Something of a tempest in a teacup was stirred up this week when a researcher came across an open access article in a journal that had moved between publishers and the new version wasn’t correctly displayed and licensed. While much of the furor stems from a poor understanding of Hanlon’s Razor, it’s also a good reminder of the complexity of moving a journal to a new platform, as well as how confusing Creative Commons (CC) licenses can be to even the staunchest of advocates.
You may have missed it, but the journal Clinical Microbiology and Infection recently moved from a publishing agreement with Wiley to one with Elsevier. The journal is owned by the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ESCMID). For those unfamiliar with society-owned journals, some are self-published, but in this age of market consolidation, most society journals work through partnerships with publishers. These agreements work in the society’s benefit–they get to take advantage of economies of scale along with the infrastructure and superior technologies in place for the publisher, while at the same time the publisher assumes much of the financial risk on the society’s behalf.
These partnerships are usually set up for a limited timespan, often under 5 or 10 year contracts. As the contract expires, the society can re-sign with their current publisher or issue a request for proposals (RFP) to find a new home. When the journal does move to a new publisher, it’s an incredibly complex task that often takes up much of a year. At OUP for example, we have a team of employees solely dedicated to managing these transitions.
Having been through the process multiple times (and being in the midst of a trying transition now), I can attest that there is an absurd amount of detail required, and that while you do your best to make everything perfect, sometimes things slip through the cracks. When noticed, you move quickly to fix errors, often in an iterative manner. It gets complicated when different systems don’t exactly line up. For example, I’ve worked with a journal that switched the way they do volume numbers about 10 years ago, and their pre-switch numbering system doesn’t work exactly right with our platform, so there’s a surprising amount of coding needed to better align things. I’ve also worked with a journal that published “open access” articles for a charge that were made freely available but kept under traditional copyright. Converting those articles to a system based around using CC approaches, particularly when the authors signed their licenses years ago, can be pretty complicated.
In this particular case, what appears to have happened is that Clinical Microbiology and Infection moved from Wiley to Elsevier, and Wiley’s metadata didn’t quite jibe with Elsevier’s system, and some articles that were meant to be OA ended up being incorrectly labeled. While many seem willing to jump on Elsevier and assume this is part of some nefarious plot to defraud authors, this is more a case of dropping the ball on one aspect of a complex process. Even when operating in good faith, mistakes happen. To their credit, when notified, Elsevier did the right thing, and quickly corrected the problem.
One fascinating aspect of the whole non-controversy is how poorly those complaining seem to understand Creative Commons licenses. There’s a problematic assumption that a CC BY-NC-ND license prevents anyone from making commercial reuse of the article (or a derivative work, for that matter). This is resoundingly incorrect. An NC license merely means that in order to make commercial use of the article, one must obtain permission from the copyright holder. It is perhaps particularly ironic that the loudest expression of this confusion stems from someone who has regularly denigrated researchers for not fully understanding licensing terms.
Most publishers receive this permission at the point of publication. The author grants the publisher rights through a licensing agreement, which usually includes the owner of the journal (in this case ESCMID). These agreements give the publisher permission to make commercial use of the article (this is clearly stated in Wiley’s information for authors and samples of their licenses are available under question 26 here). This allows the publisher to do things like run advertisements on their website, include the article as a freely available part of a subscription product or link to services where authors are charged fees for OA publication, all of which could potentially be seen as commercial activities. Further, most licenses also grant the publisher and the journal owner the right to grant others permission for commercial exploitation, hence the ability to include the paper with aggregators like OVID and EBSCO, or transfer the terms over to a new publisher.
Reputable publishers follow the TRANSFER Code of Practice when transitioning a journal either in or out of their platforms. As that code specifically states, “The receiving publisher will ensure that any content that has been previously published under license without charge to users will continue to be made available under the existing terms.” In this case, Elsevier, after a brief hiccup, has followed through on that pledge.
To summarize this case of “much ado about nothing,” CC BY-NC licenses merely prevent commercial exploitation without permission, but that permission is regularly granted to publishers and the owners of journals using that particular CC license. No one is pulling a fast one here. Journal transitions are complicated and sometimes errors happen, which should be (and in this case were) quickly corrected.
*updated to include a link to Wiley’s sample licenses for authors