Winkling licence information out of Elsevier, bit by bit
March 6, 2012
This post is part three in what, astonishingly, seems now to be an ongoing series about trying to discover what Elsevier’s licenses are. For parts one and two, see:
- What actually is Elsevier’s open-access licence?
- What have we learned about Elsevier’s open-access licence?
Today I read an article that I think was meant to be encouraging, but which instead I found disturbing. Talking text mining with Elsevier recounts Heather Piwowar’s recent experiences in trying to use Elsevier articles in her text-mining project.
The happy ending for Heather is that she’s managed to get Elsevier’s permission to do at least part of her project, although the process involved a monumental waste of everyone’s time, including a conference call between Heather, her librarian, and six Elsevier staff, plus consulatations with lawyers.
The sad part is that, as Heather acknowledges in her post, all of this manouevering has done absolutely nothing to help the many other authors who might have awesome text-mining project ideas: all of them will have to go through the same ludicrously inefficient process. (That’s assuming that they, like Heather, are fortunate enough to catch a senior Elsevier executive’s attention on Twitter. Because otherwise, Elsevier are actively discouraging researchers from approaching them directly. Why? Because the Elsevier Director of Universal Access’s “only hesitation was that she might be overwhelmed by requests from others who also want text mining access”. Heaven forfend that people should waste her time trying to obtain access!)
But that’s not the really stupid part. Here’s the really stupid part. Heather writes:
I asked for the text of the standard reuse agreement. It was sent to me but I was asked not to share it publicly because “it is a legal element”.
What this means that no-one is allowed to know what the text-mining terms are. Extending this, it means that no-one who publishes in an Elsevier journal knows what rights they have conferred on, or withheld from, future text-miners. And that includes those authors who have elected to take Elsevier’s “sponsored article” option — this is just one more aspect of the agreement they sign that is completely unspecified. So when I pay $3000 to make my article “open access”, I do not know and have no way to find out whether that means it will be available for text-mining, and if so what the text-mining project is allowed to do with its results.
Come on, Elsevier. We all understand that, rightly or wrongly, we’ve signed our copyright over to you when we published in your journals, and that you therefore have the legal (if not moral) right to impose whatever restrictions you choose.
But would it kill you just to tell us what those restrictions are?
BTW., for those who have wondered why it’s Elsevier in particular that is the subject of the Cost Of Knowledge boycott, this kind of opacity is a contributing factor. By contrast, if you look at another exploitative profiteering barrier-based publisher, Springer, you can clearly see from their “Open Choice” page what the terms of publication are: Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY).
I can’t see what’s stopping Elsevier from doing the same.