Sunday, November 9, 2014

Who Owns the Research You Paid For?

Academia would have an extremely difficult time existing and running the many research projects for which it gains fame and attracts the most brilliant minds in each discipline if it were not for that golden cache called "grants." Grants make the academic and the research world run smoothly and provide a very nice living for a few and gainful employment for the many who wish to attain the heights of the few. In this pursuit of that lofty position, teams work feverishly on writing grants for weeks, if not months, at full tilt almost 24 hours a day to produce exactly what the grant indicates it has been made available for in terms of research.

Some grants are very specific and few can snag that golden goose, but there is a well spring of grants produced by the U. S. Government in all its many departments and these are sought mightily. Take a moment out to just give a quick scan at the first page of any published study that has been funded by one of these grants and, at the very bottom, you will see which agency forked over the money. 

Now give a bit of thought to what the Federal Government says about this material. If a study has been produced with this funding, which is your and my money, we all get to use it and we don't have to pay any fees. Some agencies will tell you that, if you'd be so kind, they would really appreciate a credit line somewhere in your product that lists the agency as the grantor. All of it is published by the Government Printing Office.

There is no copyright protection for these materials and they may be freely used. Ah, but there's a glitch here. Professional publishing, so I understand, is a multi-billion dollar business. The material published, in large measure, is the product of researchers working under Federal grants. So, why do the researchers give up any rights they may have to the material if, in fact, they had any rights at all? As I understand it, they wouldn't have any rights. Then how does a publisher get rights from someone who doesn't have the power to hand them over? All very peculiar.

I started thinking about this as I began to watch, once again, "The Internet's Own Boy," the inspiring but tragic story of Aaron Swartz, computer genius and the advocate of RSS (real simple syndication) and the creative commons use agreement. The creative commons, or CC as it is sometimes referenced, allows material to be freely used by anyone with some specific caveats by the author. But not always. Some authors would rather allow it to go into the wild as it were and let anyone have it for any purpose at all. But I still don't think they're thinking anyone's going to use their material to make money off them in some sneaky, underhanded dealings. 

On the Creative Commons U.S. website, it states: 

"Creative Commons licenses help creators retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work, at least non-commercially. The CC License choice provides an easy way for creators to define the terms on which others may use their work."

There can be exceptions in the license as it indicates but that is up to the author who may place the work in the public domain, if they wish, so that it is free to be used by anyone, but not for anyone to use and then get their own copyright on the material. The general idea is that knowledge should be freely shared and not trapped by a pay wall whenever someone is working on a project that could benefit from the inclusion of this material. Knowledge expansion should be the goal, not lucre-creep.

College instructors already have something called "fair use" which means that materials may be reproduced specifically for a class. The instructor does not have to pay for this use or even, it's my understanding, request permission to use it in this manner.  Some professors did get into trouble with this many years ago when they regularly reproduced materials into class packets that students had to purchase either at the college bookstore or a reproduction service near the college. One of the schools was a university where I received one of my degrees and I was one of those students buying those packets.

Consider how truly ludicrous it is that tax payers should pay for research and then someone should come along, snag the material and offer it for sale as though it were their intellectual property solely by virtue of their publishing it in their journal. I thought journals were supposed to turn out their own material, not cadge articles from researchers (who desperately need to "publish or perish").  Aren't subscriptions the means of making money in journal publishing? If you've ever written anything that needed a bit of scientific referencing in it and you wanted to read the original published article, you were quickly awakened to the fact that these articles are available, but at a price. Government printing office articles, pamphlets, booklets, etc. are free and free of copyright.

And the price of journal articles can be pretty steep. Sometimes it's up over $40 just for a few pages and suppose you need more than one article. Suppose you need 10 or more, why should you buy all those articles for which you have already paid with your tax money? Should you be yelling at your Congressman or Senator? Maybe because they have made much of this possible, it would seem.

Those whose hearts are with the movement to open up the bars surrounding research are working to make information more freely available. You can keep up with what they are doing at the website: Open Educational Resources.  Recently, in fact, I took a course with a professor who had written the textbook for the course and he made it freely available on the Internet under a Creative Commons license which made it wonderful for thousands of students all around the world--it was an Internet course in computing.

Aaron Swartz may have been hounded, persecuted and, ultimately, driven to believe that life was no longer worth the struggle but his beliefs live on. We will all benefit, but at what a price for him. RIP Aaron Swartz, you fought the good fight for all of us. It may not have been in the most palatable fashion for some, but you never realized the forces against you and the motivation of others for power that would drive you to hang yourself.