The Law of the Excluded Mumble; Please SIGN the Principles of Open Bibliographic Data

In classical logic there is a Law of the Excluded Middle

that states (roughly, but read the article) that something is either TRUE or not TRUE (==FALSE).

This principles does NOT hold in scholarly publishing where there are three states:

  • The material is OKD-Open LIBRE. You can use it without seeking permission
  • The material is definitively Not OKD-Open (Gratis or CLOSED). If you re-use it you are liable to take-down mandates, lawyers letters, having services arbitrarily cut off by suppliers of “their” content, and personal lawsuits (and this has happened).


Mumble is the main non-LIBRE response from most publishers when you ask about whether there are specific permissions to re-use material. In terms of frequency they are:

  • Null response. Yes, most publishers don’t even reply to polite requests for factual information. I once mailed FIVE editors of a scholarly journal asking if I could annotate their material. Not one had the courtesy to reply. How can I ensure that a journal or publisher can at least have the decency to reply to a responsible question? But because I am just a reader I can be ignored (the publisher’s customers, or “end-users” are the purchasing officers – readers don’t count for anything in this market). The problem with the null response is that there are so many ways to justify doing nothing.
  • The filibuster. The publisher apparently offers to give an answer but never does. We are still waiting for a response from a major publisher after four years. It’s always polite – “let’s talk about it when we next meet” or similar. By comparison my enquiry with Elsevier about whether I can text-mine chemistry is a mere eighteen months old. We’ve finally got to the stage where they have referred it to their legal experts. All will be revealed on this blog. A few days ago I asked if the discussion could be public. So far, null response.
  • Classic mumble. This can take so many forms. Typical phrases are “it all depends on…”, “well I am not a lawyer, so…” [“my car has broken, can you fix it … Sorry, I am not a lawyer”].
  • Paper chase. “If you refer to the UK copyright act… you’ll find what you need”. Pointing people to legal documents is a surefire way of bottling the problem. We want answers, not meta-answers.
  • Reductio ad absurdum. This is using logic and terminology to escape the problem. I had a discussion recently. I won’t reveal the source. I wanted to know if data in publications were free to use. “well you can re-use really raw data, but data on publisher’s web sites has had creative treatment and so is potentially copyright”. (qualified by “it all depends what sort of data”). Could I use graphs, tables? (Elsevier has given me a NO on this – all data in tables and graphs belongs to Elsevier. See BtPDF discussions. At least NO is better than mumble. Of course I do not accept this.). “So is a spectrum printed from a machine really raw data?” “It all depends – the software used to print it is creative so possibly not.” Oh, dear.
  • The pious hope. Create a declaration that everyone agrees to. The STM publishers agreed 5 years ago ( ). This states “Raw research data should be made freely available to all researchers. Publishers encourage the public posting of the raw data outputs of research. Sets or sub-sets of data that are submitted with a paper to a journal should wherever possible be made freely accessible to other scholars [their emphasis]”. Problem solved. “it all depends what is meant by data”, “it all depends what is meant by free”. “wherever possible”. Classic mumble. I observe that compliance rates are “variable”.

I announced that DOIs were free of copyright yesterday and got a Friend Feed (we are not meant to reveal authors):

“but what possible value could one derive [from] asserting copyright over their DOI suffix?”

Well, I am afraid the answer is “Lots”. Some publishers copyright their identifiers (the ACS copyrights CAS identifiers for chemical compounds ( ). Many publishers sell their tables of contents to meta-publishers. For money. The meta-publishers then sell this information back to us. It’s rather as if I want to know my neighbour’s house number – “I can’t tell you because I sold it to a Directory”. “Can I tell other people what your number is?” “Sorry, signed a contract that I mustn’t reveal my house number without permission”. Bibliographic data is the house numbering of scholarship. Without it you cannot find and identify scholarly works. And in the OKF we assert that this information is LIBRE. Not “should be”. IS.

So if you wish to protect your little market of selling bibliographic data you can assert that this data is created by a creative act. You, the publisher, have creatively created a DOI. It’s your property. So if someone republishes “your” bibliographic data and it includes “your” DOIs you can send “your” lawyers to remove all the work done – and that protects your market.

Let’s assume you are a publisher and your think I’m being unfair. And of course all generalizations are unfair – many publishers are very very cooperative. And you are one of them.

The answer is simple:


That will not only identify you as a publisher who regards bibliographic data as LIBRE…

… It will identify you as a PUBLISHER WHO CARES! And that solves the problem of the Excluded Mumble.

BTW the principles are for signing by anyone. Libraries, funders are also particularly welcome.

If everyone signs the Principles then the bibliographic data problem is solved! The DOI was just the first step.

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One Response to The Law of the Excluded Mumble; Please SIGN the Principles of Open Bibliographic Data

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