presence is provided by Project Euclid, a US-based initiative to support low-cost, non-profit mathematics publishing.

Ad-hoc groups of scholars can also organize their own open access journals in their favored specialty.  For instance, Homology, Homotopy and Applications is founded and entirely run by working mathematicians.  Some journals, such as the open access Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science, use Open Journal Systems, a free open source publishing software package, to produce high-quality journal websites with little expenditure.

The Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Sciences: Mathematical Sciences is an interesting case.  Like many scholarly societies, the Indian Academy has recently made a deal with a for-profit publisher (Springer, as it turns out) to distribute their journals in print and electronic form.  Unlike many such societies, though, the Academy committed to continuing a free online version of this journal on their own website.

This is a fortunate decision for readers, because libraries that acquire the commercially published version will have to pay Springer $280 per year for basic access and $336 for “enhanced access”, according to their 2011 price list.  True, libraries get a print copy with this more expensive access (if they’re willing to pay Springer another $35 in postage and handling charges).  But the Academy sends out print editions within India for a total subscription price (postage included) of 320 rupees per year.   At today’s exchange rates, that’s less than $8 US.

Virtually all journals, whether in mathematics or other scholarly fields, depend heavily on unpaid academic labor for the authorship, refereeing, and in some cases editing of their content.  But, as you can see with CEJM and the no-fee open access journals mentioned above, journals vary widely in the amount of money they also extract from the academic community.  In between these two poles, there are also lots of other high-impact math journals with lower subscription prices, as well as commercial open access math journals with much lower author fees than Springer’s Open Choice.  These journals further diversify the channels of communication among mathematicians, without draining as much of  their funds.

I certainly hope mathematicians and other scholars will continue to volunteer their time and talents to the publication process, both for their benefit and for ours.  But if we optimize where and how we give our time and talent (and our institutional support), both scholars and the public will be better off.  As I’ve shown above, with a little bit of information and attention, there’s no shortage of low-cost, high-quality publishing venues that scholars can use as alternatives to overpriced journals.

Journal liberation: A community enterprise

The fourth annual Open Access Week begins on Monday.  If you follow the official OAW website, you’ll be seeing a lot of information about the benefits of free access to scholarly research.  The amount of open-access material grows every day, but much of the research published in scholarly journals through the years is still practically inaccessible to many, due to prohibitive cost or lack of an online copy.

That situation can change, though, sometimes more dramatically than one might expect.  A post I made back in June, “Journal liberation: A Primer”, discussed the various ways in which people can open access to journal content, past and present,  one article or scanned volume at a time.  But things can go much faster if you have a large group of interested liberators working towards a common goal.

Consider the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), for example.  It’s one of the most prominent journals in the world, valued both for its reports on groundbreaking new research, and for its documentation, in its back issues, of nearly 200 years of American medical history.  Many other journals with lesser value still cannot be read without paying for a subscription, or visiting a research library that has paid for a subscription.  But you can find and read most of NEJM’s content freely online, both past and present. Several groups of people made this possible.  Here are some of them.

The journal’s publisher has for a number of years provided open access to all research articles more than 6 months old, from 1993 onward.  (Articles less than 6 months old are also freely available to readers in certain developing countries, and in some cases for readers elsewhere as well.)  A registration requirement was dropped in 2007.

Funders of medical research, such as the National Institutes of Health, the Wellcome Trust, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, have encouraged publishers in the medical field to maintain or adopt such open access policies, by requiring their grantees (who publish many of the articles in journals like the NEJM) to make their articles openly accessible within months of publication.  Some of these funders also maintain their own repositories of scholarly articles that have appeared in NEJM and similar journals.

Google Books has digitized most of the back run of the NEJM and its predecessor publications as part of its Google Books database.  Many of these volumes are freely accessible to the public.  This is not the only digital archive of this material; there’s also one on NEJM’s own website, but access there requires either a subscription or a $15 payment per article.   Google’s scans, unlike the ones on the NEJM website, include the advertisements that appeared along with the articles.  These ads document important aspects of medical history that are not as easily seen in the articles, on subjects ranging from the evolving requirements and curricula of 19th-century medical schools to the early 20th-century marketing of heroin for patients as young as 3 years old.

It’s one thing to scan journal volumes, though; it’s another to make them easy to find and use– which is why NEJM’s for-pay archive got a fair bit of publicity when it was released this summer, while Google’s scans went largely unnoticed.  As I’ve noted before, it can be extremely difficult to find all of the volumes of a multi-volume work in Google Books; and it’s even more difficult in the case of NEJM, since issues prior to 1928 were published under different journal titles.  Fortunately, many of the libraries that supplied volumes for Google’s scanners have also organized links to the scanned volumes, making it easier to track down specific volumes.  The Harvard Libraries, for instance, have a chronologically ordered list of links to most of the volumes of the journal from 1828 to 1922, a period when it was known as the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal.

For many digitized journals, open access stops after 1922, because of uncertainty about copyright.  However, most scholarly journals have public domain content after that date, so it’s possible to go further if you research journal copyrights.  Thanks to records provided by the US Copyright Office and volunteers for The Online Books Page, we can determine that issues and articles of the NEJM prior to the 1950s did not have their copyrights renewed.  With this knowledge, Hathi Trust has been able and willing to open access to many volumes from the 1930s and 1940s.

We at The Online Books Page can then pull together these volumes and articles from various sources, and create a cover page that allows people to easily get to free versions of this journal and its predecessors all the way back to 1812.

Most of the content of the New England Journal of Medicine has thus been liberated by the combined efforts of several different organizations (and other interested people).  There’s still more than can be done, both in liberating more of the content, and in making the free content easier to find and use.  But I hope this shows how widespread  journal liberation efforts of various sorts can free lots of scholarly research.  And I hope we’ll hear about many more  free scholarly articles and journals being made available, or more accessible and usable, during Open Access Week and beyond.

I’ve also had another liberation project in the works for a while, related to books, but I’ll wait until Open Access Week itself to announce it.  Watch this blog for more open access-related news, after the weekend.

What you’re asked to give away

If you’ve published an article in an Elsevier journal, you might have missed an interesting aspect of the contract you signed with them to get published.  It goes something like this:

I grant Elsevier the exclusive right to select and reproduce any portions they choose from my research article to market drugs, medical devices, or any other commercial product, regardless of whether I approve of the product or the marketing.

What, you don’t remember agreeing to that?  Actually, the words above are mine.  But while it isn’t explicitly stated in author agreements, Elsevier authors usually grant that right implicitly. Elsevier’s typical author agreement requires you to sign over your entire copyright to them. Why ask for the whole copyright, instead of just, say, first serial rights,  and whatever else suffices for them to include the article in their journal and article databases?  Elsevier explains:

Elsevier wants to ensure that it has the exclusive distribution rights for all media. Copyright transfer eliminates any ambiguity or uncertainty about Elsevier’s ability to distribute, sub-license and protect the article from unauthorized copying or alteration.

That “unauthorized” would be “unauthorized by them”.   Not “unauthorized by you”.  Once you sign, you’ve given up the right to authorize copying or alteration, or any other rights in the copyright, except for rights they offer back to you.  For instance, you can’t “sub-license” your article for anything Elsevier deems “commercial purposes”.  But they can, and do.

And sometimes those commercial purposes have had questionable ethics.  The Scientist reported about a week ago that “Merck published [a] fake journal” with Elsevier.  (Free registration may be required to read the article.)  As they report:

Merck paid an undisclosed sum to Elsevier to produce several volumes of a publication that had the look of a peer-reviewed medical journal, but contained only reprinted or summarized articles–most of which presented data favorable to Merck products–that appeared to act solely as marketing tools with no disclosure of company sponsorship.

The publication, Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, was published by an Elsevier subsidiary called Excerpta Medica.  As that subsidiary explains on their web site, “We partner with our clients in the pharmaceutical and biotech communities to educate the global health care community and enable them to make well-informed decisions regarding treatment options.”  In other words, they’re a PR agency for drug companies and other companies selling medical products.  Part of what they do is publish various periodicals designed to promote their clients.

Now, a number of companies publish sponsored magazines, and usually such publications clearly disclose their sponsorship, or are otherwise easily recognizable as “throwaway” commercial journals.  But this publication was designed to look more like a peer-reviewed scientific journal.   The Scientist reports this court testimony from a medical journal editor:

An “average reader” (presumably a doctor) could easily mistake the publication for a “genuine” peer reviewed medical journal, [George Jelinek] said in his testimony. “Only close inspection of the journals, along with knowledge of medical journals and publishing conventions, enabled me to determine that the Journal was not, in fact, a peer reviewed medical journal, but instead a marketing publication for MSD[A].”

Indeed, one of the publication’s “honorary editors” admitted to the Scientist that it included marketing material, but that “[i]t also had papers that were excerpted from other peer-reviewed journals. I don’t think it’s fair to say it was totally a marketing journal.”  But that was what Merck paid Elsevier for, and the excerpts from real Elsevier-acquired research articles helped the publication as a whole look like disinterested scholarship instead of advertising.

Elsevier did show some embarrassment from these revelations, particularly after widespread online outrage.  A statement posted yesterday by an Elsevier spokesman admitted the journal did not have “the appropriate disclosures”, and added

I have affirmed our business practices as they relate to what defines a journal and the proper use of disclosure language with our employees to ensure this does not happen again.

That’s certainly a step up from a previous statement quoted in the Scientist article, which, after also admitting the disclosure problems in the “journal”, simply said “Elsevier’s current disclosure policies meet the rigor and requirements of the current publishing environment,” and made no promises about what they would do in the future.

But the new statement still  leaves unanswered the question of why there are still  4 “peer reviewed journals” published under the imprint of a PR agency whose stated mission is to “support our client’s marketing objectives with strategic communications solutions in [areas that include] Medical Publishing.”  And legally, Excerpta Medica still has the right to cherry-pick from any article signed over to Elsevier in any of their marketing publications.  Or, as they announce to potential clients, “we can leverage the resources of the world’s largest medical and scientific publisher.”  Even with what Elsevier considers “proper use of disclosure language”, some authors might not want their writing used in this way.

Am I being unfair to Elsevier here?  They’re not the only academic publisher that asks its authors to sign over their copyrights.  And some of the more liberal open publication licenses, which I’ve been known to recommend, are broad enough that they too give marketers rights to reuse one’s work in their promotions.

On the first of those points, I recommend in general that authors avoid signing over their rights entirely (as I’ve managed previously), no matter who the publisher is.  But last I checked, most other academic publishers don’t also own a PR firm for commercial product marketing.  (And if any do,  they should disclose this possible use in their interactions with authors. I find no explicit disclosure of this in either Elsevier’s model agreement or on the current version of Elsevier’s author rights page.)

On the second point, if you grant an open publication license, you generally know what you’re getting into.  And you can still defend against misuse of your work in ways that you can’t do if you just sign over your copyright to a publisher.   Some open access licenses, for instance, include an attribution condition that requires any reuse of the article to credit and point to the original source, and derivation conditions that either prohibit changes or require changes to be disclosed.  (And some licenses simply prohibit commercial use altogether except by permission.)  Whatever license you choose, if a company does quote your work out of context in its marketing, and you’ve kept your own rights to reprint the article, you can publish a rebuttal as widely as you like, showing the omitted context that counters a company’s claims.  These conditions and rights can provide potent deterrents against misuse of your articles.

Often the debates over scholarly author rights and open access focus on who gets to read and use scholarly articles, and what gets paid to whom.  This episode highlights another important part of the debate: who gets the right to guard the integrity of one’s scholarship.  In the light of recent revelations, authors might want to think carefully about whether to sign that right away, and to whom.

[Updates, 9 May 2009: Some spelling corrected, and a note added that disclosure is not the only potential concern of authors whose works are used for marketing purposes.]