Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Carl Zimmer contrasts Wiley and PLoS

Carl Zimmer, An Open Mouse, The Loom, May 24, 2007.  Excerpt:

[This] is also a chance to add my two cents to a discussion that's been bubbling for a few weeks: the clash between bloggers and scientific journal publishers. Last month Shelley Batts at Retrospectacle wrote a post about a paper, and included a chart that appeared in it. She promptly got a letter from Wiley, the journal's publisher, menacing her with legal action unless she took the chart down. A long discussion then unfolded about fair use, a concept so mystical that I get a headache every time I try to figure out whether it applies to some text or image I'd like to use in my own work. Once the controversy reached Boing-Boing proportions, Wiley sent Batts a note telling her that it was all a big misunderstanding and that they "would typically grant permission on request in order to ensure that figures and extracts are properly credited."

For us science writers, there's a huge irony to this episode. Scientific journals like attention. The better-funded ones will go to great lengths to get stories written about their papers. They offer us science writers elaborately appointed press packages offering sneak peeks at papers coming out in the near future. They sometimes give us the cell phones of the authors of those papers, in case we need to call them in the middle of the night....

But scientific journals also cling to conventions that block the news from spreading --particularly through the online world. Wiley, for example, initially reacted to Shelley not with enthusiasm, but with a menacing note. When Shelley responded by politely asking for permission, she was told to contact another person at Wiley. And when Wiley finally sort-of apologized, they still expected Shelley to jump through conventional hoops to get permission. All this kerfuffle over a little graph. It might have taken days to get permission to reprint it, which in the blogosphere is a geological era. Wiley was, consciously or unconsciously, going out of their way to squash interest in their papers.

Compare Shelley's experience to what I'm about to do. I'm going to --shudder-- reprint a diagram from a journal. Just lift it straight out....

[PS:  Omitting chart and discussion of it.]

[The chart is from] a paper they published last summer in the journal PLOS Genetics....

And what do I now hear from PLOS? Do I hear the grinding of lawyerly knives?  No. I hear the blissful silence of Open Access, a slowly-spreading trend in the journal world.  PLOS makes it very clear on their web site that "everything we publish is freely available online throughout the world, for you to read, download, copy, distribute, and use (with attribution) any way you wish." No muss, no fuss. If I want to blog about this paper right now, I can grab a relevant image right now from it. In fact, I just did.

I certainly appreciate the importance of copyrights (as the owner of many for my articles and books), but in these situations, keeping information behind a thick wall starts to seem a bit crazy, like the loss of precious bodily fluids. Far from committing some sort of violation to the PLOS paper, I have actually just spread the word about it. A few readers may even go back to read the original. And it was so easy and straightforward for me to do so that I will be very reluctant to bother with anything else.

PS:  The Batts/Wiley story broke in late April when I was traveling.  If I'd been at my desk, I'd have covered it or at least I'd have tried.  But because the comments proliferated explosively, I wasn't at my desk, and I had a full load of other work, I decided that I had to let it go.  I'm glad to catch up a bit with this post.  I'm also glad to have the chance to recommend comments by Mark Chu-Carroll, Cory Doctorow, Matt Hodgkinson, Bill Hooker, Rob Knop, Brock Read, Kaitlin Thaney, Bryan Vickery, and Alan Wexelblat.  Finally, Katherine Sharpe at ScienceBlogs, where the controversy began, solicited comments from five "experts and stakeholders" (Jan Velterop of Springer, John Wilbanks of Science Commons, Mark Patterson of PLoS, Matt Cockerill of BMC, and me.)