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Digital Rights Management and Scholarship: What Could Go Wrong? by Kembrew McLeod

With an eye to Open Access Week, here’s a post by Transitions guest-blogger Kembrew McLeod, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. If you’d like to learn more about the issues of author’s rights and copyright discussed in this post, take a look at the University of Iowa’s Author’s Rights and Copyright library guides.

Digital Rights Management and Scholarship: What Could Go Wrong?

Kembrew McLeod

Over the past quarter-century, private companies like Blackwell and Taylor & Francis have taken control of journal publishing. Before that, scholarly societies like the National Communication Association handled this task. Professors gave away their work to journals for free, something that was often referred to as a “contribution to the field.” But today, this kind of academic gift economy is being threatened. Contrary to what free-marketeers assume, the privatization of knowledge has created more economic inefficiencies. Typically, universities pay professors not only to teach, but also to produce scholarship; it’s part of the job description. When researchers sign over their copyrights to journal conglomerates like Blackwell (again, for free), college libraries are then required to purchase the right to view those articles at inflated prices (especially compared to previous decades). In other words, schools are paying twice—to produce, and then rent—the same product. What’s more disturbing is that these publishing companies often use technological means, such as Digital Rights Management (DRM), to block unauthorized access to articles.

DRM can, for instance, restrict the number of times one can view a PDF document file or print out a hard copy. I found this out the hard way when I e-mailed a PDF of my first academic article, published in the Journal of Communication, to students in an honors thesis writing class I taught in 2007. I wanted to have a discussion with them about the process of researching this article, but I didn’t anticipate a major problem. It turned out that Blackwell, the company to which I stupidly signed away my copyrights when I was a grad student, placed DRM restrictions on the digital file. After the second student printed out a hard copy of the article from the same PDF, the rest of my class was blocked from doing so. Their computers would only allow them to print out blank sheets of paper, save for Blackwell’s copyright notice at the bottom. In other words, I was prevented from sharing my own writing with my own class, an ironic and idiotic situation that runs counter to the principles of sharing and exchange that have traditionally characterized academia. I can’t think of a more poetic expression of what is wrong with academic publishing than a blank sheet of paper where words and ideas should be. It’s also a demonstration of how over-commercialization can generate economic friction (universities paying for the products of academic labor twice) and pedagogical disasters (my derailed class discussion).


Kembrew McLeod, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa, independent documentary filmmaker, and music critic, frequently writes on intellectual property law and the influence it has on contemporary culture. His book Freedom of Expression®: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity (2nd ed., University of Minnesota Press, 2007) received the American Libraries Association Oboler Award for Best Scholarship in the Area of Intellectual Freedom. He is also the author, with Peter DiCola, of Creative License: the Law and Culture of Digital Sampling (Duke University Press, 2011) and the editor, with Rudolf Kuenzli, of Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law (Duke University Press, 2011). Follow him on twitter:


Don Share Lecture Highlights Open Access and the Humanities

Open access publishing’s place in the humanities is uncertain at the moment, and knowledge of it will be important going forward in resolving inequitable relationships between presses and authors, journal vendors and libraries, and publishers and readers.

The University of Iowa Libraries has invited Don Share, senior editor of Poetry magazine, to talk about open access publishing platforms and contemporary humanities literature and scholarship. Join us:

 Monday, October 29th at 3pm

Illinois Room of the Iowa Memorial Union
(Share will also be giving a poetry reading at Prairie Lights in the evening, at 7 pm.)

In 2002, Ruth Lilly, heiress to the Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, left Poetry magazine 100 million dollars upon her death, and among the things Poetry has done with the Lilly bequest is go open access. Each month the magazine publishes a print issue, as it has been doing for 100 years, and since 2003 it has simultaneously made each issue’s contents freely available on its website (see Don Share was one of the principle architects of this initiative, and he is in a unique position to discuss how literature and humanities scholarship function on an open access platform.


Google and Publishers Settle Over Digital Books

As reported by the New York Times and other news outlets, the American Association of Publishers (AAP) and associated plaintiffs have reached a legal settlement with Google regarding its digitization effort, which makes books available in Google Books and HathiTrust.

The New York Times account is here:


Is Open Access a disaster for publishers? Maybe not

In a posting from Scholarly Kitchen, Kent Anderson notes that while the movement to open access could affect Elsevier’s bottom line (and presumably that of some other large commercial publishers) it’s not likely to be the end of them.  Read the full post here.


Appealing the Georgia State case

From Bernie Sloan in Publishers Weekly:

“The three publisher plaintiffs in the Georgia State University e-reserve case yesterday lodged an appeal with the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking to overturn one of the most significant fair use rulings in decades.”

Full text at:


Cornell gets major grant to support arXiv

Cornell University Library has announced a major grant from the Simons Foundation to support the costs of operating arXiv. The grant will provide up to $300,000 per year to match contributions from institutions which have supported arXiv since 2010.  From the announcement:

arXiv, the free repository that has revolutionized the way scientists share information, is adopting a new governance and business model that will allow it to grow and succeed in the future….As an open-access service, [arXiv] allows scientists to share “preprint” research before publication and boasts hundreds of thousands of contributors. In 2011 alone, arXiv saw close to 50 million downloads from all over the world and received more than 76,000 new submissions.

Iowa–through the University Libraries–has committed to providing annual support for arXiv since a call for support went out from Cornell. It is an especially important resource for researchers in physics, mathematics, and computer science, among others. It has been hosted at Cornell since 2001, when its founder, Paul Ginsparg, joined the faculty. See also the article by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle.



Journals’ Ranking System Roils Research

An article in the Wall Street Journal reports on the increasing practice of journals and authors to find ways to play the system that ranks scholarly publications.  At issue, this time, were two papers published by The Scientific World Journal which excessively cited the journal Cell Transplantation.  The Scientific World Journal retracted both articles, however Thomson Reuters, which publishes the impact factors, suspended both journals for two years, which is a serious “blow to the researchers who publish” in them. “The disapproval isn’t about the metric itself but about its misuse,” says Jim Testa, a vice president of editorial development and publisher relations at Thomson Reuters.

Phil Davis, a publishing consultant, who is quoted in the WSJ article and who researches citation gaming, has studied Cell Transplantation’s citation patterns and noted in an April blog entry that “a review article published in another journal, Medical Science Monitor, had cited a total of 490 articles in the field, of which 445 were articles that had appeared in Cell Transplantation alone, in 2008 and 2009. Both those years were used to compute the 2010 impact factor for Cell Transplantation, and those citations apparently had an effect: the journal’s IF rose from 5.126 in 2009 to 6.204 in 2010, a jump of 21%.”

article by Naik, Gautam. Wall Street Journal (Online) [New York, N.Y] 24 Aug 2012







US District Court judge again rules against publishers suing Georgia State

On Friday US District Court judge Orinda Evans ruled against publishers seeking an injunction that would have imposed restrictions on faculty wanting to use copyrighted material in courses. She also required the publishers to pay Georgia State’s attorney fees.  In a story from Inside Higher Ed Steve Kolowich reports “In the course of explaining her decision to make the publishers foot the bill for the university’s legal defense, the judge declared what observers have been opining for months: “On balance,” she wrote, “the court finds that the defendants are the prevailing party in this case.” For the opinion itself see


The Global University Press

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education provides another perspective on University Presses. “The Global University Press” (July 23, 2012) by Peter J. Dougherty, director of Princeton University Press, looks at the global market and how University Presses can benefit from increased international focus. Dougherty discusses several trends in global scholarship and lists innovations that can aid University presses:

  1. University Press Content Consortium’s Books on Project MUSE and Books at JSTOR
  2. Transnational advance of online book merchants
  3. Print on demand, or POD
  4. Digitally driven publicity
  5. Use of social and other digital media to communicate with local sales representatives in foreign countries

He adds, “The most crucial work in creating the global university press lies with acquisitions editors, who will be building the lists of the future.”


“Library of the Future” Nets Large NEH Grant

As reported by Jennifer Howard the The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus, the proposed Digital Public Library for the Humanities netted a $1-million grant from the National Endowment.  DPLA hopes to become an open-access national digital library.  Read the full story here.