Ten years ago, the Budapest Open Access Initiative defined “Open Access” (OA) as including the reuse of published articles for “any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers.”
Recent funding agency mandates calling for OA publication of funded research results have perpetuated this call, with the RCUK and Wellcome Trust requiring works to be released under the CC-BY license, which permits reuse of articles (without compensation) for commercial purposes.
Allowing reuse of published articles for further research is certainly an important goal, but giving up rights revenue from commercial exploitation of published papers may be counterproductive for the research community, shifting a financial burden onto an already overburdened system.
First, a few quick definitions of the different licenses:
CC-BY-NC: You are free to copy, distribute and transmit the work, and to adapt the work. You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Any of the above conditions can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder.
CC-BY: You are free to copy, distribute and transmit the work, to adapt the work and to make commercial use of the work. You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).
Reuse of published papers has become an important issue as technology has reached a point where it’s possible to textmine enormous swaths of the literature in order to perform large-scale analyses of research results. Semantic technologies and other approaches offer great promise for discovering previously hidden connections and conclusions from completed studies and published literature. If these approaches live up to their billing, that’s a tremendous level of efficiency that can be added to the system, milking the absolute most out of any experiment at little additional cost.
It’s understandable why the status quo is no longer adequate, and why funding agencies want to ensure unrestricted access for the research community via the CC-BY-NC license. The question is whether it is in that community’s best interests to see that same level of free access extended to commercial enterprises via the CC-BY license.
The argument in favor of CC-BY, particularly for government funders, is that it will drive the creation of new businesses, resulting in increased employment, tax revenue, etc. But like other aspects of funder OA mandates, it’s unclear whether those making the demands have investigated the impact of likely unintended consequences. Earlier this week, Todd Carpenter wrote a post about the implications these licenses have for standards and for individuals. It’s important to also think about the financial impact they may have on the research community.
As has been discussed numerous times, online publication and providing access to articles costs money. It may be free to the reader, but someone, somewhere is paying for it. Under a CC-BY-NC license, textmining and reuse costs are supported by commercial entities, intent on exploiting the literature to make their fortunes. Under CC-BY, the burden falls on the research community.
The first obvious impact of a CC-BY license is on journal reprints. While this may have little effect in some fields, article reprints (both print and electronic), usually purchased by pharma companies, are an important source of revenue for medical journals. Many publishers, particularly not-for-profits and societies, use those revenues to help keep subscription prices as low as possible. Taking away the sale of reprints means that the lost revenue will be passed along to the subscriber and author, through increased subscription costs or higher article processing charges (APC’s).
I’m pretty sure that subsidizing pharma advertising is not something funding agencies are interested in paying for, yet it is an immediate cost shift that will occur.
But reprints aren’t the only place where the CC-BY license shifts the financial burden from for-profit companies to the scholarly community. The technologies used for textmining and other analyses are constantly evolving. Making publications available for use with new technologies requires a significant level of constant investment. New technologies must be developed and tested, implemented for new articles and retro-fitted to previously published articles. Systems for providing bulk downloads of the entirety of a publisher’s output must be developed, put in place, maintained, and upgraded over time. These bulk downloads result in significant bandwidth costs.
Someone has to pay for all this.
Under a CC-BY-NC license, the research community gains access to material and these sorts of tools, but a good amount of the costs will be borne by those actively trying to use the material and tools to turn a profit. Take away commercial underwriting, and either the research community has to shoulder the entire burden, or these technologies go away altogether. Under CC-BY, without increased research community funding, there is no longer any incentive for publishers to continue to develop and implement these new technologies. Why update your metadata? Why not block bulk downloaders if all they do is cost you money that can’t be recovered?
There is precedent for this sort of arrangement, and this is where things start to border on the hypocritical. Many funding agencies allow researchers and their institutions to patent the results of their work. There’s an obvious disconnect in logic here — if it’s important that everyone have unfettered access to the reports written about the research, then isn’t it even more important that the same level of access is available to the actual results of the research themselves? Does it matter if I can read about your breakthrough in curing cancer if I’m not allowed to use that breakthrough for treatment?
The logic behind allowing those patents is that they serve a few important purposes. First, they provide incentive for researchers — if we want to keep the best and the brightest minds in the academic research world, we need to offer them significant rewards for achievement. Similarly, we want to offer incentives for providing and improving access to the scholarly literature for reuse.
Second, patents provide a significant amount of funding to drive further research. Research institutions rely on this funding, provided by commercial entities, to pay for their continuing research programs. Universities brought in more than $1.8 billion in technology transfer funds in 2011 alone. These funds are in some ways more valuable to an institution than grant funding because they do not have the same restrictions that are normally placed on grant dollars, and thus can be spent where the university needs them most. They also recur dependably for many years on end.
Universities fiercely defend these intellectual property paywalls. The University of California is currently suing Facebook, WalMart, and Disney over alleged patent violations.
A University of California spokesman said it considered the patents public assets and “should be paid a fair value when a third party exploits that university asset for profit.”
But if the patented results were discovered in experiments funded by grants, aren’t they already “Bought, Then Paid For“?
Given how incredibly tight the current research funding climate is, in the end it makes sense that successful research programs should be allowed to parlay that success into further funding. If a company is going to strike it rich using a university’s invention, then that company should be able to afford to pay for the raw materials that led to their fortune.
And if a company is going to strike it rich using published papers, then that company should be able to afford to pay for the raw materials and tools that led to their fortune.
Opening access to the literature for reuse without increasing the financial burden for the academic research community can be accomplished with a CC-BY-NC license. In some ways, it’s also in the best interests of the for-profit companies themselves.
One important lesson that the Internet has taught us is that it’s foolhardy to rely upon free services for mission critical activities. As the famous line goes, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” Free services must find a way of paying the bills, and those become the priority for the service, not the needs of users.
If you’re a textmining company, would you rather work with a resource that’s constantly creating new APIs and faster delivery mechanisms, or one that neglects any improvements in these areas and actively works against bulk downloading of papers? If textmining companies want well-maintained, up-to-date, and easy-to-use resources that are sustainable over the long-term, they must be willing to pay for those services. Without that support, publishers have no incentive to serve their needs.
I do think economic growth can be generated even if startups have to pay for access to raw material. I would like to see measures put in place to require low and consistent fees for that access, and have in the past suggested compulsory licensing as one solution. At the very least, funders may want to consider a more nuanced licensing approach, outlining specifically what activities are required to be free. This will help prevent the financial burden being shifted from commercial, for-profit interests to the research community.
While broadening access to research literature is an important goal, it must be done in a well-planned manner, one which doesn’t result in increased work and increased financial hardships for the researchers themselves. The choices here seem pretty clear cut: the status quo is not acceptable, so we can either move to an unreliable system that requires additional funds to come out of research budgets, or we can instead plan for a sustainable system supported on the backs of those looking to exploit the literature for financial gain.