05 June 2004

Moving slowly into the twenty-first century…

Reed-Elsevier, the 500kg gorilla of academic publishing known all too fondly to lawyers and law students for its involvement in legal research (Lexis-Nexis and Matthew Bender, among other sources), apparently has decided to all authors of academic journals to post their articles in plain-text form online. Gasp! Shock! Horror!

What this really points out, more than anything else, is the unfairness of Reed-Elsevier's policy of taking the copyright for works published in its journals. In the US, this is often done with a (legally indefensible but very expensive to challenge) WFH claim; overseas, R-E and its competitors require a transfer of the copyright. There are a few exceptions to this; but exceptions they are. Even law professors fall prey to the same thing: If you look in the front of the Harvard Law Review, or virtually any other law journal, you'll see only a notice of copyright to the publisher; and copyright notices actually on the article are almost always to the publisher, too.

To say the least, this is an unfair practice, and a needless one. What the journals really need is an unlimited nonexclusive reprint right—not the copyright itself. R-E's claim that its journals are so expensive because it costs so much to prepare articles—admittedly, including the peer-review process—for such a limited audience both misstates the obvious and presents a chicken-and-egg problem. The obvious: That the production costs of these journals are more than recouped with the advertisements. The chicken: The limited audience. The egg: The price, frequently thousands of dollars a year. It need not be so expensive; JAMA is still overpriced at $165, but it's weekly, and postage adds up; ditto for the New England Journal of Medicine at $149. On the other hand, Cell from R-E costs $1,068 per year—and it is a journal that few cell biologists can do without, whether in academia or industry.

Perhaps nowhere else in the pantheon of copyrightable materials is the primacy of information over expression so obvious as in scientific papers. As Bill Clinton might have said if he understood science, "It's the data and conclusions, stupid!" The misuse of WFH and mandatory copyright assignments only locks knowledge up in a way that greatly exceeds any conceivable need for doing so is unacceptable. Oops. I just realized the conceivable need: Because they can, and according to one set of accountants increases their revenues.

As a certain fictional character once said, one can make more money by selling to everyone cheaply than to a few at an exhorbitant price. But then, she was a whore who enjoyed her work. Any disreputable inferences from this based on the preceding discussion are probably intentional.