Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Open-source access and copyright issues

Regarding the pros and cons of open-source access to writing, I've heard two sides in the scientific community. One is that scientists need access to the results of each other's work as soon as possible, particularly in a global community. Many prestigious departments and universities have begun permitting papers to be posted on their websites as soon as they are written or vetted by the authors' respective departments. Who becomes known for a discovery first is very important in terms of prestige, honors and possible commercial offshoots. Most academic writing benefits scientists' (and other academics') careers indirectly; they are usually not paid for their writing. In fact, most academic and scientific journals charge them to publish, so much more of their time than they would like to spend goes toward seeking grants to cover such charges.

On the other hand, scientific journals say that the volunteer peer-review process is crucial to maintaining the quality and integrity of research. As for attribution, each journal article includes its submission date as verification in case of a dispute over who discovered a process or phenomenon first. Such journals are already under a great deal of pressure from their members to reduce page charges, particularly for color reproductions of charts, graphs and other illustrations. Some are now discouraging print subscriptions and trying to move individuals and institutions, including libraries, to exclusively electronic subscriptions. Surprisingly, however, publication costs do not decline as much as one might think when paper and postage are eliminated.

Another issue is that papers that are posted before peer review may be revised by the authors as more information is available. This may result in confusion over which results are accurate. The increasing use of multimedia supplements to papers also affects the publishing process. Work that is available electronically can be much richer, in terms of color, video, etc., than what can be economically printed. So a journal's dilemma becomes: Which is the official journal, the print journal academic libraries still subscribe to, or the electronic version? So far, most journals are requiring authors to pay color charges for images to be printed if they want them to be available in color electronically. Resistance to electronic-only subscriptions remains high but is declining as the advantages of cost, speed and supplementary materials are recognized.

The copyright process in scientific journals is different from other publications. Authors must transfer their copyrights to the journals upon submission, but they still retain most rights. Reprints, however, require permission from the journals. Increasingly, U.S. journals are publishing work from abroad, where copyright laws are quite different. Another trend is that many individuals and institutions are collaborating on research and publication of results. Consequently, journals are being driven to change their policies. In 2007, for example, one scientific society that publishes a number of journals began making accepted papers accessible via its website immediately upon acceptance by the peer-review editor, if desired by the author(s). Some accepted papers require considerable post-acceptance editing, which is why the production process can take several months, but at least the meat of the work will be searchable as soon as it has been validated by the peer-review process.

This helps to explain why a substantial number of academics support open-sourcing. Their self-interest is quite different from that of the typical writer. For one thing, most of their work is developed by teams and most articles are co-authored, with any financial benefits shared by their institutions. The sooner their work becomes known, the sooner they receive invitations to speak, inquiries from potential commercial interests, promotions, and funding for further research.