Galactic Interactions

Copyright and scientific papers

Scientific papers, like all other sorts of writing or creative expression, are covered by copyright. And, this is potentially a very bad thing.

Copyright grants a lot of sweeping rights to the writers of a paper, or the producers of any creative work. Often, those rights get signed away to a publisher or a distributor, but they are still there and enforceable by law. Among those rights is the right the term “copyright” is named after: the right to make copies of the work, but more significantly, the right to prevent anybody else from making a copy. There’s another right that goes even further, and that some are not aware of: the right to make “derivative works.” You cannot legally create and distribute a movie or novel about Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca, because 20th Century Fox (or Lucasfilms, or somebody) owns the copyright to the works in which those characters were created, and you need a license from them to distribute derivative works.

Scientists do not need, and indeed should not have, exclusive (or any) control over who can copy their papers, and who can make derivative works of their papers.

The very progress of science is based on derivative works! It is absolutely essential that somebody else who attempts to reproduce your experiment be able to publish results that you don’t like if those are the results they have. Standard copyright, however, gives the copyright holders of a paper at least a plausible legal basis on which to challenge the publication of a paper that attempts to reproduce the results— clearly a derivative work!

There is a sort of community agreement in science that we do not assert the legal powers given to us by copyright, because we all understand that the progress of science is dependent on derivative works. However, the recent affair with Shelly Batts’ blog and Wiley (some of Shelly’s posts are here, here, and here) shows that we are living on tenuous ground. Not only can individual scientists use copyright to legally challenge the progress of science, but too often we have signed copyrights over to large corporate entities who may become overzealous in protecting “their rights,” at the expense of the open discourse that is essential to the progress of science.

Because derivative works and direct copying sometimes become murky, the fact neither scientists nor journals or anybody else should have the power to prevent derivative works means that they also should not have the power to prevent copying of scientific papers. But there is another reason: the very reason that a society supports basic scientific research is at odds with the assumptions behind copyright. (There is a difference between the sort of “R&D” that a for-profit entity might do and basic research. And, yes, while some is clearly on one side of the line, and some (like astronomy) is on the other, there is a big grey area that makes it hard to draw the line. I’m not going to get into that right now.) Basic scientific research is not profitable in the same way that R&D, creation of teaching materials, or creation of entertainment is. As such, copyright as a means for creators to produce revenue, thereby as an incentive for creation, doesn’t completely make sense. How is basic science funded? Partially through private foundations and charitable gifts, but largely through government (i.e. taxpayer) funding. Society as a whole pays for what we do, because society as a whole recognizes the value of focused curiosity and exploration. Given that, however, it is completely inappropriate for the papers and results that we produce directly from that exploration to be protected behind a copyright wall. Everybody should be able to freely copy the papers we write, because by and large they have already paid for it! Because by and large the only justification there is for our being paid to do it is that society at large is interested in what we’re finding out!

(Textbooks are another matter; I will point you to this letter to AER that I wrote pondering that issue, and not write more about it now.)

A commenter on a previous article put forward this straw man: if you’re opposed to copyrights on scientific papers, then perhaps we should just all start publishing scientific results anonymously, and only worry about the pure science. This is a straw man because there is a huge gulf between rejecting exclusive control over copying and derivative works, and not receiving any credit for what you’ve done.

We need attribution in science for two reasons. The first reason is that that is how our performance is judged. We absolutely need to have our names on our papers so that the universities, labs, and government funding agencies that pay us and provide us with research funds have some way of judging how much we’re doing. Similarly, when another scientist uses are work, we need them to cite our work.

The second reason is for the reader. When I go and look at a list of scientific papers, I look at the author list. If the paper looks like it might be a little nutty, but the author is somebody whose work I know and whom I respect, I’m going to realize that I have to at least give the paper a chance to be taken seriously. Scientists are people, some are better than others, and some do more respectable work than others. Who is behind a given paper is useful information.

In science, fully citing the works that you are basing your work on is considered a part of professional ethics. Indeed, the ethical requirements for citation go beyond what is required for copyright. You can legally write a time travel story without citing H.G. Wells, or whatever other author you got the idea from. Ethically in science, however, you should cite the paper that the ideas are based on. (This does not mean that Wells’ work would always be cited, for eventually later works become the more concrete basis. It’s complicated.)

The sort of copyright that we need is something like an “Attribution-Share Alike” Creative Commons license. We absolutely should not have, nor should journals have, any sort of exclusive right to prevent reuse of our papers. But we do need credit and citation. I wouldn’t proposal any sorts of laws for this. Indeed, putting all scientific papers in the public domain would be fine. Leave the requirement for citation as a matter of professional ethics. Universities, labs, and scientific societies take such professional ethics very seriously, and that’ s enough enforcement; we don’t need laws. As the Batts/Wiley affair shows, when laws get involved, sometimes very much the wrong interests can flex their muscles in ways that are inappropriate to science.

Comments

  1. #1 Julia
    May 1, 2007

    This is a good look at whether the present copyright system ought to be changed for scientific work.

    Rather than follow the lead of those who seem to be implying that copyright restrictions on the imitation of creative organizational and presentations techniques (such as the creation of visuals, images, graphs, etc.) really don’t exist, or that they just couldn’t possibly apply when the subject is science, you’ve pinpointed the very real problems here.

    Saying loudly “the second author gave credit, so it’s fair use” is not going to assure that a court would agree. Nor is just announcing that the copyright holder ought to be glad for people to copy without asking permission likely to be of much help in a lawsuit. Instead, you’ve highlighted the fact that the copyright itself can in some circumstances have legal consequences that seem to go against the spirit of free sharing of scientific ideas.

    Great post.

  2. #2 Bill
    May 1, 2007

    Scientists do not need, and indeed should not have, exclusive (or any) control over who can copy their papers, and who can make derivative works of their papers.

    This is pretty much backwards from what I understand to be the consensus position among OA/Open Science advocates. Since IP has its place and its uses — and since we’re not likely to be rid of it any time soon — it makes more sense to consciously retain our rights and then assign them as freely and widely as we choose. This is how Creative Commons works — indeed it is entirely dependent on the rights you say scientists “should not” have:

    Offering your work under a Creative Commons license does not mean giving up your copyright. It means offering some of your rights to any member of the public but only on certain conditions.

    (See here or here.) Share-alike, in particular, cannot exist without copyright — this is the basis of all copyleft protections, the idea that copyright can be used to protect the commons as well as an individual.

  3. #3 Bill
    May 1, 2007

    If you’re interested in Open Access, I recommend Peter Suber’s excellent blog and his brief introduction or comprehensive overview.

  4. #4 Markk
    May 1, 2007

    It is not derivatative to try to duplicate an experiment in the copyright sense. The second paper is trying to duplicate the factual results of the first. You can’t copyright facts. That has been held again and again over the years in numerous court cases.

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    May 1, 2007

    Good post — I agree with nearly everything you say, except…

    …I don’t think the “attribution” requirement should be built into copyright law. That’s a matter of courtesy and professionalism, not copyright.

    If someone misrepresents him/herself as the author of a work that s/he didn’t write, that’s fraud, and is covered under other legislation.

    If someone simply neglects to cite her/his sources, then s/he should be chastised by others in his/her profession, but it shouldn’t be a legal matter.

  6. #6 Rob Knop
    May 1, 2007

    …I don’t think the “attribution” requirement should be built into copyright law. That’s a matter of courtesy and professionalism, not copyright.

    I agree, and believe that I said the same thing– although perhaps I wasn’t clear:

    But we do need credit and citation. I wouldn’t proposal any sorts of laws for this. Indeed, putting all scientific papers in the public domain would be fine. Leave the requirement for citation as a matter of professional ethics.

  7. #7 Rob Knpo
    May 1, 2007

    This is pretty much backwards from what I understand to be the consensus position among OA/Open Science advocates. Since IP has its place and its uses — and since we’re not likely to be rid of it any time soon — it makes more sense to consciously retain our rights and then assign them as freely and widely as we choose. This is how Creative Commons works — indeed it is entirely dependent on the rights you say scientists “should not” have:

    Yes, I agree with all of this. But, I consider this an imperfect solution given an imperfect world….

    This is why, indeed, I stick a “by-sa” CC license on my blog.

    -Rob

  8. #8 Rob Knop
    May 1, 2007

    …or at least I thought I did! I don’t see the license in the sidebar. Gotta figure out how to fix that.

  9. #9 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 2, 2007

    A commenter on a previous article put forward this straw man

    Oh, of course, that was why I didn’t recognize hearing it before and couldn’t make sense of it in my tired and hungover state. It was indeed nonsense. (What can I say, Last of April is an old student tradition here. Must honor traditions, you know.:-)

    As I noted before, I don’t think copyright makes much sense in science, since needed intellectual rights handling is already in place. If anything, it messes with a possibly better preexisting system.

    It has worked fairly well. (Though living mostly on mutual respect instead of the fine letter, see how Shelley got shelled.) But with the new outlets and the new copyleft possibilities, both much better suited to the process, I would be happy to see it gone.

  10. #10 Bill
    May 2, 2007

    I don’t see the license in the sidebar. Gotta figure out how to fix that.

    I’ll be interested to hear what the Seed folks think about that.

  11. #11 Rob Knop
    May 3, 2007

    I’ll be interested to hear what the Seed folks think about that.

    I asked about it before I moved my blog here, so I know it’s cool :)

    -Rob

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.