Do you read journals, or "use a database"?

We had a reception for the Chemical Information Division of the American Chemical Society last night and I spent a considerable time talking with several staff in the publications side of the Society. (I am not attributing personal views in this post, just general impressions). It was illuminating. I’ll try to be objective (it was a party and the drinks were provided by CAS). I met with the staff who were on the other side of our removal of service of ACS journals that I reported last week. Here are some thoughts…
There has been a major shift in how (some) Scientific Publishers see the purpose and practice of scholarly communication. Listening to the words used, “database” has replaced “journal” and “users” has replaced “readers”. I suspect the latter word conflates “purchasing officers” with “readers” into an unhappy anonymous entity. Moreover there is a tension between the publisher and the users – significant content is illegally downloaded and an important role of the publisher is acting as “policeman” making sure that content is not stolen. Thus our problem last week was a student using Firefox and not understanding (realistically how could he?) that “open all tabs in browser” would put the University of Cambridge in breach of contract. Technically this may be true; however in police-community interactions overzealousness is not always a good strategy.  We parted with the observation the “Firefox is a problem”.
Now, I have never advocated breaking or abolishing copyright, but it is clear that this is creating a tension in the publisher/reader community. I’ve been involved in setting or being on the board of scientific journals and I see their major purpose as enhancing scholarly communication. I’m worried that we are losing sight of this, where journals in non-profit organisations are seen as a way of subsiding other activities of the society. If the publishers see “users” as a group who have a major motive to steal content, I suspect things will get worse.
At some stage we seem to have flipped from a community where publishers interpreted the wishes of the community and served them – for a reasonable fee – to a world where publishers make the rules and police their non-compliance. Did anyone in the reader community:

  • actually ask for journals to be transformed to databases?
  • actually ask for content to be limited in time to the duration of a subscription (we used to have physical journals we could take home and even hand down to our descendants or give to needy institutions)

It worries me that this has happened almost silently. I remember in ca. 1970 (when I was too inexperienced to notice) that authors were asked to transfer copyright to publishers. These requests came from trusted societies – national societies and international unions  (At that stage there were essentially no commercial publishers – Pergamon was a few years later). I didn’t think twice about it – but it was one of the biggest mistakes of my scientific life. Are we sleepwalking into something just as serious?
Objectively I have some sympathy with publishers whose content is illegally downloaded – I do believe in copyright. But pragmatically is the way forward to be increasingly draconian with readers (sorry, users)?

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7 Responses to Do you read journals, or "use a database"?

  1. This is an interesting post for a number of reasons. The panoptic nature of the journals is, indeed, interesting. Clearly, “they” see what goes on in other, more open, disciplines and are getting scared.
    One of the best tactics we can do is to communicate the options to graduate and early-career chemists. I suspect that many of them know little about OA, as many of their professors oppose it, know little about it, etc.
    One way to communicate to these very busy students/scholars/early career types is to blog about their options. Peter Suber’s overview is an excellent starting point, and ongoing discussion by those interested will pave the way.
    The pressure on publishers will come when more and more authors support OA by submitting to the journals who allow post-print archiving. This is a difficulty, though, for those working at bigger universities where the prestige of the journal is more important that what gets published.

  2. Subbiah Arunachalam says:

    Yes, it is a good idea to target young researchers. Unfortunately we dot have a medium for chemists similar to The Scientist (the widely circulated magazine run by Gene Garfield) specifically meant for new biologists. If there are such journals, OA advocates can write for them.

  3. anonymous says:

    What does “open all tabs in browser” mean (I don’t remember ever seeing that in Firefox), and could you explain how that leads to breach of contract?

  4. pm286 says:

    (3) Sorry, it should be “Open in Tabs” under Bookmarks. It immediately refreshes all pages and this may mean downloading all the pages at once. This appears to be a simultaneous download of many consecutive pages and could look like a systematic attempt to download the issue.

  5. anonymous says:

    Ok, “Open All in Tabs” (which works on bookmark folders) might *seem* like a systematic attempt to download an issue (not that there’s anything wrong with that, if you have a subscription), but it isn’t – it’s just loading multiple bookmarked pages at once, so there’s no breach of contract there.

  6. pm286 says:

    (5) I haven’t read the contract with the University of Cambridge so I can’t say. It could be argued that I should have and that I should have made sure that all my students should have read the contracts from all umpteen publishers of closed access electronic journals. The contract presumably says that the content belongs to the ACS and that any attempt to download it unreasonably is forbidden. It probably also says that the ACS can shut us off at a moment’s notice if they suspect that we are doing something not allowed by the contract. Downloading 20 files at once presumably appeared suspiciously like an attempt to steal content. It may be that deliberately downloading 20 files at once is actually a breach of contract. (Note the message we got a few milliseconds after the event made it clear that the ACS believed we were trying to download content illegally – it was nothing to do with Denial Of Access).

  7. anonymous says:

    In that case, perhaps you should have parted with the observation “ACS is a problem”.
    :-), but partly serious.

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