“This figure is reproduced with permission of the publisher.”

April 26, 2007

To recap, Shelley Batts blogged on a recent scientific paper, including figures from said paper. Some annoyances from the publisher, Wiley, with respect to use of copyrighted material resulted. John Pieret links to a series of blogo-sponses on the subject.
There are a couple of points of interest to me. First, the blogger Batts did not go through the usual process to request permissions to use published material in advance. It is not clear that had this been done that she would have been refused and indeed permission may eventually be extended. Certainly whenever I have used the publishers’ procedures to request permission to re-publish figures in subsequent papers, I have received prompt permission. In essence by return mail in the pre-Internet days and within a day or two more recently. Calls for Wiley boycotts seem premature.
I had a recent experience in publishing a paper that was unusual and I realize I don’t really understand the ins and outs of copyright permissions in scientific publishing. My prior understanding was that it is basically the finished product, so to speak, that was under copyright. The exact figures / text / layouts as published. I figured that there had to be some rational thought here as well so that one couldn’t simply take a figure and reproduce it almost exactly except for cosmetic changes such as shading or graphical format. On the other hand I also thought that if one wanted to take some portion of the data and re-present it in the context of an entirely new comparison that was OK. Particularly when it is your own work, of course, but presumably OK anytime the original authors are OK with the use (yes I realize the authors have no legal position on this but science IS a community business). In my recent situation I was including the underlying data set (with appropriate citation) from a previously published study in entirely new statistical analyses and data presentation. Obviously there were new data involved. Nevertheless I received a note from the (academic) editor that I was to obtain permission from the original publisher. It was no big deal since it took about 10 minutes to submit the request and permission was granted before I finished revising the manuscript. But I don’t like the precedent one bit. It suggests an assertion of ownership over my research data to an unbelievable degree. Now, I think it likely this was a misunderstanding. The request was from an academic editor, not someone who necessarily is tied into the intricacies of the Elsevier (oh, yeah it was Elsevier) legal department. It may have been that the publisher would have never extended such a request. In the meantime I’m polling my colleagues to see if they’ve experienced anything similar…

UPDATE: Of course, once the appropriately senior person at Wiley was involved, the situation was resolved. This is not a “win”. This is a “loss” in which the blogos look like emotional nutcases willing to go ballistic before all the facts are in and/or considered rationally. That may be okay for the political ranters but surely scientific bloggers can do a bit better?

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