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.