Re: Learned Society Publisher's Comment on PLoS/Sabo

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Sun, 20 Jul 2003 01:00:48 +0100

On Sat, 19 Jul 2003, Patrick Brown wrote:

> On Saturday, July 19, 2003, at 08:07 AM, Stevan Harnad wrote:
>sh> The Sabo Bill is indeed a bit flaky on copyright. Copyright protection
>sh> against plagiarism (theft-of-authorship) and text-corruption will of
>sh> course have to be maintained. But this has nothing whatsoever to do
>sh> with toll-access publishers' use of copyright as protection against
>sh> piracy (theft-of-text).
> Copyright protection has never been used as a defense against
> plagiarism of scientific and scholarly work published in research
> journals.

"Never" is probably overstating it, but I am sure that journals have
rarely gone after plagiarists, partly because research plagiarism is
rare, and partly because, as I noted, their main interest is in
copyright protection against theft-of-text, not theft-of-authorship.

But I do think that research authors need and want protection from
theft-of-authorship, as well as from text-corruption (reproduction of
altered text).

> The disincentive to those who would be tempted to plagiarize
> is not the law but very effective and clear community standards of
> behavior.

But the fact that it also happens to be illegal helps. (And the way to
win researchers over to the benefits of open access is not by awakening
their fears of plagiarism.)

> Exposure of an act of plagiarism ruins the perpetrator's
> reputations and almost inevitably costs them their grant support and
> their jobs.

I agree. And I would even add that it is mostly a victimless crime.
(Important research's priority is immediately and widely known;
unimportant research is less worth worrying about. I am not the victim
if you take my papers and publish them as your own in some obscure
journal in order to get tenure or funding at some uninformed
institution. At worst, the victim is the duped institution, not me.)

But authors nevertheless don't like the prospect of plagiarism, and
there is no reason *whatsoever* to couple open-access with any lesser
legal protection against plagiarism (or text-corruption) than that
afforded by copyright law.

> The classic academic plagiarism involves stealing work
> from an obscure publication, and often publishing it in an equally
> obscure publication, so that the risk of detection is minimized. There
> could be no better protection than to have immediate, easy free online
> access to an authoritative copy of the original work, from a trusted
> source.

I agree 100%. Open access maximizes the likelihood of detection. But now,
when we are still trying to allay the research community's prima facie
hesitancy about open access, a time when open access is already long
overdue, but definitiely not yet upon us -- this is *not* the time to
reinforce their worries that open access might come at the cost of a loss
of legal protection against plagiarism and corruption of their texts!

> Copyright, to the extent that it is used to restrict access
> (and for most online academic journals, proscribe independent users
> from automatic searching and indexing of the text), protects
> plagiarizers from being detected.

Copyright, when it is used for (publisher) protection against
theft-of-text, does the refereed-research community no good
whatsoever, diminishing both research impact *and* the detectability
of plagiarism. But the remedy for that is *open access*, i.e., freedom
from access-tolls -- and not freedom from copyright-protection against
theft-of-authorship (plagiarism)!

    5. PostGutenberg Copyright Concerns

Stevan Harnad

NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing open
access to the peer-reviewed research literature online is available at
the American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00 & 01 & 02 & 03):

Discussion can be posted to:
Received on Sun Jul 20 2003 - 01:00:48 BST

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