An Ethical Dilemma: To Share or Not To Share Your Paper Published in Lipids Using an On-Line Outlet
You just published a paper in Lipids and now you want to share your work with the world and choose to do so on your laboratory website and on a science social-media site. You recall electronically signing the Copyright Transfer Agreement, but like most of us in science, you didn’t really read it. The proof comes in and everything looks great, so you send it back to the publisher and now the paper is published. You download the typeset, copyedited paper from Lipids and now you’re excited to get the paper to all of your colleagues. As the authors, you and your co-authors have every right to distribute the PDF of your paper to your colleagues via email, however do you have a right to post the PDF on your lab’s website and then onto your ResearchGate site? If you assigned the copyright to the American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS), the answer is no. You cannot put the PDF of the paper on these sites. This is rather simple, as such a posting violates the ownership agreement that you signed on your behalf and on the behalf of your colleagues when you transferred the copyright to the AOCS.
What is the difference between sending it to five or ten colleagues as opposed to posting it at your lab’s website or at your ResearchGate site? Well, if you had read the Copyright Transfer Agreement, you would note that you have the ability to distribute your work under the doctrine of fair use. In other words, sending it to people who request a copy of your paper or selectively distributing it to a small number of colleagues are both within your rights and privileges that you retained when you transferred the copyright. However, under this circumstance, you are controlling who gets your paper. Posting it on your own website, where you cannot control who downloads the PDF or, similarly, onto your ResearchGate site where you do not control who accesses your paper, does not fall under the concept of fair use. Hence, such a posting is a violation of the copyright owner’s rights, in other words the rights of AOCS.
In my ethical conduct of research class, the students and I have had rather lengthy discussions on intellectual property, including extensive discussions about copyright. What becomes evident in these discussions is that students are very well versed in social media sites, including those often used in science. In these discussions, my students note that many, many principle investigators post a PDF of their papers on their laboratory websites, including absolute leaders in the field, and in some of my students’ minds this validates that the action taken is permissible. Well, is it? No. Unless the papers posted to such a site are Open Access, in which the authors retain the copyright, such postings are a clear violation of copyright. Posting on ResearchGate falls into the same category, unless of course the papers are published in an Open Access journal or the authors have paid the open access fee that the journal might charge. At Lipids, this fee is $3000 for Open Choice, and I rarely see authors opt to use this service to provide the papers to everyone via an open access format.
A recent article published in Nature sheds some light on this topic . Interestingly, of the 5593 scientists surveyed, 79% uploaded their work to scholarly social media sites. Of those, just over 80% believe that the publisher’s copyright and sharing policies should be respected, although 60% of these very same scientists believe that they should be allowed to upload published papers onto a website regardless of the policies of the publisher. This is interesting and perhaps, in one light, frightening. It suggests that violating the copyright owner’s rights is fine because the original owners of the copyright should have maintained their rights. After all, it is their work, right? The publisher didn’t toil away for a year or more in the laboratory to produce the work, right? Yet the simple point is that only 20% of the individuals surveyed who posted their papers onto some type of sharing site didn’t comprehend the copyright issues and the sharing policies of a publisher. Hence, this also indicates that 80% did understand, but violated copyright law regardless.
The surprising lack of respect for copyright is truly disturbing. What other fundamental elements of ethical publishing and of scientific misconduct are not respected by these same individuals? It is apparent that there is a fair bit of rationalization that knowingly violating a copyright is a right and privilege maintained by some of our colleagues, even after transferring the copyright. Would these same individuals rationalize that increasing the number of animals in a group without doing the experiments is legitimate? After all, let’s say the p value is 0.0597 using a Student’s t test, then clearly it should be significant and that can be made legitimate with the addition of 2 more animals per group. As it is clear as punch what the outcome should be, why do the experiments on these additional animals? Alternatively, a Western blot has some pesky bands that just don’t make sense, so adjusting the contrast a bit and the white levels makes these bands disappear. Problem solved, right? Or based upon my knowledge of the field, I know that experiment X should yield answer Y, and because my time is a precious commodity, I can just fabricate the data. Clearly, any scientist should rapidly come to the conclusion that such rationalizations are not consistent with ethical conduct in science and should be absolutely avoided.
So why do some many of our colleagues seem to think infringement of a copyright is perfectly fine? Is there an us (righteous scientists) versus them (overzealous publishers) attitude? In the Nature article  Ross Mounce, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Cambridge, notes that even though he is aware that he breaches the copyright agreement when he posts the final version of a non-open access paper on ResearchGate, he just doesn’t care. He was quoted as saying “Only open access will cleanly and clearly solve the highly artificial ‘problem’ of not being allowed to share research with others”. Interestingly, I guess Mounce could just pay the fees to publish in an open access manner and avoid the issue all together, but as noted earlier, he just doesn’t care.
How many of us are like Ross Mounce? How many of us want the privileges of open access without paying the fees and feel that the overzealous publishers should publish our work at a low cost and permit us to broadly distribute it to the whole world for free? You see, open access merely offers a highly transparent mechanism for the authors to retain the copyright, while the publisher makes money on each and every paper published. It is all upfront and the fees are well known. On one hand, AOCS requires transfer of a copyright to publish the work at no cost to the authors. That means zero cost to the authors. On the other hand, as their part of the bargain, the authors give up their copyright and assign it to AOCS. In this model, the authors still retain the right to distribute the work to all who request it, but just cannot post it in a manner in which the downloading of the paper is not controlled. It seems to me, unlike to Mounce, that the issue was resolved a long time ago. I guess the Mounces amongst us want to have their cake and want to eat it, too.
In summary, in class we talk about ownership of patents and of copyrights in the light of a car. If I own a car and have a title clearly showing ownership of that car, then I have the right to use that car whenever I need to use it. If I sell the car to someone else, I transfer the title of that car to the new person. Transferring the ownership transfers my right to use the car to the new owner. Even if I retain a key, I cannot use that car without express permission, no matter what my rationalization for the use of the car under these circumstances. In science, outside of a few select groups and in the absence of the open access model, we transfer our copyright to the publisher when we publish a paper in their journal. We no longer own it, the publisher now owns it, whether we like it or not. In the end, without the publisher owning the copyright, they cannot distribute the journal, either in print form or electronically; the transfer of the copyright to them corrects this issue. For those who want to post their papers on their laboratory websites or on ResearchGate, make the choice to publish in an open access journal or, if publishing in Lipids, choose the Open Choice option. Problem solved.