Commercial exploitation of free online scholarship
Free Online Scholarship (FOS) Newsletter
August 7, 2001
by Peter Suber
When you make scholarly articles available to readers free of charge, then you also make them available to commercial services free of charge.  What happens when a commercial publisher copies your content and directly or indirectly profits from it?  Should you rejoice that your service has been useful, or should you feel ripped off?  Here's a case study in the commercial exploitation of FOS.  (For another case study, see the story on eScience and Chemical Abstracts in our July 17 issue.)

Research Papers in Economics (RePEc) is the largest decentralized digital library in the world.  It's a network of 200+ archives of research papers, journal articles, and software in economics.  All of it is available to readers free of charge.  It was conceived and launched by Thomas Krichel in 1993, and is now maintained by over 100 volunteers around the world.  On Saturday, I interviewed Krichel by telephone.

In June of this year Krichel noticed that Ecommunics, a web-based community and archive of economics research, had copied RePEc's papers, and was making them available to its own users without any credit or acknowledgement to RePEc.  Fortunately, the RePEc papers were accompanied by metadata, like an email header, in a format Krichel invented.  This had the welcome side-effect of making the RePEc papers unmistakably identifiable.

Ecommunics was not selling the papers.  But it was selling other services, and apparently it intended to use the free papers, and its packaging of them, as a demonstration or advertisement of its technical skills, which would in turn bring in paying customers.

Krichel confronted the Ecommunics creators and asked for an acknowledgement that the papers came from RePEc.  After some delay, Ecommunics agreed.  The Ecommunics acknowledgement now accompanies each paper, and is not simply displayed once on the front page.

This wasn't Krichel's first experience with commercial exploitation.  In 1995, the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) copied some RePEc papers for its service, which offered free abstracts to all and full-text articles to paying subscribers.  Soon after Krichel confronted them, SSRN stopped the practice.

After these experiences, RePEc changed its statement of restrictions on the use of its data.  The statement now says (inter alia) that users may not charge for the content "or include it in a service or product that is not free of charge."

I asked Krichel whether he was satisfied with Ecommunics' current position:  acknowledging RePEc, but continuing to copy and use the data, without compensation, to promote a for-profit business.  He said yes.  As long as Ecommunics doesn't charge for the papers, it should be able to use them to enhance its bottom-line.  If it succeeds, this proves the value of RePEc's service.

Questions.  What restrictions should FOS providers put on the use of the scholarship in their collections?  If copyrights are necessary to enforce these restrictions, should FOS providers welcome copyrighted papers?  Which is better, prohibiting commercial publishers from copying free online papers into priced products or making them pay for the privilege?  If a publisher can actually sell scholarly articles which are available elsewhere online free of charge, why shouldn't it be allowed to do so?  Are there conceivable add-ons (navigation aids, search engines, citation data, link lists, etc.) which would justify commercial publishers in selling papers available elsewhere to anyone for free?  Please post your answers or thoughts to our discussion forum.

Thomas Krichel's home page


RePEc's restrictions on the use of its data

List of archives participating in RePEc



FOS discussion forum
(Anyone may read; only subscribers may post; subscription is free.)


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