I was in the middle of reading Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, a detailed biography of an extraordinary novelist whose writings influenced prison reform, child labor laws, care of orphans, attitudes towards prostitution and protection of the poor. Dickens was more than a novelist however. He was an entrepreneur, a politically influential figure and an activist. Dickens was also totally dependent on the income received from his novels and often needed to obtain advances for his next publications in order to survive. His eagerly awaited serials such as the Pickwick Papers and subsequent novels such as Oliver Twist increased in popularity and were soon translated into multiple languages. America too became captivated with his serials and novels. Soon US publishers were putting into print complete versions – without obtaining Dickens permission, in violation of British copyright law, and without any revenue to Dickens. As a result Dickens lost vast sums of income from the US publishers who were profiting from his writings. In 1842 Dickens traveled to the United States on a speaking tour entertaining large audiences but his primary purpose was to lobby the US Congress to pass copyright laws to protect foreign novelists from having their works plundered by US publishers. He was not successful.

I took a break from reading the biography of Dickens and picked up a recent edition of The Economist (Feb 4th 2012). An article on “The Price of Information caught my attention. I read about Timothy Gowers from Cambridge University who recently spelled out his justification for initiating a boycott of research journals published by Elsevier ( Ref. “Timothy Gowers Blog” ). I had known about a lot of this as well as the early initiation of the open access movement lead by Harold Varmus when he was Director of NIH. (ref. “Progress toward Public Access in Science” ). But what was new to me was the information that Elsevier, a Netherlands based publisher with profits last year of $1.1 billion, was supporting US legislation termed “the Research Works Act” (HR 3699), which would prevent the US government from requiring free access to taxpayer-funded research ( ref. “Why Scientists are Boycotting a Publisher” ).  Sponsors of the bill were Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), one of the wealthiest members of the US congress, and co-sponsored by Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY). There is a long history of bills to eliminate US government restrictions on copyrighting publically funded research results.  Fortunately, counter bills have been introduced that would instead expand access to publically funded research. One such bill was introduced this year by John Cornyn (R-TX), Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL).

These are all legal/legislative issues. So why is Dickens relevant and where do ethical issues enter into this discussion?

Dickens came from a poor background. He was a keen observer of people and circumstances all of which contributed to his novels. His only source of income was what he earned from his writings. He frequently took advances in order to support his large family and the frequent changes in housing to accommodate his needs. His “intellectual property” came from a mind that was able to take his surroundings and put it together in stories that appealed to the vast audiences who eagerly awaited and paid for the privilege of reading them. He copyrighted his writings for his own protection and to guarantee his financial security; he had no other sources of funds.

I would argue that medical and scientific writings come under a different set of ethical and legal guidelines when it comes to copyright and when it is supported by public funds. The public provides the funds with the full expectation that the benefits derived from the research will be available for their benefit and perhaps today, even for the befit of the internationals community. Not only is the research supported by public funds but all or part of the scientist salary, secretarial costs, publication costs, travel to meetings etc. may also be derived from public funds. Importantly publically funded scientists are not financially dependent on copyright for their survival.
Although one could argue that publication is necessary for academic recognition, promotion and financial benefits these are all available regardless of whether an article is copyrighted. The transfer of copyright to a publisher by the scientist places all the profit into the hands of the publisher, an independent business that has no role in discovery of the intellectual property. There is merely an agreement, an unfortunate one at that, that in order to publish an article in a scientific journal a scientist needs to turn over the copyright (intellectual property) to a business entity that has no part in the intellectual discovery. Indeed, academics survived and even thrived during a time when scientific articles were not copyrighted but instead published by professional organizations as part of their responsibility to make critical scientific and healthcare discoveries available to the public.

Vigilance is needed. Misguided and self-centered lobbying to place scientific and healthcare writings funded by the public into the hands of for-profit organizations violates the original intent of public funding of science. It will slow critically needed discoveries and access to life saving healthcare information needed by those who can least access or pay for scientific and medical journals.

As our own organization ( Global Strategies for HIV Prevention ) seeks to increase the education and training of healthcare workers in resource poor countries it is an affront to those with whom we work to be hampered by an inability to access publically funded information, that now copyrighted, prevents lifesaving information from being freely distributed to those who desperately need it. In many cases the copyrighted article involves healthcare workers and research subjects who participated in the very research which they are now unable to access.

Related Articles

The Price of Information
Timothy Gowers Blog
Progress toward Public Access in Science
Why Scientists are Boycotting a Publisher