Sunday, 16 November 2014

What's Mine is Theirs?

“When you work hard, the results are yours.”  When I was young, that’s what my dad would often say to motivate me to study hard.  I wish things were that simple. 

I took a hiatus from blogging partly because I have been busy working on various articles for publication, and partly because I was applying to an academic program, and didn’t want to say things that can give them pause if the admissions committee members were to google me.  For academics, blogging about our own ideas and thoughts would not count for evaluation and promotion purposes.  Not even if they were well researched.  (But I would admit that I’m not blogging for an academic audience.)  Only peer-reviewed articles published in high-impact journals would count.  Self-published blog entries may get us in trouble for nothing when we express controversial ideas.  So many academics with very interesting ideas wouldn’t even blog, especially if they are pre-tenure.  

If my dad was correct, the result of my research work would be mine, whether in the blogosphere or in academic journals.  But copyright provisions in the publishing industry make clear that the results of my work are not necessarily mine.  I may own my ideas while they are still in my head or on my computer – and trust me, they are brilliant in my head!  But the journals own the copyright of the result of my ideas – i.e., the article – and they get to decide how that is distributed or shared.  For many people who don’t have access to an academic library or a good library collection (e.g., in poorer countries), they may have to purchase (or in some cases, rent) an article of interest, which can cost more than $1.20 per page.  Not from me.  From the publisher.  So, even if we work hard, the results aren’t ours.  If I want to share “my” article with the world by making it Open Access, some journals would charge $2000+ per article.  Some scholars, particularly those with grant money, may pay for that because that can get more people to read and cite their work, which is worth something in the academic world.  

A friend who advocates for technological and informational freedom took me to see Cory Doctorow recently and motivated me to blog again.  It’s no coincidence that these two gentlemen also share a love for Ubuntu, which is so much more than just an open source operating system.  Doctorow’s fascinating new book, Information Doesn’t Want to be Free, examines the state of copyright and creative success in the digital age.  True to his word, Doctorow told the audience – after the host announced all the usual prohibitions at most artists’ or writers’ appearances – that he would be fine if people wanted to take his pictures or even record his interview and put them on the web.  A lesson from his talk and his book is relevant here: if a publisher refuses to publish your work unless they can put a lock (e.g., copyright) on it, “you can be pretty sure that those locks aren’t there for your benefit.”

Sadly, unlockers have not been treated kindly.  Some may remember Aaron Swartz, who would have turned 28 on November 8th if not for his suicide 22 months ago. Instrumental in the campaign to prevent passage of the American Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Swartz was being charged with wire fraud and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for systematically downloading academic journal articles from JSTOR, a digital repository.  These charges carried a cumulative maximum penalty of $1 million in fines, 35 years in prison, and more.  

Many academics are passionate about their work and treasure any opportunity to facilitate dialogues and progress in their respective fields.  They would likely have been happy to share their work publicly.   But depending on the copyright provision, they may not have been allowed to do so.  Doctorow’s book reminds me of how our current intertwining evaluation and publishing practices make it difficult for real exchange and promotion of knowledge.  

Efforts have begun to facilitate the adoption of Creative Commons in the academic world to expand the sharing of scholarly work, with some universities (MOOCs) also recognizing the value of making course materials open access.  Moreover, various accomplished scholars have taken a stand in raising awareness of certain for-profit journals. In the case of academic journals, when publications are no longer restricted to the print form, scholars can also be more creative in using other media to share their work.  And maybe at that point, I can tell my dad that not only are the results of the hard work mine – I can even decide how to present them!

Image Source: work hard;a photo taken by myself of the book signed by Doctorow; Swartz


  1. If you look at medical journals, they are very strict about what you can't do even before the piece is published. The Mayo Clinic Proceedings has this embargo clause: "All information regarding the content and publication date of accepted manuscripts is confidential. Information contained in or about accepted articles cannot appear in any media outlet (print, broadcast, or electronic) until print or online publication." JAMA has a similar clause: "The embargo means information concerning the study cannot be published, broadcast, posted online, shared with non-journalists, or otherwise placed in the public domain until the time of the embargo."

  2. Ah yes, Chris. It's interesting that for some publications, there is this "limbo" period where not only is your work not out there yet, but that you can't even discuss it!