Prepare to Repel Researchers!

From Library Babel Fish, June 29, 2011

An interesting question came up the other day on COLLIB-L, a discussion list for college librarians. A librarian reported that a student who was abroad discovered he couldn’t access videos in a library database. An error message appeared saying access would constitute a “copyright violation.” Though the library had licensed the material for its patrons, including that student, he was unable to view it because he happened to have traveled to another region. He wondered whether he might have the same problem with articles in databases.

I’d never run into students studying abroad being unable to access our databases (unless they didn’t have their campus ID with them, with its barcode used to validate their identity as an authorized member of our community). But a librarian responding to the initial message said he ran into problems when vendors cut off access pending investigation of strange activity in an odd location. His campus is on Guam. Apparently, many vendors don’t know that’s a US territory and act, thinking some foreigners have breached their security.

All this is part of publishers and vendors defending their products from those who haven’t paid. As has been reported elsewhere, the American Chemical Society is taking measures to go after unauthorized use of passwords for their database, SciFinder Scholar. These passwords are not lightly shared. At my college, we have an arrangement with two other schools to put up tens of thousands of dollars annually so we can share two seats. That means that among all of the faculty and students at three institutions, two of them can conduct a search at the same time. They have to be patient, because often when they want to run a search the two seats are full. We have no other databases as expensive or as restricted as this one.

By the way, when you go through the difficult process of creating a password for this database (it’s one of those picky systems that pretty much guarantees you will never be able to remember the complicated password you created) you have to swear that you will not use any of the information you access for anything other than personal use and study. If you actually do something with that information, you are supposed to pay more.

The American Chemical Society may be an extreme example, but they aren’t alone in being stingy about library use. Now science, technology, and medical publishers want to ensure that their articles have to clear customs before libraries can provide interlibrary loan across national borders. This proposed policy was apparently prompted by a statement from the Association of Research Libraries reiterating a long-standing conviction that loaning materials across international borders is A Good Thing. This isn’t to say it’s a free lunch. Libraries are restricted in how much they can borrow without having to pay copyright fees. The 5/5 rule states that only five articles from any one journal published within the most recent five years can be requested by a library without paying a fee set by the publisher. Libraries pay out many thousands of dollars to copyright holders. But that’s not enough.

While I’m aware that it costs money to organize the flow of manuscripts through the peer review system, and that those online portals are costly to develop, I think it’s worth noting that at the same time that federal funding for basic research is at risk and libraries are scrambling to cover yet another year of tight budgets, Elsevier had profits of over a billion, with a 36% profit margin. At those rates, we could afford an open access publishing system and everyone could access research findings.

For the past thirty years, this has been a library problem, one we’ve addressed by cutting everything that isn’t among the expensive items we have to have (and in the case of chemistry, it truly is an offer you can’t refuse: the society not only publishes the major database and journals in the field, it accredits programs, and to get accreditation students must have access to their journals and be able to search their database). The impact on fields that are not profitable or big has not been pretty. Now that big deals are no longer affordable, we’re eating our seed corn by buying one disposable article at a time – articles we’re all forbidden to share or use for anything but personal study. This is not my idea of a library.

And it’s a very strange way to advance knowledge. Until this ceases to be a library problem and is recognized as a hindrance to science, we’re going to be chipping away at what libraries can do for their communities while chasing pirates.