The squeaky wheel gets the open access

cc.logo.largeThis is a story of my first involvement pushing a publication that wanted to be University owned “all rights reserved” to becoming one released under a Creative Commons license.  I’m not sure that the arcane details will be of interest to many people, but I think there’s an important lesson here about sticking to your guns if you support open access.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to write a chapter on Citizen Microbiology for a book on Citizen Science that would be published by Arizona State University (ASU) press as part of a series they were doing.   Flattered, I of course accepted… I am really passionate about citizen science was happy to contribute anything I could.

Then I mentioned it to Jonathan Eisen, my supervisor and the first question he asked was “what will be the licensing on the book?”.   I thought to myself “Who cares?  I get to write a book chapter!”.  But I passed on the question and got a response to the effect that it would be published under a standard ASU “all rights reserved” copyright sort of arrangement.  And even though I’m a big proponent of open-access, for example I will only publish scientific research in open-access journals, I didn’t think much about the book copyright.  Until Jonathan pointed out to me that not only had all of my citizen science work been funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (which supports open access)… but that it was a bit ironic to have a book about citizen science be closed access!

So I asked about the possibility of the book being Creative Commons, and got a fairly lukewarm reception and the suggestion that they might allow authors to post chapters, but that third parties wouldn’t be allowed to use any of the text.  At which point Jonathan suggested that I pull my chapter from the volume.  I waited for the formal agreement, but it looked both restrictive and complicated.  I again asked about using Creative Commons and said I wouldn’t publish otherwise.

The counter-offer this time was pretty interesting.  Basically I would release my chapter on microBEnet under a Creative Commons license, and the ASU would “re-print” my chapter in their book.   That seemed like a bit of a kludge but workable so I agreed.  But the contract they sent me contained phrases like “I agree to assign and do hereby assign fully to ASU all intellectual property and other rights in the Publication.”   That didn’t seem right, so I re-wrote the contract in my own words (never a good idea when lawyers are involved).  And then I realized that I shouldn’t have to sign a contract at all… since I was going to publish the work and they would just use it.   The next version they sent contained even more scary sounding language that didn’t seem at all compatible with a Creative Commons license.   Again, I didn’t sign it and asked if they could just use the chapter.

I think at this point the editors of the book began to push the lawyers for the whole volume to just be under a Creative Commons license and be done with the thing.  Many e-mails, phone calls, and discussions ensued.  Lawyers talked to publishers who talked to editors etc.  Insane hypothetical scenarios involved Nazis were brought up (I’m not kidding).  In the end, both ends of the spectrum gave way.  I would have preferred the entire book be released under a CC-by license and they (initially) would have preferred to retain all copyright control.

So the compromise was a CC-NC-ND license with an author agreement that allowed ASU to sell the book.  I’m not sure what happened with the other chapters but mine is here on microBEnet.

Thanks to Jonathan for pushing me to do the right thing and thanks to the folks at ASU who made this all come together in the end.

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David Coil

David Coil is a Project Scientist in the lab of Jonathan Eisen at UC Davis. David works at the intersection between research, education, and outreach in the areas of the microbiology of the built environment, microbial ecology, and bacterial genomics. Twitter