It has been a season of discontent with publishers. After HarperCollins announced in March that they were going to impose a 26 checkout limit on ebooks licensed to libraries, a number of libraries began boycotting HarperCollins and refusing to purchase Harpercollins ebooks, with a few taking the next logical step and boycotting print titles as well. New Jersey public librarian Andy Woodworth started an online petition to challenge HarperCollins, and apparently tens of thousands of people have signed it. So far, it’s had little effect on HarperCollins that I can tell.
That scandal made the library news, but another petition and call for boycott didn’t. The philosophy of science journal Synthese published a special issue on Evolution and Its Rivals (subscription definitely required).The online version came out as the guest editors intended, but when the print edition was released in March, and unbeknownst to the guest editors, the editors-in-chief inserted a disclaimer saying they had observed “”that some of the papers in this issue employ a tone that may make it hard to distinguish between dispassionate intellectual discussion of other views and disqualification of a targeted author or group.” Most people interpreted this as a criticism of Barbara Forrest’s article, “The non-epistemology of intelligent design: its implications for public policy.” The New York Times article about the incident reported her article used “language some would later criticize as unfit for a scholarly journal” in criticizing noted Intelligent Design (ID) proponent Francis Beckwith. The “some” who later criticized the article were apparently Beckwith and Beckwith supporters, who allegedly complained and threatened legal action. I read through the article, and while it’s a devastating critique of the epistemological claims of ID to be taken seriously as science, it doesn’t seem to me to have language unfit for a scholarly journal. If you subscribe to Synthese, you can judge for yourself. (And check out John S. Wilkins’ article “Are Creationists Rational?” in the same issue, in which he argues they are, at least within a “bounded rationality model of belief choices.”) The guest editors complained to well known philosopher and philosophy blogger Brian Leiter that they had known nothing about the disclaimer. He called for a boycott and started a petition demanding an apology and retraction of the disclaimer from the Synthese editors-in-chief, among other things. The apology and retraction have been just as forthcoming from the editors as a change in ebook policy has been from HarperCollins. Another philosopher called for a subscription boycott as well. Depending on how libraries get access to this particular Springer journal, such a boycott might not be possible.
These two controversies are different in the relationships between the petitioners and their targets. Public librarians are merely consumers of HarperCollins ebooks, but philosophers are the editors, reviewers, and contributors to Synthese. Somehow I doubt HarperCollins will lose much money, and they might even join Simon and Schuster and MacMillan in not allowing ebook licenses to libraries at all. However, an effective boycott of Synthese could destroy not only the reputation but the existence of a top philosophy journal.
A third controversy began a couple of years ago when Oxford U. Press, Cambridge U. Press, and Sage sued Georgia State University over alleged copyright violations in their handling of ereserves. They have now, in the words of Inside Higher Education, “proposed an injunction that, if approved by a judge, would make Georgia State University comply with strict guidelines for copying and distributing copyrighted texts.” The implications of the injunction have been covered very effectively by Barbara Fister in the Library Journal and the Duke University Scholarly Communications Officer Kevin Smith on Duke’s scholarly communication blog, and by several people in this CHE article. Fister likened the injunction to Soviet attempts to suppress free speech, while Smith called it a “nightmare scenario for higher education.” The injunction would prevent GSU “from creating, reproducing, transmitting, selling, or in any manner distributing, or assisting, participating in, soliciting, encouraging, or facilitating the creation, reproduction, download, display, sale, or distribution in any manner of, copies, whether in hard copy format, digital or electronic computer files, or any other format, of any and all Works without permission,” where permission means paying a fee to the Copyright Clearance Center.
That’s pretty dire stuff. If I’m interpreting it right, and I very well might not be, the injunction would include, for example, a professor taking an article from JSTOR and loading that article onto her Blackboard site, or a library from putting the file on ereserve. That is, a university would have to pay extra for permission to distribute to students journal articles that the university’s library had already subscribed to for a full campus license. Though this might be the extreme example, it would seem to consider “facilitating the distribution” of digital documents that were already paid for and accessible to the entire campus community to be a violation of copyright. This seems utterly foolish to me, so if I’ve misinterpreted the extent of the injunction, please let me know. Most would say that the scenario I described is indeed a violation of copyright law, to which I have a couple of replies. First, if so, then current copyright law is unjust law, and thus deserves to be civilly disobeyed. It is contrary to the mission of the university to create and disseminate knowledge, and to the Constitution’s intent that copyright exists to promote science and the useful arts. Second, any law that prohibits such distribution is not only unjust, but stupid, which is why the intelligent professoriate ignores it.
While there has been some press coverage, I haven’t seen any call for a boycott of Oxford, Cambridge, and Sage titles, except in a few comments on the articles mentioning the injunction. That there seems to have been little or no response from any faculty is disappointing, though not that surprising considering the problems the open access movement has had. The injunction would be very difficult to enforce, as the oversight of faculty would be almost impossible, but the very fact that respectable academic presses are seeking an injunction so restrictive it borders on the absurd should give everyone pause. It’s one thing to protest scanning large chunks of a print book
and putting it on the open web (which allegedly is the sort of thing that prompted this lawsuit in the first place), or putting up works by commercial presses. It’s another thing entirely when publishers want to restrict access to scholarly works or expect copyright payments for articles that already have campus-wide licenses, which would be the case for anything from a campus-wide subscription database that is used in ereserves or placed on learning management systems.
I’d like to see some faculty call for a boycott just to see what the response would be. A boycott by librarians would be impossible. No decent academic library could just refuse to purchase or license material from those three publishers. The quality, for the most part, is just too high, and there would be faculty protests. A faculty boycott would have to be a precursor to any library boycott. If and only if the quality of their publications dropped because top scholars refused to publish, review, or edit for them would libraries be able to boycott them effectively. It would be interesting just to see the response from the publishers. Better still would be for scholars to move to open access publications to finally make the fruits of scholarship universally accessible like they should have been all along.