Opinion editorial.

Copyright as Censorship in Science: Striped Nanoparticle Edition

Striped nanoparticle images, except for the censored parts.A band of researchers has been tirelessly trying to demonstrate that a body of scientific work which rests on a paper from over 10 years ago is completely wrong. The only problem is, their argument isn't being allowed to stand or fall on its merits — instead, copyright restrictions are interfering with their ability to make their case at all.

The "stripy nanoparticle" saga begins with a 2004 publication in the journal Nature Materials (DOI: 10.1038/nmat1116) from Francesco Stellacci's lab, describing a method for synthesizing small gold nanoparticles — particles on the order of 10 nanometers in size — that are coated with alternating "striped" domains of two different chain-like molecules attached to their surface.

While it wasn't surprising that those specific types of chain-like molecules attach to the surface of the small gold nanoparticles, it was surprising (to some scientists) that the chains would order themselves into such organized striped patterns. So surprising that Raphael Levy, a researcher from the University of Liverpool, took a critical look at the data behind the conclusions in the 2004 paper. He believes that the evidence for the existence of these striped nanoparticles is the result of spurious observations that likely originate from poor experimental technique and cherry-picking of statistical data.

After extensive delays in the peer reviewed publication process, Levy's first response was eventually published in the journal Small (DOI: 10.1002/smll.201001465), three years after the response had been first submitted to Nature Materials for publication. It was around then that Levy began blogging to focus attention on the topic as well as on more generalized shortcomings of scientific publishing process. The blog attracted discussion from a number of other researchers and spurred writeups in the scientific press.

Since that time, Julian Stirling has authored a paper along with Levy and a group of other researchers that has provided a comprehensive critical analysis of  Stellacci's 2004 paper and related work that followed.  Stirling et al.'s "Critical assessment of the evidence for striped nanoparticles" was deposited on the open access preprint server arXiv, and became the most discussed paper on the popular post-publication peer review site PubPeer. The paper was also accepted for publication in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

What does this have to do with copyright?

In order to make their case to the reader, Stirling et al. need to reuse figures from Stellacci's earlier work, so that the comparisons and alleged errors can be clearly communicated. The problem is that publishing houses like the the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), John Wiley & Sons, Nature Publishing Group and the American Chemical Society must grant permission to make use of these figures for PLOS to republish them, as PLOS publishes under the freedom-friendly Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license, and its readers depend on what they receive from PLOS ONE being reuseable under terms no more restrictive than that.

At the time of writing, only the RSC has granted permission. Wiley has responded in the comments at Stirling's blog, saying that while they'll allow re-use with no fee under standard copyright, they won't simply relicense the images to be compatible with PLOS ONE's non-restrictive distribution policy.  (What Wiley actually says is that they are "unable to change [the images'] copyright status", which is simply false.)  It isn't yet clear how this will be resolved.  Offering the image at no fee for this one use is not a particularly helpful move on Wiley's part: the restrictions would still be quite onerous, because Wiley's one-off exception would not be passed along to PLOS ONE's readers — instead, they too would have to ask Wiley for permission if they wanted to use the figures in a scientific critique... and so on, ad infinitum.  Creating a gatekeeper does not always create tolls, but it does force everyone to at least stop at the tollbooth before proceeding, and that's exactly the problem here.  Wiley's "rights department" (that is, their restrictions department) has inserted itself into scientific discussions where it has nothing to contribute and can only hamper the flow of communication.

Stirling et al.'s frustration is tangible — and they clearly understand that the culprit is censorship implemented via copyright:

"The traditional publishers who published the work we're critiquing can't censor our paper now, can they? It isn't their journal, so they can't refuse to review/publish it ... But they still have one trick up their sleeve. Copyright. They own the copyright on the papers we criticise, and many of the new open-access journals they hate so much use Creative Commons licensing. They have the right to refuse permission to reuse parts of their figures. But just how can anyone write a self-contained critical article about data misrepresented in figures without being able to include at least some of the original results for critique and analysis?"

     -- from julianstirling.co.uk/how-can-we-trust-scientific-publishers-with-our-work-if-they-wont-play-fair/

"It beggars belief that the scientific publishing system is so screwed up that this type of farce can happen."

     -- from raphazlab.wordpress.com/2014/09/14/stripes-open-access-and-copyright-as-a-form-of-censorship/

"Dear publishers (@plosone, @WileyExchanges @NatureMaterials @J_A_C_S) I don't want to become a lawyer - plse just sort this mess - quick"

     -- from twitter.com/raphavisses/status/512354945236873216

These events clearly illustrate how copyright restrictions are not just a problem for cultural production. Copyright interferes just as much with the clear and referential communication needed for the healthy functioning of the scientific process. The point is not that Levy and his colleagues are right or wrong. The point is that whether they are right or wrong should be a matter of science, not censorship.


The Struggling Artist: Setting a Historical Baseline

A drawing on an artist.  How recursive.There's an interesting discussion going on over at Crooked Timber in response to a an article by Henry Farrell about Astra Taylor's book The People’s Platform.

But our post here is just about one great comment from that discussion.  Actually, it would be more accurate to say that our post here is one great comment from that discussion, because I can't think of any better way to say what Clay Shirky said in his comment than the way he said it.

So, since we're always yammering on about the "permission culture" and how problematic it is, I thought, what the heck, let's just take a chance and publish Clay Shirky's comment as an article without asking him first.  If he's unhappy about it, we'll take it down, of course, but my guess is that Clay would agree that his spot-on point about the economic inevitability, throughout history, of the "struggling artist" deserves wider attention:

I’ve yet to read the book (getting it now, on your rec, Henry), so I’ll confine myself to reacting to your writing here, starting with your framing of the question: “If there isn’t an economic model for producing culture in some kind of self-sustaining way, will it get produced?”


To which the answer is that of course it will get produced. Culture always gets produced, by definition. You can’t have a group of humans living together who don’t produce some artifacts and behaviors that constitute their culture, including cultures who not only don’t have professional artists, they don’t have the concept of money.


Since this answer borders on the tautological, I think that this can’t be what you meant, so I will substitute what I think the question behind that observation is (and you’ll tell me if I’m wrong): If the marketplace that forms around cultural production does not produce, on average, a living wage for the producers of that culture, shouldn’t we expect cultural impoverishment to flow outwards from the impoverishment of the individual artists?


Now part of that answer comes down to personal taste — in the same way Katie Roiphe argues that feminism, as practiced, has ruined the novel, as produced, it would be possible to prefer the art of the ’70s to today’s, and to link that to the ways that, say, the Talking Heads or Robert Wilson’s Byrd Hoffman folks could support themselves in a way that isn’t possible today, and that these circumstances led to art you prefer. (Dave Hickey often advances just this argument.) There’s no real counter-argument, given the lack of taste accountants.


But part of that question is purely economic, and from my point of view, understanding the economics of cultural production comes down to a single home truth: more people want to make things than other people want the things those first people have made.


Always. This is always true. The economy where an artist couldn’t make a killing but could make a living has never existed. Being a working artist is such a desirable state that people are willing to endure penury and suffering for a shot at the big time. The hazing rituals of rejection letters, pawned instruments, and shows closing out of town simply reduced the pool of creators to the point where it looked like supply and demand were more in balance than today. This illusion could only be sustained by ignoring the vast majority of people who wanted to do that work but abandoned hope early and left not public trace of their aspirations.


What the internet does is to decouple fame and fortune*, so that the cadre of people who make things no longer need to ask anyone for help or permission before making those self-same things public. And the resulting flood of public work has revealed that there are many more talented people around than were surfaced when highlighting the work of a young artist entailed significant financial risk on the part of the people who could reach an audience. Now, we makers can reach the audience more directly.


90% of what we make is crap, as has been long noted, but the increased volume and increasingly sophisticated filters mean that the good stuff can be plucked from the crap without subjecting the average viewer to the average quality work. (This is also the answer to Freddie’s question as to what will replace the old model, which is “This. You’re living in the replacement of the old model.”)


And the massively increased denominator of available work means the numerator of cultural spending is spread much more thinly. A handful of stars still do well — some, who produce physical objects or live performances, are doing better than ever — but the pool of people who can share our work for no money, or make a little on the side, has increased so vastly that there is no comparison between the pool of people showing their work in public in the 1970s vs. now.


It is a category error to assume that there has always been some moderately-sized group of creators who are talented but not destined for stardom, and in the old days those people did OK while today they are immiserated.


Many of the people lamenting not being able to make a living from their work today would not have been able to under the old system either, but they imagine that they would have been among that system’s rare winners, rather than being part of the far larger group who was dissuaded from their dreams of being paid to create without ever having even been able to show their work in public.


There has never been a normal way in the US to be a self-supporting creator. The consolation prize today is that does not mean also not getting some of the public attention creators typically crave. The economic side-effect of the widely increased scope for that attention is the economic effects you are wondering about.




By the way, if you liked that, check out his later comment in the same discussion.  More Shirky, please!  (Commenters bobmcmanus and Trader Joe apparently agree.)


Danny Colligan on public funding for artists.

A while ago, Danny Colligan (author of the wonderfully rigorous & thorough "What We Lose When We Embrace Copyright") sent us a link to a new short piece he'd written, about public subsidies for artists and how to set them up so they result in more freedom, not more restriction.  It's here:



There are many schemes one could create to subsidize artists.  Economist Dean Baker made one such proposal, which relies on a voucher system.  Basically, taxpayers get vouchers that they can use to allocate to whatever artist(s) they want, and artists, as a requirement for receiving money through the system, are forbidden from copyrighting their work. Such a system leverages the already existing tax infrastructure, would be more than sufficient to cover artists’ costs, and does not even require any sweeping changes like elimination of all copyright (besides, of course, passage of law that would bring the program itself into existence).  In short, the proposed voucher system is a relatively unobtrusive reform that could easily be implemented within the context of the current legal and economic system.  The political effort required to enact it, however, is another story, of course.

Yes.  This shouldn't even be a hard call.  Public money should result in public goods.



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