A publishing giant goes after the authors of its journals’ papers
ONCE upon a time, it was common for scientists to receive letters from researchers working in other institutions, asking for reprints of papers they had published. It was the usual practice in those days for journal publishers to furnish authors with a couple of dozen such reprints, precisely for this purpose—but, if these had run out, a quick visit to the photocopier kept the wheels of scientific discourse turning, and though it was technically a violation of copyright, no one much minded.
Then, the world wide web was invented—initially, as it happens, with the intention of making it easier for scientists to share their results—and everything changed. Now, any scientist worth his grant has a website, and that site will often let the casual visitor download copies of its owner’s work. And, though it has taken a while, some publishers have decided they do mind about this—indeed one, Elsevier, based in the Netherlands, has been fighting back. It is using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), an American law that lets copyright holders demand the removal of anything posted online without their permission, to require individual scientists to eliminate from their websites papers published in its journals. In doing so it has stirred a hornets’ nest.
The first hornets to come buzzing out were members of a scientific social-networking site called Academia.edu (in which Rupert Pennant-Rea, chairman of The Economist Group, was an early investor). In early December they started receiving e-mails from Academia.edu informing them that some of their papers had been removed from the site in response to DMCA requests from Elsevier.
When some of them mentioned on Twitter what had happened, it became clear some universities had also received demands from Elsevier that papers be removed from the home pages of individual academics. There are, as a result, a lot of dischuffed scientists out there.