Terra Sigillata

By now you have already heard that my ScienceBlogs colleague, Shelley Batts of Retrospectacle, has been threatened with legal action if she did not remove published figures from a blog post. Shelley had a nifty post on a recent paper in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture detailing how treatment with naturally-occuring volatile compounds (including ethanol and methyl jasmonate) increased the production of antioxidant compounds present in blueberries and strawberries. It was an interesting story but the results didn’t mean that mixing alcohol with fruit mixers was good for you (as represented in some press outlets).

But the story is that Shelley received an e-mail from an editorial assistant for the journal and the London-based Society of Chemical Industry (SCI) requesting that she remove the figures: “If these figures are not removed immediately, lawyers from John Wiley & Sons will contact you with further action.” (Ironically, the tagline for SCI is “where science meets business.” Sounds like it should be “where science gives you the business.”)

So, yes, an agent of the behemoth publisher, John Wiley & Sons, is stomping on a graduate student who has 1) promoted an interesting paper from one of their more obscure journals and 2) corrected some of the press misinformation surrounding the publication.

Most accounts of this story, such as this one from Mark Chu-Carroll (Good Math, Bad Math), hold that Shelley was exercising the “fair use” provision of copyright law. She used two figures of data from a paper she accurately attributed to educate her readers and dispell misinformation as to how the media were representing the findings. I’d be proud to have a graduate student who is so attentive and community-minded. And if I were the authors of the paper, I’d be happy to have my results commented upon and noted outside of my own research community (Ms. Batts is a neuroscientist).

This sort of behavior by an agent of John Wiley & Sons is what is driving the open-access publishing movement. As a condition of publication with conventional publishing houses, researchers more often than not must sign over copyrights to the publisher. More often than not, researchers must also pay the publisher “page charges” to “defray the costs of publishing.” As an example, my last paper cost me (well, my grant supported by US taxpayers) $860 in page charges plus $750 for inclusion of a color figure. I subscribe to this journal (for $125/year) so I still have access to my own published figures. The publisher then holds electronic access to the paper behind subscription rates (fine) for 6 months, a year, or indefinitely and then often charges $30 or more for access to the paper by non-subscribers. As a result, many researchers choose not to publish in journals that charge exorbitant rates or hide their wares behind draconian requirements.

The reason we publish in journals is to share our results with our scientific peers for discussion, comment, and for others to build upon. Hiding data behind prohibitive costs or restricting access to figures runs counter to the spirit of publication. What good is one’s research if no one can read it or disseminate it?

I do commend some journals that actually format their figures such that one can download them directly into Powerpoint for presentation. Electronic access should make dissemination of data easier, not more difficult.

Science bloggers are an extension of the scientific community. We like to bring interesting papers to the attention of our readers, discuss the results in our own context, and encourage you to share your take with us and the community. Science blogs represent a rapid way to disseminate results – more people read this blog daily than have cited my last three papers in total (and I am considered a “low-traffic” blogger). Forward-thinking publishers recognize the viral nature of blogging and encourage the citation of papers and their results in science blogs.

It is clear to me that John Wiley & Sons and its journal editorial staff have not yet grasped this concept.

Update: It appears that Shelley has gotten about as close to an apology as she might expect from a large international publisher. In addition, a commenter who is obviously from Wiley indicated that she already had the implicit permission to show the chart and figure on her blog:

Shelley –

As part of the license that allowed you, as a UM Grad Student, to have access to this journal in the first place, it is clearly stated that you were allowed to use these figures in your academic pursuits, among other fair-use uses. This contract and its permissions were negotiated between UM and Wiley directly (well, in this case through the CIC, but that’s neither here nor there), with the SCI nowhere at all involved. Clearly the SCI got jumpy and overstepped their bounds, and I’m sorry that you had to go through all this, but please notice again that all your communications (at least those posted here) were with SCI directly. This fair-use clause is in every single license Wiley issues for journal access. It may be redundant to most of you but legally it’s there and meant to avoid issues like this one.

Long story short – as far as Wiley is concerned, you already had permission and did not need to ask for it. If you or anyone else ever has problems or questions about something like this, and regardless of the rather-puffed-chest attitude around here regarding open access and fair use it never hurts to just at least ask, your institution will definitely have a person who can answer them for you, or at least find out who can.


  1. #1 Elia Diodati
    April 26, 2007

    “What good is one’s research if no one can read it or disseminate it?”

    Just a side remark, but design is a factor often neglected on academic publishers’ websites, and can sometimes lead to user frustration in trying to look up papers. My favorite is the American Physical Society (for example, prl.aps.org) and my least favorite is Elsevier ScienceDirect (sciencedirect.com). APS has a simple, very clean interface that lets you look up a new citation on the top of every page. OTOH I’m sure everyone has fumbled around at least once on ScienceDirect’s clunky hierarchical interface to play “guess the issue number”. Wiley Interscience and ACS are somewhere in between these two extremes.

  2. #2 David Reagan
    April 26, 2007

    Wow, I never realized what a clip joint the journals are. In the fiction world, these guys would be classed amongst the worst offenders (vanity presses) and derided by all reputable writers.

    Now, I understand that paying your printing costs is part of the scientific publishing landscape, but I wonder why more scientists don’t just publish on the web? Is it a matter of science only being valuable if it’s found in a journal?

    The other bit that boggles my mind is taking your copyright away. That just isn’t cool.

    Seems like someone needs to start up a Science Wiki that would allow free access to scientist and non-scientists alike. If enough researchers took this route, wouldn’t it completely erase the need foe journals? Wouldn’t their research actually be accessible by people who can put it to use? Or am I missing something?

  3. #3 Shelley
    April 26, 2007

    Thanks so much for highlighting this, Abel.

  4. #4 Abel Pharmboy
    April 26, 2007

    David, thanks for coming by to bear witness to our little kerfuffle. The challenge facing us is that the “stature” of the journals in which we publish plays into promotion and tenure decisions. In general, but not exclusively, the highest stature or highest impact journals are not yet open access although we are getting there with journals like PLoS ONE. So, disseminating our research findings is only one part of the story; we must also pass what our peers consider to be rigorous peer reviews for our work to garner stature. Sometimes, the keys to stature are within our own scientific societies but other times are with larger, for-profit entities. Our world must look very odd from your vantage point.

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