Copyright or copywrong? How journals control access to research

Frustration with copyright restrictions placed on scholarly work in many journals has helped fuel the Creative Commons and Open Access movements. Flickr/TilarX

Back in 1991, in the very earliest days of the internet, a group of high energy physicists began sharing their findings on a Los Alamos-based online archive called Arxiv.

Their early experiments in the sharing of scholarly work helped spark what has become the Open Access movement, a worldwide push for more equitable access to research beyond the boundaries of scholarly journals.

The movement has had a somewhat haphazard trajectory but growing it is, as a glance at the Open Access Map attests.

This growth has been fuelled by policy developed by research funders, by institutions and by government.

Many research funders now make it a requirement of the receipt of a grant that research results be made available in Open Access.

Here, Open Access explicitly means that the commercial publishing industry will not have a monopoly on the expression of the findings of the research. This is a particularly important point in the developing world.

U.S. funding agency, the National Institutes of Health has taken a view that if taxpayer dollars are supporting research, that research should not be confined to an elite which has the privilege of access granted through institutional or individual subscription.

The green road and the gold road

Funder and government mandates are developing in different jurisdictions at different paces, but have become a clear part of the Open Access picture since the mid-2000s.

Institutional mandates have also developed, with academic institutions building repositories of scholarly work to boost access to their research output.

This approach, in which an author or institution archives the work as submitted for publication in an online repository accessible at the same time as it is accepted, is often referred to as “the green road” to Open Access.

In some universities, the policy has been in place for time, either for the whole institution or at the faculty or school level.

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) adopted a whole institution approach in 2004. There is some early evidence that the greater visibility of the research of the institution correlates with other measures of research esteem.

In Australia in recent years, several other universities have developed policies, most notably this week, ANU. A number of institutions in Europe – Leige, Salford, University College London, to mention a few – are examples. Perhaps most conspicuous is the mandate adopted at Harvard University Faculty of Art and Sciences.

An alternative to the green road is the gold road, where a journal provides its content on open access if the author pays an ‘input fee’ at the time of submission. One of the difficulties with this is the availability of the funds for such input fees. In some cases, funders have made it clear that the input fee is covered by the research grant.

Who benefits?

The fact is that the overwhelming majority of articles published in the traditional journal literature are given away by their authors, are refereed gratis by colleagues in the peer review process and are then published.

There is no individual return to the author. There is no return to the referee. But there is significant revenue generated for publishers reselling this content back to the institutions where the vast majority of scholarly authors work and reside.

By the 1990s, this model was attracting conspicuous and repeated commentary.

It was natural to wonder whether there might be other models for achieving the same goal – the sharing of research outputs.

Subscription-based access is confined to those who are entitled through the payment of the subscription price, with access controlled through electronic authentication systems online. This automatically excludes those who lack the ability to pay.

Therefore, the subscription-based approach has significant features which have come to be seen as disadvantages: inflated and inconsistent pricing and limited access.

Importantly, the open access argument does not apply to literature that does return royalties to the author. Indeed, the less money universities tie up in the expensive acquisition of the refereed research literature, the more would be available to buy publications that do return royalties to authors and their publishers.

Creative Commons

Publishers assert ownership of the scholarly content of their journals through copyright, which the author usually assigns to the publisher when their article is accepted for publication.

Open content licensing developed as a response to some of the quandaries posed by the concept of copyright as an exclusive control on expressions of ideas.

Perhaps best known of these is the Creative Commons set of licences, generically international but ported to national jurisdictions. QUT was the lead institution for this in Australia.

QUT’s policy on open access made it clear that the material concerned would not be located in the repository if it was “to be commercialised … contains confidential material, or of which the promulgation would infringe a legal commitment by the university and/or the author.”

Evidence is developing that citation frequency increases with the greater visibility of research. Other benefits include stronger linkages between researchers and wider communities and the attraction of higher degree research students based on greater visibility of existing research fields.

At a recent conference at CERN in Geneva, the editor of one of the world’s larger open access journals proposed that, eventually, most scholarly material will be available through five or six major gold providers. He was keen to point out that this is merely a speculation.

Or a tipping point may be reached with the provision of material through institutional and, in some cases, disciplinary repositories. It is hard to make precise predictions but the overall trend is undeniable.

The world of traditional scholarly publishing may well co-exist for a while, adding value to scholarly material in a way that national and international academic communities are willing to pay for.

Alternatively, publishers may abandon journal titles per se as a unit of economic (and quality) currency, and seek new business in which they extend their role in providing sophisticated and reliable integrity checks on the quality of research articles.

The pricing for such activity will be different from past commerce in these goods and the traditional publishing model will inevitably undergo further significant change.