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The stupidity of SOPA in Scholarly Publishing

3 January 2012 1,986 views 5 Comments
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Edit and update – I’ve been told that the Macmillan supporting SOPA is the Macmillan US and not the holding company of Nature Publishing Group. NPG are however explicitly listed as members of the Association of American Publishers who are listed as supporters. The AAP list includes American Chemical Society, American Institute of Physics along with a lot of smaller society publishers. The Springer listed is apparently not the Springer that owns BioMedCentral.

It was Michael Kuhn who pointed out to me over the holiday break that both Elsevier and Macmillan (parent company of Nature Publishing Group) were listed as supporters of the Stop Online Piracy Act. If you don’t know about SOPA and why it is one of the most politically and legislatively incompetent actions of recent years then start here and look around from there. This has now been more widely picked up, Heather Morrison points out that as well as Macmillan and Elsevier that a range of other scholarly publishers as being in support and at BoingBoing Maggie Koerth-Baker suggests a boycott similar to that being targeted at other supporters.

Here I wanted to point out how utterly and stupendously stupid SOPA is in the academic communication space. Nature, every Elsevier journal, and every other academic communication medium, are full of copyright violations. The couple of paragraphs of methods text or introduction that keeps being used, that chunk of supplementary information that has appeared in a number of such places, that figure that “everyone in the field uses” but no one has any idea who drew it, as well as those figures that the authors forgot that they’d signed over the copyright to some other publisher – or didn’t understand enough about copyright to realise that they had. And that’s before we get to plagiarism issues. Or the fact that legal position over the signing of copyright agreements by authors is fraught to say the least.

Now of course reputable publishers have in place mechanisms by which authors sign off that they’ve done the right things so the journals are ok right? No. That’s the whole point of SOPA (and its partner in the US Senate, PIPA). It gives copyright holders or interested parties the right to take down an entire site based on it being the medium by which copyright violations are transmitted. 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.

This is of course, just an example of why SOPA is entirely the wrong approach to dealing with online piracy. But with supposedly technically savvy organisations lined up to support it, they should be aware of what it might cost them. A fortune in responding to take down requests, a fortune in checking over every piece of every paper? Is that figure “sufficiently different”? Enjoy. Or perhaps time for a re-think about copyright in scholarly works?

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