science politics

Until today, I was quite proud of myself for not caving in to SIWOTI syndrome like Mike Taylor did. And then I read his post and caved in as well.

What gets us so riled up is Elsevier’s latest in a long list of demonstration of what they think of the intellectual capacities of their customers. It’s precisely because it is only one in a long row that I initially didn’t feel like commenting. However, there were so many points in this article worth rebutting and Mike only selected a few for his comment, I felt compelled to pick some of my own for dissection.

This combination of perspectives has led me, I believe, to a deeper understanding of the importance and limitations of copyright law

Great! An expert on copyright law and a creative mind, Shirley a worthy opponent for a mere scientist who understands next to nothing of copyright. As we say in Germany: many foes, much honor (I know, don’t ask!).

The STM journal publishing sector is constantly adjusting to find the right balance between researcher needs and the journal business model, as refracted through copyright.

I think that’s an accurate assessment, the right balance of course being to continuously expand copyright to rob scientist authors of any rights to their articles and allowing publishers to charge authors for every time they use their own figures in class: the researcher needs to use their figures in teaching and the journal business model needs to beat drug smuggling, arms trade and human trafficking in profit margins. Thus, the right balance from this perspective is to charge institutions for every additional use of the material they already paid for twice, absolutely. However, while maximizing profits may be the fiduciary duty of the corporate publisher, neither science nor society cares about the existence of corporations. On the contrary, openly parasitic corporations will be fought, so it’s difficult to see how alluding to the parasitic business model of his business (rather than, e.g., trying to hide it) is in the interest of the author. One probably has to have the creative mind of a poet and the honed analytic skills of a lawyer to see the advantage here.

Authors are looking for visibility and want to share their results quickly with their colleagues and others in their institutions or communities.

That’s also correct: it’s the reason there is a boycott of Elsevier and the open access movement exist. It’s not clear why the author of this article is using an argument against copyright in particular and the entire status quo in academic publishing in general in an article purporting to support copyright. Again, I’m probably neither creative enough nor versed in law well enough to understand the apparent own goals of this author.

Most journals have a long tradition of supporting pre-print posting and enabling “scholarly sharing” by authors.

I’m sure some journals have that tradition, but Elsevier’s journals are not among them. On digital ‘paper’ of course, Elsevier supports pre-prints and ‘green’ archiving, but if that isn’t just lip service, why pay two US lawmakers US$40,000 to make precisely this “scholarly sharing” (note the scare quotes!) illegal? Or is the author insinuating that the legal counsel of Elsevier had no role in drafting the RWA?

In fact, last week Elsevier released its own updated sharing policies

Wait a minute – Elsevier has released a set of policies which specify how scientists are allowed to talk about their research? How on earth is this supposed to convince anyone that copyright is good for science and scientists if a scientist first has to ask the approval of a commercial publisher before they start talking about their research? I went and read these policies; they essentially say: “break our copyright by tweeting your own article and we’ll sue you”. I guess I really lack the creativity and expertise to understand how this is in support of copyright.

I believe that copyright is fundamental to creativity and innovation because without it the mechanisms for funding and financial support for authors and publishing become overly dependent on societal largesse.

Given my lack of poetry and legal competence, I really have to think hard now. He’s writing that we as scientist authors shouldn’t be dependent on “societal largesse”. Science is, for the most part, a public enterprise. This means my salary (without any copyright) is paid by “societal largesse”. 80% of subscription income of Elsevier is from public institutions, so this author suckles 80% of his income from the teet of “societal largesse”. So he’s arguing that copyright helped prevent his own salary from going 100% societal? Or is he arguing that I should lose all my salary? If depending on “societal largesse” really is to be avoided, why doesn’t he give 80% of his salary (which is probably more money than 100% of my salary) back to the tax payer, perhaps by contributing to the open access funds of a public institution of his choice? Going after the salaries of your customers without displaying any willingness to give up your own dependence on “societal largesse” must be a strategy that requires a lot of creativity and legal competence, as from my unimaginative and incompetent perspective that strategy just backfired mightily.

The alternatives to a copyright-based market for published works and other creative works are based on near-medieval concepts of patronage, government subsidy,

“Societal largesse” and “government subsidy” are what looms without copyright? I thought the only thing that kept Elsevier alive was government subsidies enabled by societal largesse? Last I looked, open access publishing would cost something like US$100-200 per article if we implemented it right. Elsevier, on  average, charges about US$5,000 per subscription article. So, on average, for each subscription article, Elsevier is receiving at least $4,800 in government subsidies (which amounts to 96% of the total payment), solely to artificially keep this corporation alive. If the author were so keen on getting rid of government subsidies, why is he asking his customers to support a business practice that only exists because their income is 96% government subsidies? Indeed, I’m neither intelligent nor competent enough to understand this defense of copyright. To me, this article is an attack on the entire status quo.

I’m running out of time and honestly, whatever could come next would be difficult to change the impression I now got from reading thus far. Clearly, Elsevier thinks that their scientist customers are know-nothing hobos with an insufficient number of neurons for a synapse. Either they are correct as I for the life of me cannot find anything in support of copyright in this article, or their big shots suffer from a severe case of Dunning Kruger syndrome.

Posted on  at 13:21