The lawsuit is really a rather local affair; an action brought by Louisiana State University against Elsevier alleging breach of contract. But the facts raise significant questions for all Elsevier customers, and especially for public universities that do business with the publishing giant (which is to say, all of us). Even more significant, I think, is what the specific circumstances, and some of the comments made about the lawsuit, tell us about the future of scholarly communications. In my mind, we have reached the “enough is enough” point with Elsevier.
Recently there has been a spate of comment expressing frustration about the allegedly slow progress of open access, and especially Green open access. It is hard to disagree with some of this sentiment, but it is important that frustration not lead us into trying to solve a problem with a worse solution. The key, I believe, to making real advances in open access is to walk away from the commercial publishers who have dominated the market for scholarship. Only if we do that can libraries free up money from our collection budgets to do truly new things. A new business model with the same old players, even if it were possible, would be a mistake.
Last month, I attended the Charlotte Initiative Open Conference. This Mellon-funded project brought together publishers, librarians, and technology providers to explore a reconsideration of the transactional models between publishers and libraries for eBooks. To quote the initiative, “Our starting premise is that permanent acquisitions of eBooks requires these licensing terms:
- Provision of irrevocable perpetual access and archival rights.
- Allowance for unlimited simultaneous users.
- Freedom from any Digital Rights Management (DRM), including (but not limited to) use of proprietary formats, restricted access to content, or time-limited access terms.”
I was invited to be on the project’s advisory board two years ago and I’ll admit the premise seemed like quite a stretch at that time. In a climate where the rhetoric of accountability is paired with market-optimizing tools like DDA and EBA, the idea that libraries will only buy our most successful books and then insist on broad usage terms like the Charlotte Principles just felt like a non-starter. As John Unsworth mentioned in his conference keynote, publishers operate in the world of risk and libraries have historically helped academic publishers mitigate risk by building deep monograph collections. Predatory publishers figured out how to game this system, forcing libraries to use “accountability” as a reason to reduce monograph purchases despite the arrival of digital platforms making them less expensive and more accessible than ever. As a director at a public university press, I can attest to the acute pain that strategy has had on mission-driven non-profit publishers and on the humanities and social science disciplines we support. More on that in a moment.
It might be necessary to remind readers that the copyright lawsuit brought by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Sage Publishing against Georgia State University is still going on. It began in 2008, and after losing all of their major points at every level of the litigation, it would be easy and sensible to conclude that the publishers had walked away, as most sensible plaintiffs would have done. But these are not sensible plaintiffs; they, or the folks who call the shots and pay the bills for them, are fanatically determined to push their alternate view of copyright law ever up the hill, no matter how often it rolls back on them.
On March 15, founding editors Stacy Konkiel and Lily Troia, both of Altmetric, and Nicky Agate of the Modern Language Association, will officially launch The Idealis, a portal for connecting to curated open access library and information science scholarship. Operating on the WordPress plugin Press Forward, The Idealis will include annotated lists of open access scholarship written by, for, or of interest to information professionals. Curation will be done by volunteer editors with expertise in the field. Each editor will serve on two-week rotations during which they will nominate pieces for inclusion in The Idealis platform using the Press Forward plugin. Initially, the collection will consist entirely of works focused on scholarly communication, but the hope is that The Idealis will soon grow to include scholarly work from a wide-range of library interests, including critical librarianship, public librarianship, school librarianship, and more.
I have a conflicted relationship with the idea of moral rights in copyrighted works. Because I saw my work as a scholarly communications librarian as focused on helping academic authors understand their rights and use them to further their own goals and the goals of scholarship writ large, I have often been sensitive to the lack of a real attribution right in U.S. law. I even wrote an article in 2010, in which I suggested such a right as a potential improvement of our law. Nevertheless, the difficulties associated with incorporating moral rights into U.S. copyright are substantial, so this topic has remained unresolved in my own mind.newrambler.net/ramblings/wp-content/uploads/essay