The Questionable Authority

Update: 13 Aug. I’ve added a new post that I think provides a clearer explanation for the reason that this sort of behavior is such an irritant when it comes from a company like Elsevier.

Like most bloggers, I have an ego. I’m not mentioning that by way of apology, but as an explanation for why I was browsing through my sitemeter statistics last Friday. Every now and then, I head over to sitemeter, call up the view that lets me see what websites referred people to my page. If I see a link that’s coming from a source I don’t recognize, I browse over and look to see what people are saying about me. Yeah, it’s sad. Yeah, it’s shallow and self-centered. And, yeah, I know a bunch of you have your own blogs and do it too.

Anyway, I’m almost at the end of the list from the last 100 hits when I come across this link. I don’t recognize it, so I click on it and I’m taken to this page. (I saved it as a pdf because I’ve got a feeling that it won’t be accessible at the link for much longer.) That page contains the majority of a post about open access that I wrote a few weeks ago.

The vast majority of the content on that page was written by me. All but the first 13 words in the “comment” at the top of the page were taken from my article. The remainder of the page contains the first 60% of my post. The links I included in the original have been omitted, but the text itself is unaltered. The source that is given for the material is simply “ScienceBlogs.com”. My name is not given, and the only link to the original article is in the section of the page marked “related links.” The copying that took place in the “comment” section is entirely unacknowledged. The only mention of copyright occurs at the bottom of the page, and reads, “Copyright ¬© 2008 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. ”

I was not asked for, and did not give, permission for my work to appear on that page, much less in that format. Needless to say, I felt a little slighted.

The website in question appears to be a custom version of the LexisNexis search engine. This particular version appears to be Elsevier’s own custom version, intended for internal use. I don’t have conclusive proof of that, but the title bar at the top of the page reads, “Elsevier Corporate”, and the person who accessed my blog from that page had an IP address that’s registered to MD Consult, which is an Elsevier subsidiary. My guess is that Elsevier’s keeping track of news articles and blog posts that mention them, along with the context in which they’re mentioned.

So, someone at Elsevier apparently made a copy of something I wrote criticizing Elsevier, and made that copy available to whoever has access to their (apparently not well-secured) house version of LexisNexis. This might technically be a copyright violation, but if it is it’s basically just the electronic equivalent of clipping a news article, photocopying it, and sticking the copies in co-workers’ mailboxes. Is this really something that I should care about?

Clearly, I think it is, or I wouldn’t be writing this post.

This blog, like almost all blogs, is an open-access publication. There’s no charge to read this blog. If you’ve got an internet connection and time to waste, you can scroll through the things I’ve written to your heart’s content. The thing is, open access doesn’t mean that nobody gets paid.

If you’re reading this material on my blog, you’re going to see some ads. The ads bring in income for the Seed Overlords. They use that income to cover the not-insignificant costs of running this online Zoo. They also pay me (and the rest of the bloggers). The more people read my posts, the more opportunities there are for someone to actually look at one of the ads, and the more I get paid. I don’t get paid when people read this on someone else’s website.

Advertising-supported web publishing is a business model that Elsevier understands quite well. In fact, it’s a business model that they use. They run a cancer information site that’s open access and supported by advertising. And because they get paid only for the ads that appear on their site, they have a copyright policy that prohibits reposting their material on other sites without their consent.

That’s not the only time that Elsevier has shown a very acute awareness of where their money comes from. They’ve consistently opposed open access initiatives around the world, because open access requirements would have a very large impact on their bottom line. In fact, they’ve gone to great lengths to try to protect their income stream. As you may remember, they were one of the publishers involved in the astroturf group “PRISM” that their attack dog PR expert put together to lobby Congress in opposition to an open access initiative.

Elsevier has spent a great deal of time, energy, and money in an effort to get people to respect their income flow. They apparently didn’t bother to think about mine.

I’m not upset about this because of the money, though. (It’s not like I get paid all that much anyway.) I went into the financial aspect partly because it’s a clear illustration of Elsevier’s thoughtlessness, and partly because I’m not entirely certain that they will understand any other basis for objecting to their actions. The money isn’t the real issue. The real issue is respect.

Scientists provide the content for Elsevier’s journals. They donate their time to review, and often edit, the articles that appear in the journals. They make up the bulk of the audience for the journals. Yet Elsevier has, time after time, demonstrated a complete lack of respect for scientists and the scientific community. It’s not a surprise that they would decide to grab my post, while ignoring my rights to my own material. It’s simply another example of where their focus is: intellectual property matters if and only if it’s theirs.

Comments

  1. #1 Pineyman
    August 12, 2008

    Mike –

    The ScienceBlogs source now links back to your page. They also include a link to something Mike the Mad Biologist wrote on the same subject, although they do name him…

  2. #2 RfP
    August 12, 2008

    I understand why LexisNexis wants your full-text content. That’s how their database works: it sucks in content and searches it all in a way that’s relatively seamless for the user. However, I believe LN normally gets their content through agreements with content services–newspapers, etc–not from individual writers. (Though LN also has a service that licenses content directly from bloggers.) That modus operandi makes sense to my non-lawyer eye, as LexisNexis’ database doesn’t seem to fit under the US copyright doctrine of fair use.

    Here’s a clearly-written opinion on copyright of freelance works: NEW YORK TIMES CO., INC., et al. v. TASINI et al. (2001). Both Ginsburg’s majority opinion and Stevens/Breyer’s dissent bring up interesting points.

    The litigation was initiated by six freelance authors and relates to articles they contributed to three print periodicals (two newspapers and one magazine). Under agreements with the periodicals’ publishers, but without the freelancers’ consent, two computer database companies placed copies of the freelancers’ articles … into three databases.

    On the issue of proper attribution, it’s bizarre if LexisNexis doesn’t provide a full citation pointing explicitly to you as the source. However, I’m not sure of that from what you’ve found.

    The website in question appears to be … Elsevier’s own custom version, intended for internal use. … someone at Elsevier apparently made a copy of something I wrote criticizing Elsevier, and made that copy available to whoever has access….

    You may be right, but it’s also possible LexisNexis has your entire post (including full attribution) in their database but some user bookmarked only a portion of it–much like forwarding colleagues a quote from an article. That would let LN off the hook for the discourtesy of not acknowledging your work, but still leaves the question of whether your post should be in their database at all. I can’t search LN right now, but that’s the only way to be sure how your post is cited.

    On the advertising revenue, I don’t think there’s a tidy solution. I use a newsreader, so I never see ads. Sure, Seed could enable RSS-feed ads, but newsreaders could find a way around that, and your content would still end up elsewhere.

  3. #3 Mike Dunford
    August 12, 2008

    To the best of my knowledge, my content is not available through LexisNexis. I have access to an academic subscription, and I checked through their list of published sources. Neither method turned up this blog.

  4. #4 RfP
    August 12, 2008

    Ha. In that case, yep, you caught ‘em. Republishing content without appropriate attribution, verra verra bad move for a publisher. Especially a research publisher with strict rules about plagiarism and high walls protecting its own content.

  5. #5 Liz Ditz
    August 12, 2008

    Mike,

    I’ve had a few of these episodes. I take screen shots of the offending material (more convincing than a pdf. Someday I’ll learn how to date-stamp the screen shots.

  6. #6 phisrow
    August 12, 2008

    Bad form. Seriously bad form. LexisNexus clearly has the resources and knowledge needed to comply and, allegedly, takes compliance seriously. There is just no excuse whatsoever for them not to do so. Except, of course, the obvious one that they don’t actually have any principles on the matter at all, save making as much money as possible. Scum.

    I wonder if this case is a result of sheer carelessness, lack of concern, or the very curious(but surprisingly common) notion found in some staunch “pro-IP” quarters that anybody who doesn’t do IP the way we do has no notion of IP whatsoever. I never would have imagined that such a notion would exist, seeing as such people generally have nests of lawyers that they could consult; but I see it a lot with respect to GPL software and the like, so I wonder.

  7. #7 Alan Kellogg
    August 12, 2008

    Characters like Elsevier plague bloggers everywhere. Even small operations like mine. WordPress has a plugin that truncates a feed, then you can add a few words of your own at the end. In may case those words are, “you must go to my blog to read the rest.” If Movable Type has a plugin like that it might be a good idea for The Borg to install it on their blogs.

  8. #8 Mike Dunford
    August 12, 2008

    There’s already a “click here for more” type link on the rss feed, and MT makes it very easy to truncate feeds. The feed for the post in question included less than 1/4 of the material that ultimately wound up on Elsevier’s page.

  9. #9 Stew
    August 13, 2008

    I really have no desire to defend Reed-Elsevier and can see how this could definitely be irksome when it’s your content, but…

    As you mention, this is just the electronic equivalent of press cuttings, right? It’s not like they’re republishing your content, it’s for internal use. The positive spin would be that your stuff is reaching exactly the type of people who could use it to make a difference. That’s good!

    The lack of proper attribution still stands, of course (I guess whoever posted it figured ‘scienceblogs.com’ was enough). That’s pretty bad.

    On a tangent: personally I hate truncated RSS feeds as I read everything in Bloglines… plus they’re bad for automated services that track what you’re writing about (like Research Blogging or Postgenomic) and for trackbacks to journals. :( I realize there are no ads in there, though.

  10. #10 chris y
    August 13, 2008

    “…Finally he decided to select a poor scholar who had spent ten years working for the Amsterdam publishers. He decided there was no occupation on earth with which one was more entitled to be disgusted.” – Voltaire, Candide, 1759.

    “If you happen to have an Elzevier classic in your pocket, neither show it nor mention it.” Lord Chesterfield, Letters to his Son, 1737.

    Their reputation is long, long established.

  11. #11 RfP
    August 13, 2008

    Stew: It’s not like they’re republishing your content, it’s for internal use.

    That was my initial take too, but regardless of intent, they did republish his content.

    Alan K: I hate truncated RSS feeds because when I search my feeds for an article I’ve read before, a lot of content doesn’t come up in the search results.

  12. #12 Mike Dunford
    August 13, 2008

    I’ve got to admit that my take on Elsevier’s snatch and grab would be different had they properly attributed the material. Their failure to do so, combined with the extremely prominent statement staking out their copyright to that page, was by far the most irksome aspect of this.

    But, like I said, I figured it was worth mentioning the income stream issue because I can be relatively sure that they’ll at least understand that much.

    As far as truncated RSS feeds go, I really do sympathize with the folks who don’t like them. But I’m going to continue to leave my feed set up that way anyway. Splitting the post into “above” and “below” the fold sections makes the front page layout easier to follow (IMO, anyway). It also lets me stick material that’s going to load slowly somewhere it won’t delay the main page. And the smaller rss feed makes things easier for people who are using dial-up or cell phones.

  13. #13 Ginger Yellow
    August 13, 2008

    Have you taken this up with Seed, Mike? As RfP says, it’s possible they went over your head to your hosts.

  14. #14 Mike Dunford
    August 13, 2008

    That was the first thing I checked. They didn’t.

  15. #15 william e emba
    August 13, 2008

    A Usenet article I first wrote in the late 80s, and then updated in the 90s, has become over the years something of the standard online reference for a certain minor topic. It concerns something that comes up naturally in a standard freshman class, and every expert knows the answer but usually does not know the explanation, which happens to be at the advanced senior and/or beginning graduate level, but nevertheless, it is not required knowledge, beyond answering the usual freshman question.

    Back in grad school I dug through the literature, condensed multiple 10-20 page explanations from scattered sources into 3-4 fairly succinct pages, and posted it, along with examples and references. As topic matter goes, it falls between the cracks. Because it’s a simple issue with a mildly complicated answer that really doesn’t seem to have any purpose beyond answering the question, it’s not in any of the usual references.

    Over the years, I’ve seen my article show up repeatedly whenever I Google myself. It has showed up on one corporate webpage, complete with their copyright slapped on, while still obviously my Usenet article. It’s been translated and neatly formatted in French, with attribution removed along the way. It’s been on the syllabus for a summer junior research program. It was cut-and-pasted into the relevant Wikipedia article’s discussion page.

    In the corporate case, I sent them a polite e-mail pointing out the silliness of their claiming copyright. I got a reply promising to fix it, but they never did, and I did not bother following up. I never found out if the French version added my authorship after I mentioned it to them.

    I believe that if I had written it up as an official paper, it would have been published somewhere and then become as obscure as the references I looked up and just as rarely read, locked under some useless copyright. I believe further that my article has ended up increasing my professional colleagues’ knowledge of this topic.

    Reed-Elsevier is a dying paradigm. Poke them in the eye, Mike!

  16. #16 leigh
    August 14, 2008

    I published a paper in an an Elsevier book recently, although I had serious qualms before submitting it. The qualms were too justified. They redrew my figures, inserting several errors thereby. My equations were garbled. They didn’t want to send me proofs after their revisions, but the book’s editor managed to get them to do it. Most (not all) of the errors did get corrected this way, but obviously they don’t care about publishing accurate science.

  17. #17 Rick
    August 15, 2008

    Mike,

    Good to talk to you earlier today; I appreciate the opportunity to touch base in response to your copyright issues raised on your blog. As I mentioned, we are committed to respecting the rights of copyright holders and content owners, so wanted to address your concerns and investigate what happened. I thought it also might be useful for your blog readers have the info too and appreciate your willingness in allowing me to post this response.

    The newsletter where your content appeared is actually an internal newsletter compiled by LexisNexis for Elsevier Ė a way for Elsevier to keep up on what’s being talked about in the market. That newsletter combines content from LexisNexis as well as content from the Web. Whenever Web content generated by third parties is used in this way, it is the practice of LexisNexis to use only a small amount of that content, and to provide attribution to the contentís author, along with a link to the relevant blog or Web site. As discussed, our investigation concluded that, in this particular instance, these procedures were not adhered to fully.

    As a result, we are taking the following actions:

    * Removing the content in question from the newsletter, if that is your preference (you mentioned it wasn’t).

    * We are reviewing our internal procedures, and conducting refresher training with relevant employees, to ensure Web content is used and attributed appropriately, and in adherence to company practice.

    We also want to make sure your readers understand that the blog content in question is not included in any LexisNexis database. Also, except to the extent included in the internal newsletter, the content has not been accessible or available through any LexisNexis service.

    Thank you, again, for your time and understanding.

  18. #18 Joe Dunckley
    August 16, 2008

    This blog, like almost all blogs, is an open-access publication. There’s no charge to read this blog. If you’ve got an internet connection and time to waste, you can scroll through the things I’ve written to your heart’s content. The thing is, open access doesn’t mean that nobody gets paid.

    Actually, I don’t think this blog is open access. Open access means that it has minimal permission barriers (e.g. Creative Commons attribution license), and would actually mean that (as long as they properly cited you) Elsevier could republish your stuff.

    Your blog is, if I understand the current terminology (and it changes so fast that I’m not sure I do), free access.

  19. #19 W. Kevin Vicklund
    August 22, 2008

    Joe, all ScienceBlogs have a Creative Commons license. So, yes, the blog is open-access.

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