'Stop pretending copyright piracy doesn’t matter'

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Rick Anderson was interviewed as part of Research Information's report The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018

What do you see as the biggest challenges in scholarly publishing today?

From a library perspective, one of the biggest challenges in scholarly publishing is the flat to declining funding environment for libraries. It’s affecting journals in that libraries are able to subscribe to fewer titles, but it’s affecting book buying in libraries even more because so many of us in research libraries are redirecting money away from the purchase of books towards the preservation of journal subscriptions. Many research libraries are seeing a really sharp decline in book buying, and we’re not subscribing to very many new journals because for many of us the only way we can subscribe to new journals is by cancelling old ones.  

The shifting landscape of publishing models is another challenge, especially in the area of open access mandates. Where authors and researchers are allowed to choose for themselves, they tend not to adopt open access. That has led the open access movement to shift its focus from trying to convince authors to adopt open access willingly, to convincing funders and governments to take the choice away from authors. When you make open access mandatory it has both positive effects and negative effects, and part of the challenge is finding people who are willing to look at the costs and benefits of mandatory OA in an analytical way rather than as an advocate for one side or the other. 

Organised and coordinated international piracy operations like Sci-Hub are also having a big impact on copyright holders, and on the integrity of university networks. Andrew Pitts recently wrote a posting in the Scholarly Kitchen (https://tinyurl.com/yc9xh7th) that for the first time really lays out the evidence for Sci-Hub’s impact on network security. That’s a problem that is bigger than the library world is comfortable acknowledging, because in libraries we have a hard time criticising anything that hurts publishers. 

What can libraries do to help?

Libraries can stop pretending that copyright piracy doesn’t matter, and start taking it seriously. That used to be an important part of what we did, and it seems to be a role that many of us are stepping away from in favour of simply attacking publishers. The fact that libraries are actively participating in diversifying the landscape of the publishing models is a very good thing. But unfortunately, a lot of my colleagues don’t ultimately want diversity in the publishing marketplace; what they want is universal open access.

As far as budgeting, one of the things publishers regularly tell us is 'Instead of complaining about our price increases, you should advocate more effectively for yourselves within your institutions, so you can get more money to meet those increases'.  That’s not a very effective message from publishers, and it doesn’t tend to endear them to us, but the reality is we do need more money and we do work hard to advocate for it. Unfortunately, university administrations have to allocate resources between many worthy needs on campus, and while the library is certainly one of the most worthy of them, it’s not the only one. When the question is 'Should we give another $500,000 to the library, or should we award more scholarships to underprivileged students, or should we renovate the physics labs?', the right answer won’t always necessarily be 'Give more money to the library.'

What can publishers do to help overcome these challenges?

The easy answer is 'stop jacking up your journal prices by seven to 10 per cent every year.' I do recognise that prices to some degree need to go up every year, but at the same time, it does seem like there are publishers out there that are genuinely gouging us. Where that’s happening, it should stop. But obviously, it won’t.

Publishers should be more willing to accept agreements from authors that are less than complete assignment of copyright. Publishers’ revenues are intrinsically tied up in the control of the information they publish, and I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that, but does that control always have to be absolute? Accepting a more limited license to publish rather than requiring complete assignment of copyright would be a big step in the right direction.

What can researchers do to help overcome some of these challenges?

They need to step up, get involved, and make their voices heard. One of the biggest problems we have right now is that researchers are largely absent from the conversations about what the future of scholarly communication should be. That’s not entirely their fault; since authors have generally made it clear that they’re not particularly interested in the particular revolution that most reform advocates want, those advocates are not generally going out of their way to ask authors to be involved in the conversation. But it is incumbent on the authors to stand up and make their voices heard, whether they’re in favour of radical reform or not. My concern is that authors are going to wake up five, 10, 15 years from now, and find that scholarly communication has changed in ways that they don’t like – and if they haven’t pushed their way up to the table and actively made their voices heard, it’s going to be their fault. 

Download the free report, The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018, here.

Rick Anderson is associate dean for collections and scholarly communication at Marriott Library, University of Utah