UPDATED: Copyright, blogging and scientific papers

Is it legitimate to reproduce diagrams from scientific papers in a blog post? Curious, I asked the question of Twitter. It returned two distinct responses.

One response, from a pair of scientists and highly respected and active bloggers was (to simplify and paraphrase) that it was OK since you were discussing Science. Asking permission of the author was the polite thing to do, but ask the publisher only if you get the material direct from their website.

Another response, from a professional archivist and soon-to-be-published book author was a clear statement of the legal situation: it would be a clear breach of copyright, not covered by ‘fair use’.

Both sets of responses entirely correct, but reflecting two ways of viewing the situation. Copyright is an important legal protection for content-creators and should be respected (and is The Law), but equally communication of scientific ideas is an important public good. An interesting contrast, which I thinks maps nicely onto a growing discontent with academic publishers. Academics are the creators of the content, yet the Copyright is held by the publisher. When journals were distributed in paper form, the value added by the publisher was clear. Now that online access is the norm, and authors submit formatted papers and when scientific editing and refereeing is also done by academics, the value added by publishers is less clear. When even the Economist talks of ‘fat profits’, it seems the balance is skewed.

So, what’s a boy to do? Well, I happen to belong to the Geological Society of London and the particular diagram I am dying to copy is in their journal. A quick and helpful twitter response from them pointed me to their publications permissions page. All is well! With acknowledgement, I can use up to three figures without permission and up to 100 words. [NB this implies a picture only paints 33 words, surely wrong?].

This gave me a warm glow, since this seems to be a nice balance between the need for protection of copyright and the fact that “data wants to be free”. A search of a commercial publisher soon deadened the glow. Elsevier have a process whereby I can request permission to use content. Selecting a random Earth Sciences paper and requesting to put a single image on the web, for non-commercial use would cost me $28.75. How much of this is given to the person who created the diagram? None, of course.

Following the equivalent process with Nature Publishing (who use the same RightsLink software) cheered me up again as using figures for non-profit is free.

The roller-coaster continues down again, as it appears that the Geological Society of America does not allow posting material on the web unless you are the author. You can request permission, but this costs $10 for processing. Also they haven’t responded to my tweet yet. UPDATE: Those lovely people at the Geological Society of America have responded to my tweet. In a very rapid response to this post and a related post from Brian Romans (@clasticdetritus) they have revised their policy to say that using a single image/table/paragraph counts as ‘fair use’ and does not require permission. I feel inspired to go off blog about a paper from one their journals now, by way of thanks.

Anyway, I am beginning to bore myself. I shall be off and send an email to the author, whose paper in the JGS I covet.

Disclaimer: I don’t really know what I’m talking about. If you wish to do be certain about copyright law, don’t take my word for it. Opinions expressed here are not those of the author, past blog post quality is no guide to future performance, may contain nuts.

Categories: not geology, open access

Comments (3)

  1. Brian Romans says:

    I’ve always been too lazy to figure out the law on this. Or, perhaps not laziness but fear that it would be what you found out. Thanks for doing the digging on this and posting about it.

    Very frustrating. When I blog about a journal article I include a link to the published article, which actually provides the publisher more traffic!

    GSL’s policy is a great compromise, for lack of a better term. None of us are simply going to repost an entire paper on our blogs anyway — we are going to select a couple figures/illustrations that best summarize what we want to talk about and then refer our readers to the full article via a link. To me, that’s a win-win situation: bloggers can produce interesting content related to an article, and the publisher/organization gets more interest in the article they published from that blog post.

    I’d really like to see GSA and AGU adopt a similar policy to GSL. Elsevier or Wiley or one of those, however, wouldn’t do that in a million years.

  2. Jon Tennant says:

    This is another great example of Elsevier being nothing more than a greedy profit-hunting business. What if you were to contact an author directly and they were to allow re-use of any of their entire paper, but the journal demands a charge..? I’ve always simply assumed it was fine to re-use any of a paper’s material, as long as it was referenced properly and the copyright holder cited (especially with images). If Elsevier want me to pay again for an image in a paper I’ve just had to buy, they can think again!

    Cheers for doing the research and bringing this up! (and reminding me to renew GSL membership!)

  3. LucyGray says:

    Brilliant article.

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