Sunday, May 17, 2009

Is Copyright Necessary for Peer Review?

I'm placing this particular piece in the Public Domain. In the process of trying to understand the difference between using Creative Commons Licenses and placing a work in the Public Domain, I discovered that the Creative Commons Web site actually has the same sort of forms that generate embed code for their licenses also available for Public Domain work.

Creative Commons License
This work is in the Public Domain.

This is a good place to start with the argument. While Creative Commons licenses are now a commonplace on the Web (I've got one at the bottom of this blog) you don't see the above type of label very often. Does that fact represent an author preference? The license I do use for the site (1) asks that people who link to or quote posts that are here give attribution and (2) doesn't allow commercial publishers to include my stuff in their content. The first is really just common courtesy. I've got no way of enforcing it at all. Short of running TurnItIn or other anti-plagiarism software on my own site (I'm not going to do that I'm just mentioning it as illustration) there is no way for me to detect violations let alone to enforce this stipulation. The second is there as a tilting at windmills approach to the notion that I want "control" of my work, though truthfully my notion of control is fuzzy as is why I want it. Over the years I've had exactly one request from a commercial venture to refer to a particular post. Initially I said no, then I relented. I doubt that generated any revenue for the commercial publisher and maybe it got a few more eyeballs for my post.

I suppose there is a third reason, probably not applicable for me but that might justify why others might want to keep control of their work. It may be at some time in the future, a potential publisher emerges and that publisher wants copyright of the work transferred to it. You can't very well transfer copyright if you no longer hold it. I don't believe it is possible to "take back" placing a work in the public domain, in which case doing so would preclude this external publishing alternative that might emerge in the future. I'm belaboring the point to note that the incentive vanishes if the external publisher willingly accepts works in the public domain.

A couple of years ago, inspired by a piece in Harpers by Jonathan Lethem about the intellectual commons and dismayed by the timidity of an ACRL report from that time, I wrote a long blog post, Ly Berry 2.0, with my vision of the issues, in which I argued that Lethem's conception should be expanded to included current scholarly communication.

The third area of focus is Copyright Law itself. Copyright Law doesn’t serve well the communication of  scholarly information. Government publications are in the public domain de jure. Scholarly work, part of the contributions to the Intellectual Commons that Lethem describes, should be in the public domain as well. It is quite clear who would stand to lose by changing the law in this way, especially if the law applied retrospectively. So there are economic and therefore political reasons to sustain the status quo. And given the effort more broadly by MPAA, RIAA and others on copyright to expand the influence of Copyright, one should be under no delusion that it would be easy to make such a change. But by concentrating narrowly on scholarly work and not trying to apply the change in the Law to a more encompassing notion of the intellectual commons – for example, authors of great fiction clearly enhance our culture and intellectual life, but those authors do make their livelihoods based on the sale of their works – one should be able to maintain the high ground in the argument.

More recently, via this post on ACRLog I found this document, a consequence of a Roundtable Discussion from last fall with various luminaries in the scholarly communication business. The document is better than the earlier ACRL report I had critiqued; it correctly identifies the issues plaguing scholarly publication today, but I fear nonetheless that it is too tepid in its recommendations and that a more radical solution is necessary.

Primary Recommendation: Campuses should initiate discussions involving administration and faculty about modifying current practices and/or its intellectual property policies such that the university retains a set of rights sufficient to ensure that broad dissemination of the research and scholarly work produced by its faculty occurs.

There are also a variety of subsidiary recommendations in the document, mostly of the policy type. As I said, this is not sufficient. It is necessary to develop actual low cost alternatives to commercial publishing and to encourage and promote these alternatives so they eventually become the dominant form. It is also necessary to re-direct funds within the university (as I'll explain) to sustain the new approaches. Further, different approaches to long term preservation need to be identified. Below is my attempt to sketch what these approaches might look like.

* * * * *

So now I'm Mr. Rourke. Welcome to Fantasy Island. I will you give you a tour of our new low-cost scholarly publication approach. Our predominant model is via society membership, which is for fee. Scholarly memberships are via individuals, faculty as well as students, by departments, and by entire institutions too. Societies support many journals, the vast majority in electronic format only. Some individual journals have instituted author fees to supplement membership fees, partly to regulate the flow of submissions and partly to cover opearting costs. In addition to online publishing, societies promote face-to-face conferences where they encourage video recording and Webinars, enbabling remote participation in heretofore local workshops, creating archives of these activities, and issuing notifications of recent and upcoming events. Journal publishing is sustained via an editorial board comprised of an editor in chief and various associate editors, as well as a copy editing staff for work that has been accepted for publication. The editorial board members are faculty from member departments who receive some remuneration from the membership fees, enough to buy out some of their teaching time so they can devote their energies to the editing function. The copy editors are professional staff overseen by the editor in chief. In some cases referees are also paid, not as compensation, but to signify the importance of timeliness and quality of the review.

Absent any limitation on pages or the number of articles to appear per year imposed by print costs, the scholarly society as a whole sets policy on the total flow of scholarship to be published per year. Societies have found it advantageous to run several "journals" differentiated as follows - a top-of-the-line general interest journal, a smattering of high level field journals, and a somewhat larger set of tertiary field journals. Societies also embrace the publishing of monographs as eBooks. As with journal articles, the flow of monographs per year is regulated by the society, to reflect the needs of the field. Most disciplines have two or even three societies, reflecting differences in orientation about the subject matter and to avoid dominance by narrow elites within the field.

Each society maintains a Web site with all current publications and scholarly activity as well an archive of past work. Some society Web sites are hosted at particular Academic Institutions. Others stand outside any university environment. In the interest of preservation and redundancy, societies encourage mirror sites. Since all works members of societies produce are within the public domain, an individual, department, or institution can serve as a mirror if they are so willing.

An additional service that societies provide is periodic review of member departments and member institutions. Review happens via site visits by committees of scholars from other institutions selected for the purpose. Review covers both scholarship and instruction. Review serves to certify a well functioning department and to provide recommendations for the department and the institution to follow when the department has issues that require remedy. Review is covered via membership fee. Societies also rank member departments to provide guidance for students, faculty, the institution, and the public.

Universities, as distinct from societies, have responsibility for hosting work in its formative stage as well as finished work that doesn't otherwise get published. Universities also have reponsibility to initiate new periodicals for indisciplinary work that doesn't yet have society sponsorship and in general to support work that doesn't have a home in established fields.

* * * * *

The little sketch above is meant to argue that there needs to be a system of quality assurance. Commercial publishing of scholarly work, for all its faults and expense, provides one such system. If commercial publishing is to vanish, there needs to be some other system to take its place. Commercial publishing is mostly sustained by the acquisition budgets of University Libraries, and secondarily by individual subscription. In my fantasy island alternative, the scholarly societies are sustained by membership fees. Those would be paid by academic departments or the institution itself, not by the Library. It would require internal reallocation on the campuses to work. In turn, Libraries could generate a lot more interest in the entire issue if they started to advocate for this sort of internal reallocation as a long term proposition. Otherwise, it seems a "Library matter" in which case why should the rest of us bother?

The other rather large question, for which I have no answer at this time, is that even if we all can agree on what the fantasy island vision looks like, how do we get from here to there? With the current system a reality and the fantasy island version only a promise of one, it would seem to require a fair amount of coordination within a discipline to make the switch. Individually, especially for junior faculty who are looking for tenure, it makes sense to maintain in the old system. So we need a model of the requisite coordination. There isn't one now.

Perhaps there is grant funding from the Obama administration available for doing these things. If it worked, it would lower the cost of higher education. In the meantime, let's move past policy and develop some alternative models.

1 comment:

Extreme said...

Hmmn..What a great post, thanks!
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