Monday, 19 August 2013

How my mother almost became an international copyright criminal

My mum has appeared on this blog before. But not, until now, as the hero of a post. She works in the fundraising department of a reasonably large charitable organisation in the medium-sized town where I grew up. Earlier this year, she emailed and asked me whether I had access to a certain publisher’s online website, as she couldn't get hold of an article she wanted to read.

My first reaction was pleasure that my repeated explanations of what I do for a living have actually sunk in. Then, snapping into web-native daughter mode, I rolled my eyes and clicked on the link she sent me, ready to tell her that she would probably have to pay to get at the article. As it turned out, the piece was published way back in 1998 by an author based at an organisation which does research, but isn’t a university. When I requested the PDF, I was taken to a page offering a range of options for access, all of which required an institutional login. No pay-per-view option at all. 

So, I took to Twitter. What should she do? Several suggestions came back. How about DeepDyve? Good idea: I had a look. The journal’s not on there. What about walk-in access at the nearest university? Well, discounting the fact that it’s a good half-hour journey to get there plus the time she’d have to spend registering and finding the hard copy of the article, it wouldn't do much good; their holdings of the journal start in 1999. Email the author, said someone else. Maybe – we didn’t try. But a Google search reveals that he’s now left the organisation he was affiliated with and moved to the US. I wonder how easily he'll be able to find that PDF from 1998 – probably three or four computers ago? Of course there’s no repository at his old organisation – it’s not a university.

I had some ideas of my own. Mum’s charity is very loosely connected to the NHS. Perhaps that’s a way in? But – unsurprisingly – the NHS library services don't subscribe to niche journals on fundraising. This is probably good news for the taxpayer, but not for my mother. BL Document Supply? The journal’s not there.

This fairly mundane little anecdote is so interesting to me. We know, from previous studies, that the paywall can be a big, big barrier to researchers outside academia who are seeking to get hold of published information. (I should add that ‘Ask your daughter’ was not a survey response option on that particular piece of RIN research.) In this case, though, the real challenge is that there is no straightforward way for my mother to access that journal article legally. She could ask her employer to take out a multi-thousand dollar subscription which includes back issues, but they don’t have a library or librarian to manage the process and have no need for any other content from the journal. The article doesn't appear in a Copac search but she could scour university library websites in case she finds one which holds the 1998 edition of the journal that she wants, travel there, register as a walk-in user and hope that she’s allowed onto the computers to read it. Neither of these options are likely to be approved by her budget-conscious line manager. 

I find myself wondering who this situation benefits. Not the publisher – they’re not making any money out of Mum and in fact are denying themselves the opportunity to make a small profit (not a big one – Mum is working for a charity after all). Not the author of the research, who would presumably be happy to know that it is available and being used. Certainly not my mother, and not the institution that she works for. 

As I've said before, arguments for public access to research outputs are often built on a kind of moral foundation: the public have paid for it, so they should be entitled to see it. But there's another argument - maybe even a bigger one - about re-opening an enormous archive; articles which are currently shut off because they're not sufficiently in-demand for publishers to invest in one-off access solutions. That archive might be especially useful to people working outside the fast-moving, detailed world of academia, although in some subjects the half-lives of articles would easily cover the fifteen years I'm discussing here. But in an age of 'impact', it seems sad to limit the reach and availability of articles simply because a publisher hasn't implemented a pay-per-view or rental option. (We can haggle about the price another time...)

I hate to leave a story unfinished, but I'm afraid I can't tell you whether Mum did eventually get her article. As I've said, she couldn't do it legally. Perhaps I emailed a friendly librarian to ask for a copy? Hmmm. You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.


  1. Let me recommend this site:

    I don't know what its legal status is, but since it seems to be Russian it may be beyond the reach of our regressive copyright regimes. What I *do* know is it that it's great at finding free copies of paywalled papers.

    1. How interesting Mike, thanks! That one is new to me. I was also introduced to #icanhazpdf on Twitter, which is rather delightful although I suspect a slightly grey area, legally speaking. Hence its etiquette!