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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

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

     -- from

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

     -- from

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.


Explaining to STM That There Are Not 100 Kinds of "Open".

globeQuestion Copyright recently signed on to an open letter to the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM), calling on them to withdraw the counterproductive model licenses they have been promoting for use in publishing research articles.  (STM has written a response, but unfortunately it does not seriously address the very real issues raised in the original letter.)

To understand the problem with STM's model licenses, you need to understand the problem of "license proliferation".  License proliferation is the phenomenon of institutions coming up with their own slightly different -- or sometimes significantly different -- copyright licenses, each with its own idiosyncratic terminology and conditions.  The problem with this is that if everyone distributes work under a custom license, no one can really re-use or redistribute anyone's works in practice (even when redistribution is the licensor's explicit goal), because it takes too much time to read and evaluate all those different licenses.  Furthermore,  such licenses are often not compatible with each other, which makes remixing difficult or impossible.

Creative Commons came along and basically solved this problem years ago.  They offer a very small set of easily comprehensible, professionally drafted licenses, several of which are genuine Free Culture licenses and entirely suitable for scholarly publishing.  STM should just recommend that research articles be published under those licenses.  There is no need for this new set of model licenses -- that just creates a problem for everyone.  Creative Commons already solved this; STM should not help unsolve it.

The original letter (which has 77 signatories and counting) explains this very well:

The Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers has recently released a set of model licenses for research articles. In their current formulation, these licenses would limit the use, reuse and exploitation of research. They would make it difficult, confusing or impossible to combine these research outputs with other public resources and sources of knowledge to the benefit of both science and society. There are many issues with these licenses, but the most important is that they are not compatible with any of the globally used Creative Commons licenses. For this reason, we call on the STM Association to withdraw them and commit to working within the Creative Commons framework.

Think of the Creative Commons licenses as an immune response to the disease of current U.S. and international copyright laws.  Those laws are maximally restrictive by default, and lead, as diseases often do, to very bad consequences.  By using Creative Commons licenses, particularly the fully-freedom-compatible ones, you can ensure that you and your works are never part of the problem: you will not transmit the disease to others.

If the CC licenses are an immune response, then STM's suggestion that different, special licenses are somehow necessary for scholarly publishing is an allergic response.  Like many allergic responses, if it continues unchecked, it can grow to be as bad as the original disease.


Copyright "restrictions": Farhad Manjoo of the NYT uses accurate language.

Books in a jail cell.At QCO we make a point of calling things by their right names, and of encouraging others to do so.  For example, we always talk about "copyright restrictions", instead of using the pro-monopoly propaganda word "copyright protection".  Try it yourself: if you consistently substitute restrict for protect, and restriction for protection, when talking about copyright, it will always work grammatically and it will be more accurate.

The information monopoly industries would much prefer us to talk about "protection", of course, by which they mean protection of their business model.  But most of us don't say "pre-owned car" just because used car dealers would rather we said that instead of "used car", and we can use the same principle of calling things what they are when it comes to copyright.

However, most media outlets (not to mention even other copyright reformers and abolitionists, sadly) still usually take the path of least resistance and continue using the term "protection".  This may be partly because it lends an air of legalistic authority: lawyers almost always call it "protection", not just for copyrights but also in the unfortunately consonant phrase "patent protection" and in the conceptually incoherent "intellectual property protection".

That's why I nearly jumped out of my airplane seat when I opened the New York Times this Friday, April 25th, and saw Farhad Manjoo's article "The Cloud Roots for Aereo, but People Need Better".  It was the first time I'd seen anyone in a major mainstream media publication use the term "copyright restrictions" where most journalists would have said "copyright protections".  Here's the exact excerpt, starting from the beginning of the article:

"The best way to think about Aereo, the company at the center of this week's Supreme Court battle over the future of computing, is as as an example of legal performance art.  Aero is based entirely on a legalistic leap of faith: If it's legal to set up an antenna and record a TV show at your own house, which it is, shouldn't it also be legal to rent an antenna and server space at a big data center, and then stream the show over the Internet to your computer, tablet or set-top box?


It's a clever argument, one that highlights the extreme lengths that tech companies go to to avoid copyright restrictions. ..."

Not only that, he never refers to restrictions as "protection" anywhere in the article.  Later he even repeats "restrict", again accurately, and with a directness that has been too often missing from many others' writings on this topic:

"Aereo is based on a loophole. To offer TV shows over the Internet, most streaming services like Netflix or Hulu pay licensing fees to studios. But licensing is expensive and restrictive; ..."

Why, it's almost as if he's determined to report what's actually going on!

I've been a fan of Farhad Manjoo for a while, so it's gratifying to see him taking such care with language here.  But just to be clear, there's no behind-the-scenes nudging going on, at least not by me: I've never met nor communicated with Manjoo.  Also, we have no reason to count him (or for that matter not count him) among those for radical reform or abolition of the current copyright system.  I don't know anything about his political beliefs in this area, and his insistence on using accurate language doesn't say anything about those beliefs.  It just tells us he's trying to be a good writer, one who uses the most appropriate word despite environmental pressure to do otherwise.  Let's hope he influences some of his colleagues to be equally accurate.



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