Published June 6, 2017 | Version v1
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Poisonous Science: the Dark Side of Academic Copyright in the Digital Age


  • 1. Università di Trento


Copyright on academic and scientific publications (papers, articles, essays, books etc.) is the result of the interaction between formal rules (copyright law), social norms (norms of science) and technology (printing press, digital technologies).

Prior to the digital age, academic copyright has had two main functions.

a) Priority. The acknowledgment of a paternity (or attribution) right on the scientific publication has facilitated the certification of priority of the scientific discovery described in the text.

b) Dissemination. The protection of economic rights (reproduction, distribution etc.) has enabled the alliance between scientific authors and publishers finalized to distribute scientific publications to the public. Usually, scientific authors transfer their economic rights to the publisher because the latter has the economic and technological power to disseminate scientific publications. Nevertheless, scientific authors are mostly interested in reputation and not in the economic return derived from the commercialization of copyright.

According to Robert Merton's theory, the norms of science are Communism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, and Organized Skepticism (CUDOS).

Scientists compete for  priority but they put their ideas and information in the public domain. The ultimate scope is to share ideas and information because the progress of science depends on "communism" and "organized skepticism". In other terms, scientific publications are part of the public and critical dialogue. In this perspective, formal law and social norms, normally stating that the original ownership of copyright belongs to the authors and not to their academic or scientific institutions, mirror freedom of speech and academic liberty.

The current scenario however seems completely different. In theory, Internet represents an extraordinary opportunity to strengthen the scientific debate. But reality tells a very different story. In the digital age, scientific publications are only "products". The changing nature of scientific publications is the effect of the commodification of academic research. While the interaction between commodification of academic research and university patents has been deeply investigated and discussed, scholars have paid relatively little attention to the commodification of academic copyright.

In the market of scientific publications, bibliometrics and digitization distort the two functions (priority and dissemination) of academic copyright.

On the one hand, the right of paternity becomes only part of academic metrics, aimed to generate long lists of publications in academic cv and citations in commercial databases like Scopus, ISI WoS, and Google Scholar. Not surprisingly, according to some studies, the logics of "publish or perish" and "impact or perish" foster scientific misconduct (e.g., falsification, fabrication, plagiarism).

On the other hand, economic rights (reproduction, distribution etc.) become the leverage of the oligopolistic power of commercial and proprietary databases which concentrate publishing and evaluation - related to metrics - powers. For example, Elsevier is at the same time the biggest scientific publisher and the "largest abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed literature". This market power is the result of the interplay between copyright and the contemporary processes of academic evaluation connected to the notion of "metrics". In this perspective, the real goal of economic copyright is not to disseminate, but to concentrate the control of scientific information in few hands.

The Open Access and Open Science movements are trying to oppose the distortion of academic copyright and indeed re-establish its original twofold function (priority and dissemination). Nevertheless, it is worth emphasising that, without a deep and radical change in the process of academic evaluation and in the copyright law, the progress of science and academic freedom will be at great risk.




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