Springer are digging themselves deeper into a hole

June 5, 2012

Oh dear, this is depressing to watch.

The Problem

Last year (2011-12-01), Peter Murray Rust of Cambridge University published an article in BMC’s Journal of Cheminformatics — which, like all BMC journals, is owned by Springer. Note that the journal is open access, and that the “Open Access” button on the article’s page links to Springer’s open access page, which says:

All articles are published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license, enabling authors to retain copyright to their work.

And the PDF of the paper itself confirms:

© 2011 Jessop et al; licensee Chemistry Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons. org/l icenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Yesterday, Peter found that figures from this CC BY-licenced paper, to which the authors retained copyright, had been co-opted by Springer Images, with the following claim at the bottom of the page:


This image is copyrighted by BioMed Central Ltd.

This image is published with open access and made available for noncommercial purposes. For more information on what you are allowed to do with this image, please see the Creative Commons pages.

If you would like to obtain permissions for the re-use or re-print of this image, please click here.

This is a very, very bad thing. If you doubt it, consider what Springer’s attitude would be if I took material that they owned the copyright on and claimed that it was mine. It would not be pretty.

Peter looked around Springer Images some more. What he found there was also not pretty. He found that they had also wrongly claimed copyright for CC BY images from Wikipedia (more details) and from PLoS, Maybe more interesting still, Peter’s browsing in Springer Images shows that they have also pre-empted copyright on non-CC materials owned by rival Big Four academic publisher Wiley. Will Wiley pursue Springer for this violation? We can only hope so — after all, we’re often told that the reason for copyright transfers is that the publishers have the resources to do these things on our behalf.


I just found out that Klaus Graf reported this very problem back in 2009. [In German: English translation.] Nothing was done about it then, but let’s be charitable and assume that’s because it never came to Springer’s attention.

Springer’s Responses

First up, Bettina Goerner, Springer’ Science and Business Media Open Access Manager, who spoke with Peter:

Something has gone wrong. Springer is working very hard. They hope to fix it by July.

By July?! So what we’re being told is this: Springer have a grotesque attribution, licencing and copyright problem on their Images site, whether by design or accident, which results in their gaining revenue from material that is not theirs. And they intend to continue profiting from it for another month. Not acceptable! At the very least, the Springer Images site should immediately be modified to show a prominent banner stating “the copyright and licence information pertaining to these resources is wrong: contact the original creators for permissions” until the mistakes are all fixed.

But the one that provoked me to write this article is this thick wedge of doublespeak posted on Google+ by Wim van der Stelt, Executive Vice President of Corporate Strategy. I’ll quote it in full so no-one thinks I am misrepresenting it:

Springer Statement on Springer Images
5 June 2012

We have contacted Peter Murray-Rust, a blogger, to discuss Springer Images. Mr Murray-Rust has drawn attention to problems with the www.springerimages.com website and Springer is working flat out to correct them. Mr Murray-Rust has, on his blog (http://blogs.ch.cam.ac.uk/pmr/2012/06/05/springergate-update-from-bettina-goerner-and-some-explanations-i-urge-that-scientific-images-should-be-free-as-in-speech-for-everyone/), made allegations that are untrue and we would like to respond to them.

An image that shows up on Springer Images must first be published in a Springer book or journal via the normal publication process, including delivery into our publishing content system. The image is then delivered for display on Springer Images (with the appropriate copyright attribution as determined by the metadata).

We screen for keywords in the caption (in both English and German) that indicate that an image is “used with permission” or “copyright” of someone else to make a decision whether to include an image or not.

It is, however, possible that an image is used by an author without correct attribution, i.e. that correct attribution is not indicated in the caption. Unfortunately, as a result, the incorrect copyright attribution displays on Springer Images. However, we would like to make it very clear that, in every case where this is brought to our attention, we remove the images manually, usually on the same day the problem is reported.

This hardly constitutes “mass copytheft”. http://blogs.ch.cam.ac.uk/pmr/2012/06/04/springer-asserts-copyright-over-wikimediawikipedia-content-technical-incompetence-or-mass-copytheft/

Mr Murray-Rust not only attributes the problem incorrectly to Springer Images, but also insinuates that Springer is selling commercial rights to use images that are already open access. This is not only outrageous and blatantly false, it also damages our reputation.

Open access images on Springer Images are open access, full stop. They are available for use according to the relevant open access license of the publication.

In this particular case, the type of OA license is listed incorrectly and ensuring that it is listed correctly is what we are working on solving. Also, for some images coming from OA articles, the copyright reads Springer or BioMed Central but should read “The authors”. This is something we are in the process of fixing as well.

Licenses for Springer Images do not cover the OA content, only the content for which Springer owns the copyright.

The larger implication, that Springer is “stealing” copyright and the insinuation that Springer is attempting to profit from “ill-gotten gains” is false and we call upon Peter Murray-Rust to correct this allegation immediately.

Springer is one of the few large publishers that has enthusiastically embraced open access, and we are not in the business of hoodwinking our customers or the researchers we work with.

That said, we are addressing the problems as quickly as we can and are grateful to the scientific community for their help in pointing out the problem.

Wim van der Stelt
Executive Vice President
Corporate Strategy
Springer Science+Business Media

I won’t respond to this phrase by phrase — in part because Peter has already done so — but I will quote the response that I posted on SpringerOpen’s Google+ page:

Dear Springer,

ARE YOU COMPLETELY OUT OF YOUR MINDS? Have you not been watching what’s happened to Elsevier? You have screwed up royally on Springer Images. And your response is to blame Peter Murray-Rust for exposing your copytheft? If you want to come out of this with any shred of credibility intact, and not as the targets of the next Cost Of Knowledge boycott, you need to PROPERLY APOLOGISE RIGHT NOW: first, to the people whose work you stole, then to Peter for your contemptible blame-shifting. Once you’ve done that, we can start to think about whether we can move forward with you. Just calling yourselves “Springer Open” is not going to get the job done.

It’s shocking to me that, after all the developments of the last six months, with all the new awareness of what publishers are up to, and with all the active engagement with revolutionising scholarly publishing, Springer think they can make this go away by attacking the messenger.

it won’t work.

Springer now have a very narrow window in which to try to unwind this clodhopping manoeuvre. They need to undo all that they’ve done regarding the Springer Images debacle, and apologise unreservedly to Peter for their entirely baseless suggestion that he is somehow in the wrong for pointing out their wrongdoing. If they don’t do it, then I doubt the results will be spectacular; but they will be profound. All around the world, researchers will quietly classify Springer in the “just as bad as Elsevier” bucket. We’ll stop submitting to Springer journals. We’ll stop recommending them to our friends, colleagues and students. We’ll stop volunteering as editors and reviewers. Queitly but inexorably, the life-blood will be sucked out of Springer, just as it is being from Elsevier.

Oh, and Wiley? Take the chance now to get your house in order before someone notices something that you’re doing. There’s nowhere to hide misdeeds in 2012. Someone’s going to notice.

11 Responses to “Springer are digging themselves deeper into a hole”

  1. Cameron Says:

    Nice, but I’m actually a lot more curious to see what you think about this: http://www.biosciencetechnology.com/News/Feeds/2012/06/sections-international-news-dinosaurs-lighter-than-previously-thought/

    Brachiosaurs weren’t mammals, so is it wise to assume dinosaurs had the same mass/skeletal wrap volume ratio as them? Is it comparing apples and oranges, or is it reliable? Also, I’m not sure I agree for another reason: I’m 6’2 and my skeleton probably weighs roughly 60 lbs… my mass is more than the 21% percent prediction though, and my BMI is like 21. So it’s not that I’m not overweight.

  2. @FakeElsevier provides this link to a copyright violation

    at the bottom of the page there is a ‘report a copyright concern’ link. I’ve found, in 30 seconds, the photographer who owns the rights to this image, and reported it to Springer. I suggest that anyone who finds a copyright violation in SpringerImages uses this facility, and puts in the ‘notes’ section a link to posts like this and Peter M-R’s

  3. […] Springer have not yet explained the problem. The current position is summarised by Mike Taylor https://svpow.com/2012/06/05/springer-are-digging-themselves-deeper-into-a-hole/ . He also says: First up, Bettina Goerner, Springer’ Science and Business Media Open Access […]

  4. […] don’t have time to write about this properly, but a few people have asked me about the new Sellers et al. (2012) paper on measuring the masses of extinct animals — in […]

  5. Klaus Graf Says:

    Springer knew my opinion on its product because I posted the following message to liblicense:

    “MIME-Version: 1.0
    Received: by with HTTP; Thu, 9 Jul 2009 14:08:58 -0700 (PDT)
    Date: Thu, 9 Jul 2009 23:08:58 +0200
    Delivered-To: klausgraf@gmail.com
    Subject: How Springer Images is damaging Open Access
    From: Klaus Graf
    To: liblicense-l@lists.yale.edu
    Cc: pm286@cam.ac.uk, Peter Suber
    Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-1
    Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit

    There is a new Toll Access database (with a small free section) called
    Springer Images which contains pictures under a Creative Commons
    Noncommercial License (resulting from Springer’s Open Choice) but
    without mentioning the license.

    See http://archiv.twoday.net/stories/5814210/ (in German)

    It is questionable if it is not legal what Springer is doing but I am
    convinced that it is definitively against the spirit of Open
    Access/Open Choice. If someone pays 3000 dollars for a CC-BY-NC
    license he should get it. This means also that non-commercial
    datamining must be allowed because the license allows it. If Springer
    uses the images of Open Choice articles Springer has to tag them with
    their CC license! (BTW: Google has now announced officially the CC
    filter in its Image Search.)

    Klaus Graf”

    Please note the CC: beside Peter Suber PETER MURRAY RUST. There was NO reaction of PMR in 2009 on my mail.

  6. Jan Jensen Says:

    Doesn’t all this imply that PLoS is the only scientific publisher we scientists can trust? This is not a rhetorical question, I am genuinely wondering.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    I certainly hope not!

    Remember that BMC was originally a separate publisher from Springer, and shouldn’t be blamed for misdeeds elsewhere in the Springer empire. So far as I know, there is nothing to reproach them for. There are other well-behaved open-access publishers out there, too.

    I would certainly not want a PLoS monoculture (and I can tell you that co-founder Michael Eisen doesn’t want one either.)

  8. Jan Jensen Says:

    ok, but as it stands now, aren’t you putting your research $ in the coffers of Springer by publishing in BMC?

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    That is a good point.

  10. […] at SV-POW!, we are an equal-opportunity criticiser of publishers: Springer, PLOS, Elsevier, the Royal Society, Nature, we don’t care. We call problems as we see them, […]

  11. […] been a while since we checked in on our old friends Elsevier, Springer Nature and Wiley — collectively, the big legacy publishers who still dominate scholarly publishing. Like […]

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