Elsevier and Springer Sue University Library

The battle is heating up! Now Elsevier, Springer and a smaller third publisher are suing a major university in Switzerland, the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, or ETH Zürich for short. Why? Because this university’s library is distributing copies of their journal articles at a lower cost than the publishers themselves.

Aren’t university libraries supposed to make journal articles available? Over on Google+, Willie Wong explains:

My guess is that they are complaining about how the ETH Library (as well as many other libraries in the NEBIS system) offers Electronic Document Delivery.

It is free for staff and researchers, and private individuals who purchase a library membership can ask for articles for a fee. It is a nice service: otherwise most of us would just go to the library, borrow the printed journal, and scan it ourselves (when the electronic copy is not part of the library’s subscription). This way the library does the scanning for us (so we benefit from time better used) and the library benefits from less undesired wear-and-tear and loss from their paper copies.

The publishers probably think the library is illegally reselling their journal articles! But here’s an article by the head of the ETH library, making his side of the case:

• Wolfram Neubauer, A thorn in the side for science publishers, ETH Life, 17 February 2012.

He says the delivery of electronic copies of documents is allowed by the Swiss Copyright Act. He also makes a broader moral case:

• More or less all scientifically relevant journals rely on the results of publicly funded research.

• The brunt of evaluating scientific findings (i.e. peer reviewing) is borne by the scientific community, with the publishers playing only a supporting role.

• By far the most important customers for all major science publishers are academic libraries, the vast majority of which are themselves supported by public funding.

He concludes:

In the legal proceedings, the aim must therefore be to strike a balance between the services provided by the ETH-Bibliothek for the benefit of science and research on the one hand and the commercial interests of the publishers on the other.

It’ll be interesting to see how this goes in court. Either way, a kind of precedent will be set.

11 Responses to Elsevier and Springer Sue University Library

  1. XYZ says:

    As far as I know (but I have not followed and checked that random infos), here in Germany, publishers arranged that they can supply computers of schools with software searching connected computers for illegal copies. My guess is that this is thought as kind of pre-test for establishing similar means in universities. However, when I mentioned this a few months ago at a meeting of some mathematics professors here, they estimated that this was irrelevant because negotiations would cause that the universities would have to pay just some small, symbolic sum and everything proceeds after that as usual. And concerning paper copies from libraries: Since years – at least in the universities I know – library copy machines have with more or less direct support from publishing industry been acquired, which automatically identify which user copies what and when. So far nobody had an idea what the heck all this data are for…

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    When I read this in the original article:

    “In the legal proceedings, the aim must therefore be to strike a balance between the services provided by the ETH-Bibliothek for the benefit of science and research on the one hand and the commercial interests of the publishers on the other.”

    It made a shiver run up my spine. There is it, in black and white. One side, the benefit of science and research; on the other, the commercial interests of the publishers. The two are opposed: what you give to one, you have to take away from the other.

    … And we’re talking about striking a balance? Seriously? Is it even a question? “Let’s retard the progress of science, so we can improve the commercial interests of publishers!” No, thank you.

  3. Tom Leinster says:

    Well said, Mike! It’s all too easy to be nod along to those reasonable-sounding words, “strike a balance”.

  4. Dima says:

    OMG… I imagine going back to the paper-only mode.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      Here’s how inter-library loan works at at least SOME universities in the USA, for papers from at least SOME publishers.

      1. patron requests document
      2. librarian obtains PDF from publisher
      3. PDF is printed
      4. PDF is deleted
      5. Printed copy is scanned
      6. Scan is converted to PDF
      7. Scanned PDF is sent to patron.

      It makes my head hurt just thinking about all that extra effort to DESTROY information.

  5. Dima says:

    Reblogged this on Equatorial Mathematics and commented:
    This is just SO wrong, that I find it hard to believe. I cannot boycott Springer, at least not yet, given that I have a number of papers under submission in Springer journals, but OK, I’m going to boycott Elsevier.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      “I cannot boycott Springer, at least not yet, given that I have a number of papers under submission in Springer journals.”

      Sure you can. You can just decide now that you’re not going to send them any more of your submissions. You don’t need to pull the ones you’ve already submitted in order to make a statement. (Mind, you just think what a statement that would make!)

      • Even better, wait until they are accepted, _then_ pull them, make them freely available and make it publicly known they were refereed and accepted for publication, and _why_ they were pulled.

  6. Joan Vazquez says:

    As an undergraduate from Polytechnic of Valencia, currently in Greece, I have been reading your blog for a couple of years, thinking how great it is, and wondering what could I do.

    Now everybody can help. I just started sending mails to our librarians and directors to inform about this Ban and Open movement, and asking them to take part and lead this revolution in Spain, at least. I hope it helps.

    Meanwhile, for protesting pacifically against cuts in education, underage students are being beaten and detained in Valencia….

  7. Gary Nelson says:

    I thank you for promoting this action. The entire scientific enterprise is hobbled by sequestering research papers behind expensive portals. There can be no justification for charging $30 to $40 for one journal article. I urge all researchers and authors to publish on the open and free sites. We have the Internet today in large part because all the standards documents and working papers were made available using the very medium being developed.
    Gary Nelson, PhD

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