I recently went out on a limb to help a group of scholars who were trying to do a good thing but going about it in a not-so-good manner.
They wanted to curate a list of articles on a topic relating to current events and social justice. Unfortunately, they were determined to post the materials to the open web using full-text PDFs from licensed, published content.
Yes, cue the collective copyright librarian shudder.
Their arguments for doing so were typical. Partly a misunderstanding of fair use: But it’s for an educational purpose! And partly a misguided sense of “revolutionizing academic publishing.”
I shared with them some information (information, mind you, not legal advice) about fair use and the necessity of considering all four factors. I told them a bit about current best practices in academia, how small changes in their strategy—such as posting links to OA versions of the articles if they exist or curating a bibliography of citations—may be more effective. I talked a bit about licenses and how even with fair use, posting these materials could violate institutional contracts with publishers. I also mentioned that, from a discovery perspective, their long list of PDFs was a bit of a burden for researchers looking for these materials and suggested they work with a metadata and discovery librarian to better organize the work. I’m pretty sure I mentioned Georgia State and Sci-Hub a few times (for different reasons, of course).
As is often the case with doling out unsolicited information (not advice), there was a bit of pushback. And complaints. All of which made me reflect on this new trend that seems to have arisen in which scholars randomly decide they will “revolutionize” academic publishing unilaterally by flouting copyright law and contractual agreements to distribute others’ work Robin Hood-style.
The key here, at least for me in my frustration, is that this revolution almost always involves someone else’s work. These so-called revolutionary scholars are ever interested in liberating scholarship to which they want access while still signing away rights to their own work and rarely, if ever, deigning to post green open versions of their work in institutional repositories.
Don’t get me wrong. Our current system of academic publishing needs revolutionizing. But that isn’t going to happen with individual scholars breaking the law and exercising rights that more appropriately belong to others.
And, to be quite frank, it’s not like the revolution hasn’t already long begun. All kinds of work is already being done in this space:
- Funders in the U.S. and abroad have started requiring public access to the research they fund.
- Collaborative, cost-sharing initiatives like Open Access Network to help transform the way scholarly publishing is funded.
- Interoperability and discovery efforts, like that of Share, to facilitate the sharing of metadata across repositories.
- The creation of new discipline repositories, like SocArXiv, and the improvement of existing repositories, like ArXiv, to better ensure access to knowledge.
These efforts have been difficult and they take time, yet slowly and surely we’re gaining ground.
For scholars truly interested in revolutionizing scholarly publishing, get involved with these efforts. Touch base with your scholarly communications experts and share your experience and expertise. Rather than attempting to “break down the master’s house” by stealing the master’s tools and giving them out for free, let’s work together to build our own tools.
And finally, speaking of houses, make certain that you begin the revolution in your own house. Publish your work in an open access journal or ensure that you post your manuscripts in an institutional or discipline repository. Negotiate your publishing agreements and fight for your rights as author so that you are able to do just that.
Engage in legal practices to liberate your own work. Then, join already-existing efforts to liberate scholarly publishing for everyone.