Copyright madness – story 1

Today I have come across two accounts of copyright problems which highlight the complete absurdity of our current practices in the twenty-first century. We are crippling our scientific process. Here’s the first from my colleague Nico Adams’ blog. It’s a full, racy account and I’ve only omitted the images.

Requesting Permissions for Re-use of Copyrighted Material. – August 15th, 2007


Now I am not normally one to rant, at least not on a blog, but today I encountered something that makes me just mad…..and I mean hopping mad.
I have just finished writing a review paper […] I have included some figures, which were taken from the original research papers forming part of the review. Given that these were not my figures and that I respect and honour the copyright of other authors who have worked hard to produce high-quality and illustrative figures for their publications and the copyright of publishers who have been assigned those rights by an author, I went off to request permissions for re-use of copyrighted material from the relevant publishers. The review was based on about 150 papers, and I had taken figures from a few of them…ACS, RSC…no problem. Their procedures are all more or less automated and relatively pain free, although time consuming. And then, well then I came to Elsevier……
Elsevier has outsourced their copyright clearance procedure to a company called the Copyright Clearance Centre (I have included the link for your edification), which, on its website claims to “help to advance education, innovation and the free flow of information.” So far so good. Following Elsevier’s instruction, the first thing I have to do to obtain permission, is to go and find the resource I took the figure from on ScienceDirect. So off I go and locate the relevant journal (Talanta) and citation on Science Direct. Next, the website instructs me to find the abstract of the paper and to press the “Request Permissions” button.
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Pressing this button launches a pop-up window which asks me what I want to do and I make my
selections:
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I am somewhat curious as to why it asks me which currency area I am currently in, but decide to ignore it for the moment. Having made my choices, I hit the “continue” button. I am then asked to set up an account as I have never used rights link before. Ok, getting tedious, but I hit the button to set up an account (note: none of this is necessary with the other publishers). I am now taken to a page where the anger really sets in: they are asking me how I want to pay.
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How I want to pay?? All I want is to request permission for reuse of one small figure. I do not want to pay anything – my institution is subscribing to the journal for me. Why on earth would you want to lump requests for re-use of copyrighted material together with a business process that may be appropriate for the purchase of pay-per-view access? If I do not want to have pay-per-view access, why do I need to hand over payment details? However, the dropdown menu only gives me the opportunity to choose between a credit card payment and an invoice.
Hmmm…..on I go and fill in my details hoping that the “payment” thing is just going to go away down the line. But no such luck and sure enough, on the next screen I am being asked for my credit card details IN ORDER TO BE ABLE TO SET UP AN ACCOUNT to request re-use permissions.
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At this stage, I broke off the procedure. I understand that it might be convenient for the “Copyright Clearance Centre” to set up an account for me in such a way, that if I ever wanted to purchase a journal article from one of their customers, they have all the necessary information. IT IS NOT CONVENIENT FOR ME. All I want is permission to re-use a figure in a paper. I do not think that I should have to hand over my credit card details for this and I refuse to do so.
So what is the consequence of this? I am not prepared to set up a Rightslink account with the Copyright Clearance Centre under these circumstances. Therefore I cannot obtain permission to reproduce the figure I wanted and therefore I cannot use the figure in my paper. Furthermore, there is the personal inconvenience: I now have to throw the figure out of the manuscript and to renumber all of my figures in the text. This will cost me at least half an hour.
More significantly though, this has a negative impact on scientific dissemination. On the grand scale of things, it is only a tiny thing, but in effect this has stopped me from re-using a figure created by other scientists, which, I am sure, have a vested interest in their research being talked about, evaluated and disseminated. That is part of a scientist’s core business. The Copyright Clearance Centre has neither helped to advance education and innovation, nor indeed the flow of information, but rather has impeded it. And Elsevier is indirectly guilty: they have not done their best for their authors by helping to disseminate their science, but are collaborating with an organisation which actually puts people off reusing science. They have allowed requests for re-use of material to be lumped into the same procedure used for the purchase of pay-per-view articles. At best that is thoughtless and very poor customer service.
Now as I say, I don’t like to rant, but this kind of thoughtlessness makes me mad.

PMR: I feel the same emotions. I would not have paid to include and image from someone else’s paper. It could even have been in another Elsevier article – I don’t know the details. I would also have omitted the image, as it’s too much effort. So all that this has achieved is:

  • to impoverish science. The article is worse that it should have been because a publisher made it not worth the author’s while. The publisher has made no money from the non-deal. It has also antagonised a scientist. So little wonder that the scientific community feels that many publishers are part of the problem.
  • to waste time. This sort of stuff takes ages. If, by contrast, the works are licensed under Creative Commons, all the author has to do is acknowledge the source of the image(s) which takes a minute or two. So all this negative stuff is also wasting time. More impoverishment.

PMR: Nico has been very balanced and posted an article from a helpful publisher, PNAS (see Copyright Permissions – How they can also be done! ). Again worth reading in detail, including a clear account of why PNAS (fairly recently) requested copyright transfer. Partly because:

“Unfortunately, PNAS cannot provide permission for others to use all or part of articles published from 1915 to 1992 because we do not hold copyright. Only the original authors or their designees can grant permission. Researchers are frustrated when they contact us for permission to use seminal works and we are unable to grant their requests. “

PMR: Possibly true. But a paper in 1915 would require most authors to be about 112 years old or more. I have not been able to contact many spirits for permissions so it’s rather difficult. But more in the next post…

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