In dramatic statement, European leaders call for ‘immediate’ open access to all scientific papers by 2020?

Or so say Science and various others; you can read the EU PR directly. And of course, mixed into the tenor of the times, this becomes "another reason to stay in the EU" (and we'll quietly forget about an apparently insane new car hire rule). Anyway, what immeadiately strikes me about this "new" thing is that it is what the US has had forever, so why is it being touted as so exciting? Even Science, who are USAnians, don't mention that aspect, so perhaps I'm wrong. Also, I shouldn't forget to snark how pathetic it is that in EU-world (or perhaps just snail-like-government-in-general-world) "immeadiate" means 20201.

What I'm thinking of is Copyright status of work by the U.S. government which is a delightful policy in many ways. To quote wiki, A work of the United States government, as defined by the United States copyright law, is "a work prepared by an officer or employee" of the federal government "as part of that person's official duties."[1] In general, under section 105 of the Copyright Act,[2] such works are not entitled to domestic copyright protection under U.S. law and are therefore in the public domain. The crucial bit is "in the public domain". Compare that to Crown Copyright where the reverse applies - everything is copyright; and they have to jump through special hoops to make PR pix available. For example, look at wikipedia. Which is stuffed full of pix produced by Feds; because you can, with no trouble at all. And the US situation isn't perfect: in some way I don't fully understand, contractors aren't covered in some situations.

However, not being a copyright lawyer and hating all that goes with such, I don't want to go into those details. Instead, let's turn to scientific publishing. Traditional, non-open-access journals regularly require you to sign away copyright (or rather, because of course you personally don't own the copyright in your own work because you did it for your employer the government, your institution on behalf of the government signs away those rights). Cue much gnashing of teeth. Unless of course you're working for the Feds, whereupon the journals just shrug and say "oh well we'll publish it anyway".

If any individual scientist, or institution, refused to sign away copyright then their papers would be rejected, because the journals are powerful. But if any major country, or group of countries, did the same, then the journals would just kowtow the way they do to the Feds and say "ah well". So the mystery is why the UK, France, Germany, and hence the rest of the EU haven't done this years back; or rather, the apparent mystery, since it isn't particularly mysterious: no-one in UK government is particularly sympathetic to giving things away for free, because they are stupid; and the journals have lobbying clout; and "it would cost jobs" and similar nonsense.

Notice that making US Fed papers non-copyright doesn't allow you to download them from the journals themselves, which of course can still charge you for access. But it allows authors to make them freely available. In contrast, the NERC "Open Research Archive" won't allow you to download papers.

The EU proposal is somewhat vague, at least as I read it. All scientific articles in Europe must be freely accessible as of 2020... Open access means that scientific publications on the results of research supported by public and public-private funds must be freely accessible to everyone... From 2020, all scientific publications on the results of publicly funded research must be freely available. It also must be able to optimally reuse research data. To achieve that, the data must bemade accessible, unless there are well-founded reasons for not doing so.... So this doesn't mandate publication in OA journals; individual scientists or institutions making papers available would suffice. The data bit would be nice, but from my viewpoint its a far smaller issue than the papers.

So, the overall question is, why is the EU making such a fuss about doing something the US has had for ages? Especially since they're going to do it in a stupid broken way, instead of just passing a law that say "no copyright in government works"?

[Update: Eli has things to say - oddly enough - one of which was "The UK is already there" which surprised me. It is true that RCUK Policy on Open Access exists, and even a policy, but it is much less clear what it commits the UK to.]


1. NB points out that I've misread this: "immediate" doesn't represent when this is to be done, but qualifies the phrase "open access", as in no, or short, embargoes.

More like this

The US "fed" case is pretty limited - most federally funded research labs are not under that umbrella. It does affect research from military labs and NIST but not most of the DOE or NASA facilities as far as I know (due to the contractor relationships under which they are run). Still you have a good point here, thus copyright policy really hasn't bothered journals at all up to now.

By Arthur Smith (not verified) on 30 May 2016 #permalink

' in UK government is particularly sympathetic to giving things away for free, because they are stupid'

I thought that was the case too but apparently govt attitudes have changed in the last few years and, according to the UK representative at the Council of the EU (NTBCW the European Council) Competiveness Council meeting, the new proposals are in line with existing UK policy on 'open science'.

And that seems to be true. Since 2012 the UK govt has been committed to making all publicly funded research freely available, I think by 2020 again, though I can't refind that.

[They don't seem to be in any hurry; I found their OA policy, which as I said is nice but vague; it seems to be short on specifics -W]

I wonder if Tim Berners-Lee deserves some of the credit for the attitude change. I think he had something to do with getting the Ordnance Survey to make a lot of its maps and DTMs freely available.

By Vinny Burgoo (not verified) on 30 May 2016 #permalink

Other people already picked up on your fundamental misunderstanding: public-funded research in the US *is not the same thing* as "work by the US government". The latter excludes essentially everything funded by the NSF, the NIH, DARPA, and so on. It does include some work by NASA, NCDC, NSIDC, NOAA, and so on, but even there the public domain rule was deliberately eroded over many years by "contractor" rules and the like.

The OA movement is going to win this war, in the US and the UK (and the EU) but it is a long drawn-out campaign - unsurprising, given how much money the publishers make from their rent-seeking. I could snark here about free markets and regulation but who has the energy?

[That's all very vociferous, but why not fix the problem by doing what the US has done, but without the loopholes? Why are you so keen on more copyright? I find it very puzzling -W]

The other thing I'd mention is that "immediate", in your title, is part of the noun phrase "immediate open access", meaning "without embargo" (so any published paper will be immediately available free of charge, rather than after some fixed embargo period such as 6, 12, or 18 months). I expect you know that already, but some readers might suspect snark at the contrast between "immediate" and "by 2020", which are measuring different things. Maybe Usain Bolt will run the 200m in Rio in 19 seconds, but those 19 seconds won't start until some time in August.

[No, I hadn't realised that at all -W]

> why not fix the problem by doing what the US has done, but without the loopholes? Why are you so keen on more copyright?
Well, personally I have very little enthusiasm for any copyright at all, but the ships of science and of state turn slow and majestic like. Planck's Second Law and all that. I don't know how much law would have to be ditched and how many treaties rewritten to destroy all copyright in public-funded scientific works, but it's far from a small amount, and just imagine the law suits. This way we get what we need - open science - sooner, even if it is by stuffing the mouths of the publishers with APC gold.
Some less hot-headed people than myself might suggest that keeping copyright and requiring attribution (for example with CC-BY) would make for better communication and better science than ditching copyright altogether (which, for instance, would let me take your papers and republish them under my name, or under your name with different data, how we laughed).

[No-one is proposing making this retroactive, so your objections vanish. And as to the "problem" of republication under another name, that's not a problem in the US, so why here? I get the impression that you're making up objections to dropping copyright in order to like the new scheme, which still seems odd to me -W]

By Nick Barnes (not verified) on 30 May 2016 #permalink


The means are still somewhat vague but the determination to reach the goal of having all scientific articles freely accessible (OA) immediately by 2020 is welcome. The goal is definitely reachable, and well worth reaching — in fact it’s long overdue.

It would be helpful, however, if the means of reaching the goal were made much more explicit, and with equal determination:

1. The EU can only ensure that its own scientific article output is OA by 2020. The EU cannot ensure that the scientific article output from the rest of the world (which is also the scientific article output to the EU) is OA by 2020 too. But if the EU adopts the right means for providing its own output, there is a good chance that it will be matched by the rest of the world too.

2. The right means for the EU to make all of its own scientific article output OA by 2020 is to require that it be deposited in the institutional repository of the author(s) of the article. This is called “Green OA.” The deposit should be made immediately upon acceptance for publication (because if the 2019 scientific article output is deposited in 2021, that is certainly not OA in 2020).

3. The deposit need not be the published version of the article; it need only be the final, peer-reviewed, accepted version.

4. The plan mentions Green OA, Gold OA (paying to publish in an OA journal) and hybrid combinations of the two. The EU is welcome to spend whatever funds it finds worthwhile to spend to pay for Gold OA, as long as immediate Green OA is required for all EU scientific article output. The rest of the world will match the EU’s provision of Green OA, but it is much less likely that the rest of the world will match the EU’s expenditure on Gold OA.

By Stevan Harnad (not verified) on 31 May 2016 #permalink

To clarify the US "not subject to copyright" rule: It applies if and only if all of the authors on the paper are civil servants. So some work at NASA centers is covered, but not all, because (at least at Goddard Space Flight Center; I don't have firsthand knowledge of other NASA facilities) some employees are civil servants and others are contractors.

My understanding is that Crown copyright is a potential issue in all Commonwealth countries. AGU's copyright procedures mention a special form that is needed in cases where Crown copyright applies. Authors from non-Commonwealth countries, including the rest of the EU, use the standard copyright transfer form, unless the US Government exception applies.

[Yeah, now you mention it I recall special forms / sections for Crown copyright -W]

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 31 May 2016 #permalink

IMO very few EU rules are insane, you just have to understand the context and out the background. IIUC the hire car rule is to do with regulations on importing/using a non- EU registered case. Here's what HMG says about being a non -EU registered case to the UK..." If you bring a vehicle from outside the EU
You don’t pay VAT or duty on a vehicle if you temporarily import it from outside the EU and all of the following apply:

it’s for your own private use
you’re not an EU resident
you don’t sell, lend or hire it within the EU
you re-export it from the EU within 6 months - or longer if you’re eligible to use foreign number plates for longer"

Perhaps you can now understand why a Swiss i.e. non-EU not car would present problems.

Tl:dr the hire car rule is to prevent avoidance of tax/duty when importing a non-EU car.

[I don't think that makes sense. What you say might well be the intent; but if the people drawing up the rules are too stupid to do so without avoiding impact on hire cars, then they are too dumb to be employed, and should be fired -W]

By Nigel Franks (not verified) on 31 May 2016 #permalink

> I get the impression that you’re making up objections to dropping copyright

I'm obviously not making myself clear.

I would welcome a change in the law to make all newly published scientific materials automatically and immediately public domain. Failing that, CC-BY or equivalent. Paper, data, code, proposals, everything. This is coming, but not coming fast enough. I think that anything not fully open is, in some sense, not really science, and certainly falls well short of the ideal. I think that the scientific publishing industry, as currently constituted, is a terrible leech on the public and a significant brake on scientific and societal advancement. Peter Murray-Rust says, quite rightly, "closed access means people die."

For that matter, I think that almost any reduction in the absurd scope and duration of copyright would be a good thing. It's a gross infringement of free speech and curtailment of creativity. I think that the optimum degree of copyright (and other intellectual property) protection is far, far less than at present, and may be zero.

Now, having said all that, what then should we do? Well, we should engage with people holding other views and try to get laws and customs and institutions and practices changed in the right direction. Many, many people have been working hard on this for many years, but changing things takes time (hence my remarks about the ships of state and science). This EU open access target is part of that process.

When I mentioned destroying copyright, I was not imagining anything retrospective, or trying to suggest that you were. Such a change would be a fine thing, but is probably well beyond the realm of the possible. Imagine the lobbying! Imagine the lawsuits! I was just saying that the existing systems (legal, institutional, and customary) of copyright are large and complex, and that making public-funded science papers automatically public domain would not be easy. Public domain isn't a copyright license, it's a whole 'nothing thing.

And the idea that the US is some public domain paradise is just bunk. It ain't so.

By Nick Barnes (not verified) on 31 May 2016 #permalink

In the UK, the first owner of copyright in a work is the employer of the author if the author produced the work in the course of their employment.

That means, in most cases, research produced by an academic employed by a UK university will be owned by the university, not by the government. It will not be Crown Copyright. Universities are corporations (of various kinds) and quite separate from the Crown.

If Crown copyright entered the public domain on creation it would not catch this or indeed a great deal of research work, although it would catch a great deal of other work which would be interesting.

Academics in the USA are not employees of the Federal government (except in very rare cases) and so their works will not be caught by the public domain provision.

Also state copyright still applies :-).

In the UK there is only one kind of work that automatically enters the public domain.

By Francis Davey (not verified) on 31 May 2016 #permalink

The apparently insane rule on hire cars is to prevent avoidance of tax/duty when bringing in a car from outside the EU. Just look at HMG's conditions for bringing in a car from a non-EU country and you'll see.

By Nigel Franks (not verified) on 01 Jun 2016 #permalink

The premise here is based on a misunderstanding. The US federal government spends around $70B on research. Of this only a tiny fraction is carried out by direct government employees and is therefore in the public domain.

Around $10B is spent on "intramural" research, i.e. that done by the agencies themselves, but even in this case most agencies have arrangements which meant that researchers are not direct employees (NIST and DOE facilities are contracted out).

Overall more than 90% of federally funded research is performed by non-federal employees and therefore the copyright exemption doesn't apply.

Now I happen to believe that such an exemption for government funded research would be a great thing but its a political non-starter, both in the US and Europe. We've spent years trying to get a formal exemption that states that people with legal access to research content are allowed to load it into a computer to do content mining and we haven't yet won that (relatively small) battle.

Removing a whole set of content from the purview of copyright altogether just isn't going to happen. That's why we need to develop legal and sustainable means of making the content available (including for example Pubmed Central, Institutional and other Repositories, and various models of Open Access publishing).

See these for helpul info:

By Cameron Neylon (not verified) on 02 Jun 2016 #permalink