[Taxacom] Monbiot editorial on academic publishing

Wolfgang Wuster w.wuster at bangor.ac.uk
Thu Sep 1 18:13:51 CDT 2011

On 01/09/2011 22:46, Arne Erpenbach wrote:
> Excuse my interference, it is kindly ment.
> Wolfgang, you made quite a point:
>> However, it is
>> counterproductive to simply jump up and down and complain about the
>> status quo [...] without also pointing out that there are
>> a considerable number of unofficial ways in which one can get hold of
>> *most* publications for free. Perhaps we as individual publishing
>> academics should do our bit to educate the interested public in how to
>> get the papers.
> May I assume that the lot of those "unofficial ways" would be considered
> illegal under the current copyright legislation in most countries on
> *this* globe?

Well, the most obvious and first solution, namely sending an email to 
the author asking for a pdf, is most certainly not illegal in any way. 
And I would argue that that approach *should* be publicised to the 
general public - "Yes, it's OK, you, a mere mortal, can send an email to 
a "real scientist" and ask for a pdf of their paper!" Much more 
productive than simply throwing one's hands up in horror, although it 
does not of course affect the underlying principles highlighted in 
Monbiot's essay.

> However, despite that, I totally agree with Wolfgang. But
> I started wondering about two things:
> - First, to the knowledge of any taxacomers, are there any cases of
> legal prosecution of individuals, or institutions, for sharing pdfs of
> scientific publications with fellow researchers?

I don't know whether there have been prosecutions. I do know of cases 
where Universities have asked members of staff to remove pdfs from their 
web pages unless they could show permission from the publisher to post them.

I suspect that there are three factors that militate against 
prosecutions of individuals:

(i) the publishers very probably make much of their money from 
institutional subscriptions. These are not threatened by pdf-sharing 
among colleagues.
(ii) as we have been discussing, they probably make very little money 
out of individual pdf purchases, the only side of their business that 
would get hurt by pdf-sharing beyond the admissible rules, so they don't 
lose much.
(iii) pdf-sharing is normally a very "dilute" offence, even if the 
overall volume may be significant. Any individual case is likely to 
involve piffling sums of money. Are publishers really going to prosecute 
an individual scientist over a $35 pdf posted on a web page? It would be 
a classic case of David & Goliath, and would carry a substantial risk of 
backfiring and becoming a PR disaster, since it would invite further 
media scrutiny of the cosy world of academic publishing. Ignoring minor 
transgressions and focussing on bigger fish is almost certainly the best 
move for the publishers.


Wolfgang Wüster

Dr. Wolfgang Wüster  -  Lecturer
School of Biological Sciences
Bangor University
Environment Centre Wales
Bangor LL57  2UW
Wales, UK

Tel: +44 1248 382301
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