Access to WHO?

Gavin Baker posts a long discussion of the complexity of licences related to the WHO Bulletin. The gist of this is that complexity is hindering necessary things like (human language) translation and re-use. In similar vein one important WHO publication for me is WHO Drug (e.g. latest issue). Excerpts from Gavin:

WHO’s journal has backwards approach to open access

The World Health Organization, an agency of the United Nations, is ostensibly an organization dedicated to the public interest. The fourth point of the WHO agenda is “harnessing research, information and evidence”. In support of these goals, the agency publishes a scientific journal, the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. In their own words:

Since it was first published in 1948, the Bulletin has become one of the world’s leading public health journals. … [The Bulletin is] the flagship periodical of the World Health Organization…
(from “About the Bulletin”)

The Bulletin is no scientific backwater; it’s a relatively influential journal:

[...]
After some investigation, my verdict is: close, but no cigar.

The Bulletin gets one major point right:

In keeping with its mission statement, the peer-reviewed monthly maintains an open-access policy so that the full contents of the journal and its archives are available online free of charge.
(from “About the Bulletin”)

[...]
Print subscriptions to the Bulletin are also available and relatively affordable: $298 annually for developed countries, $163 for developing countries (both including shipping).

The Bulletin is published in English, with article abstracts and MeSH descriptors of main articles translated into Arabic, French and Spanish. This is not a complete solution to overcome language barriers, but it is a good start. (No journal has the resources to translate its content into every human language, or even the six official languages of the UN.)

This is where things start to go downhill.

If the Bulletin wants to facilitate solutions to overcome language barriers, it should grant users the right to freely make translations of articles. The Public Library of Science journals and others do this by adopting Creative Commons licenses that permit derivative works. In fact, PLoS maintains a list of translations of its articles, enabled by the CC Attribution license.

[...]
In the face of these compelling arguments [...omitted...] to allow user translations, what does the Bulletin’s policy say?

The Bulletin requires each author of a contribution to grant an exclusive licence to help ensure international protection against infringement of copyright, in particular unauthorized photocopying, digital distribution, and other use by third parties, and so that it can handle requests from third parties to reproduce contributions or parts of contributions.
(from “Licence for publication”)

So the Bulletin does not use open license. Moreover, the Bulletin requires authors to assign their copyright to the journal, so the authors themselves cannot adopt a CC license for their articles. (However, it is believed that in such transfers, journals only acquire the copyright on the article in its form as finally published, i.e. not on earlier revisions. Therefore, an author would still be legally entitled to adopt a CC license for a pre-print of the article.)

[...]
The situation is not so dire with the Bulletin: there is no DRM wrapped around its articles. But the WHO copyright notice may serve to inspire uncertainty:

Extracts of the information in the web site may be reviewed, reproduced or translated for research or private study but not for sale or for use in conjunction with commercial purposes. … Reproduction or translation of substantial portions of the web site, or any use other than for educational or other non-commercial purposes, require explicit, prior authorization in writing.

Whether this statement is meant to permit data mining for research purposes is a debate for the copyright lawyers. If it does, whether it permits researchers employed by for-profit organizations to do so is equally unclear. (Why the WHO would seek to do either is even foggier.)

Even worse, the copyright transfer agreement further muddies the water:

I/we hereby grant to the publisher for the full period of copyright including any renewals or extensions throughout the world and in all languages an exclusive licence to publish the above contribution … and to exploit subsidiary rights in the contributions, including database rights. (emphasis added)

This is counterproductive on two grounds:

  1. It is incredibly vague. Moreover, since database rights are standardized only in the EU, users elsewhere are left to ponder what “database rights” exist in their jurisdiction, if they exist at all.
  2. It is the polar opposite of what the WHO should encourage: the proliferation of Bulletin articles in databases, which will increase access and “findability” for users.

To be fair, the copyright transfer does include a handful of rights for the author or her institution. However, the rights granted are far less than the author (and all other users) would receive with a CC license – less rights, I will argue, than are sufficient.

It remains unclear how the Bulletin proposes to enforce the publication agreement against authors who can claim no copyright in their article, such as this article by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As icing on the cake, the Bulletin adheres to the Ingelfinger rule. This means a researcher with important public health discoveries may not publish, “in whole or substantial part”, his findings – including, one can assume, on a blog or other Web site – if he wishes to be considered for publication in the Bulletin. In attempting to reserve prestige for the journal, the Bulletin does a disservice to both science and public health, by discouraging the quickest and widest possible dissemination and discussion of research.

It’s time for the Bulletin to amend its policies: to reflect the realities of research in the 21st century, and to maximize the WHO’s investment in human health.
PMR: It is depressing to find this complexity at every stage. One major message is that there is a global illiteracy in almost all major institutions as to what is required in the C21. I am sure that the WHO does not wish to make it difficult to find information - and lack of information increases health risks.

I worked with the WHO on-and-off for several years on their International Classification Of Disease (ICD) so  I have a little insight. I wanted to make an electronic version of WHO Drug - and if you look at the chemical structure diagrams therein you will see the benefit of doing so. At the very least they should include InChIs.

But it seems like we have a long way to go in getting the message through - the problems are everywhere.

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