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Scientific Journals and SOPA

There is some good news and not so good news on the scientific journals front.

First, the good news.  For those of us in STEM jobs who are laid off, we face a double whammy.  In order for us to stay current in our fields we *must* keep up with new literature.  Future employers won’t want to hire someone who doesn’t know what’s been going on in this rapidly changing research environment.  Watching NOVA is no substitute. The problem is that when you get laid off, you lose access to the licenses you need to search and retrieve literature, patents, methods, etc.  You can still get papers but you either need to subscribe to the journals, which could cost hundreds of dollars a year, or you need to buy the paper outright.  Prices for a *single* paper from journals like Journal of Medicinal Chemistry or Science cost $30.00.  On new projects, it is not uncommon to read a dozen papers to start.

There are some other subscription services like Deep Dyve that offer packages of a certain number of papers per month.   The problem with this is that you may need to go back to that paper sometime in the future and with Deep Dyve, that’s impossible.  You are only renting that copy and within days, it disappears, never to be accessed again without forking over the cash.  The best option is to go to a library where you can read as many papers as you like for free but then you have to go to the library.  You can’t just do it from home.  And that becomes a problem when you’re in the middle of reading a paper at home and you see a citation for a paper you need for background.  Then you have to haul your sorry ass down to the library.   I’m close enough to Princeton’s scientific library so access is not a problem but it’s not exactly convenient.

Let’s just say that it adds insult to injury for the journal aggregators to charge an unemployed person so bloody much for a digital copy of a paper, especially when those papers are important to our future employment.  I brought this up to a representative of the American Chemical Society (ACS) last May and got the impression that the old dude was really living in a different century.  The ACS had no intention of lowering the cost or allowing us to buy papers ala an iTunes model.  So, I was surprised to see that the ACS is relenting somewhat and is making their SciFinder application available to unemployed chemists who previously had an account at their former workplace.  They must have gotten a lot of desperate and angry pleas for access.  SciFinder licenses are difficult enough to get when you are employed.  In fact, I finally got one about two weeks before I was laid off so I don’t think I ever had an opportunity to use it.  But if you’re looking for a way to search the literature/patents through SciFinder, and you previously had access, you might want to check it out.

The bad news is that SOPA might make all that access impossible.  That’s because when scientists write papers, they liberally filch methods, pictures and other details from previously published papers from other authors.  That’s just the nature of science.  Everyone is standing on the shoulders of someone else and the reason authors publish is so they can share that information and to keep their jobs.  Publish or perish.  SOPA will interfere with that process for scientific literature in digital form, which is everything these days.  From the TechDirt article on the issue:

These kinds of “violations” are inevitable, because science is about sharing – it’s what you are supposed to do in order to spread knowledge. And thus drawing on standard materials in this way is a habit that pervades all of academic publishing to such a degree that few scientists are even aware they are doing it – or that there might be legal issues. That will make policing this kind of “accepted” infringement extremely difficult, if not impossible.

If SOPA is passed, Neylon points out an interesting consequence:

“So if someone, purely as a thought experiment you understand, crowd-sourced the identification of copyright violations in papers published by supporters of SOPA, then they could legitimately take down journal websites, like Science Direct and Nature.com. That’s right, just find the plagiarised papers, raise them as a copyright violation, and you can have the journal website shut down.”Scientific publishers that are represented by the Association of American Publishers, which appears in the “List of Supporters” (pdf) for SOPA, could therefore find their own Web sites shut down repeatedly thanks to this law they are currently backing by default, since none has yet come out against SOPA. Looks like US politicans aren’t the only ones who haven’t really thought this through.

I’m not surprised that publishers like the ACS haven’t thought this through carefully.  They are just trying to cash in by soaking companies, academic institutions and the unemployed for as much as they possibly can.  That’s why they charge $30.00/copy.  Of course they want SOPA so they can make sure that no one gives out copies of papers that they didn’t authorize.  But they’re really not thinking about the copyright violations in each paper.

I don’t know how they’re proposing to get around this.  There could be a lot of pharmaceutical company tit for tat.  Maybe Glaxo doesn’t want Merck scientists lifting their methods and throws a flag, while some little company wants to publish based on multiple companies published citations and gets flagged multiple times.  The end result is that nothing would get published and we’d all be cut off from one another, scared silly that our internet access could be terminated over some unintentional violation.  Not that you’d use the internet much because everything would be off limits.  It could open up a whole new field of employment in companies.  You could have copyright MBAs sitting in their cubes, heartlessly penalizing everyone they are competing with, damaging the spirit of sharing among the science community.  It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve thoughtlessly ruined research.

So, those of you out there who care about keeping science literature sharable, contact your congressman and senators.  SOPA is going to make an already bad situation so much worse.

5 Responses

  1. I already am signing every anti-SOPA petition that comes to me in my e-mails.

    I wonder if intellectual property will prove to be a long social experiment that failed.

  2. that would be interesting. 🙂

  3. I linked this article and the one on #opBlackout to a SOPA thread over on Lucky Star Shrine Forums, where I’m “Kid Charlemagne”.

    From the full rich experience of his 20 years of life 🙄 , a 4th-year engineering student from The Great White North who calls himself “Kirant” said of this article:

    “Interesting interpretation. It’s more plausible than other theories, but still a bit silly. I work with scientific papers all the time and I can state for a fact that almost every source used for scientific work is given permission to post it first. Places like Scientific Direct DO get permission.”


    He seems to be the sole defender of SOPA on the forum.

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