A Progress Report on Licensing Copyright Against Itself

In my coverage of intellectual property issues in scholarly publishing, I have made passing reference in this column to my work with the Public Knowledge Project (PKP). It represents my more practical and applied efforts to address the intellectual property issues that trouble scholarly publishing. From this perspective, what PKP has been doing for more than two decades now is to test various ways in which copyright can better serve research and scholarship. This turns out to be largely about redirecting copyright against itself.

What this has meant in practice is that PKP develops software for online scholarly publishing platforms that employs an open source software license (GNU General Public License v.3). This license prevents us and others from using copyright to inhibit either the circulation of this software or its improvement by others. With this step, PKP is putting to the test whether the intellectual property right to exclude is necessary for encouraging the creation or sustaining of scholarly publishing tools (much as IBM, Tesla, and Google are testing that principle with open source software applications in their endeavors).

A second test involves PKP’s research and advocacy in support of using these open source publishing platforms for creating open access to research. This includes providing a default setting that places research publications under a Creative Commons license, which ensures the open and public circulation of the work. Placing open source publishing platforms in the service of open access to research poses a double challenge to the assumption that copyright’s exclusionary powers are necessary to the production and publication of research. Having put this assumption to the test for going on twenty years, this column offers a progress report on this double twist in which copyright is directed against itself to better serve science.

In its development of open source software, PKP has continued to upgrade and support its non-proprietary publishing software through a combination of research grants, university library memberships, and, increasingly, by offering hosting services to libraries and publishers for this free publishing software. This support has also enabled PKP to release new software (for preprints and monographs); it has opened a video school for users of its software and scholarly publishing more generally; and it has managed the integration of the 43 languages, contributed by the platforms’ users into the sofware.

As for the takeup of this software, we’ve recently had a breakthrough in our tracking ability, thanks to PKP team members Saurabh Khanna, and Jonas Raoni (with assistance from Kevin Stranack, Alec Smecher and Juan Alperin). Among installations of PKP software that are at least minimally active (i.e., with 10 or more items published or posted 2019-2021), there are over 27,000 journals worldwide using our Open Journal Systems (OJS), as indicated by this map, as well as 61 Open Monograph Press sites and eight using Open Preprint Systems (representing our more recent software releases). The leading users of OJS are Indonesia (11,827 journals), Brazil (2,912), and the United States (1,130).

The widespread use of OJS for open access has also been recently affirmed by a 2021 study, sponsored by ScienceEurope and cOAlition S, that examined what are called “diamond journals,” which are both free-to-read and free-to-publish-in. The study found that 60% of these journals are using OJS out of a total, the study estimates, of somewhere between 17,000-29,0000 diamond titles, largely found in Eastern Europe and Latin America. The use of OJS by open access journals is also attested to by our own 2010 OJS survey, which found 83 percent of OJS journals offered free access to their content, with another six percent providing a degree of openness through embargoes or other strategies. These journals are making a go of it without subscriptions for the sake of seeing their authors’ work circulating more widely. They are proving that scholarly publishing is better served by directing copyright away from restricting or excluding access (in order to extract rents from the potential readers and users of this work) and toward licensing that ensures research freely circulates.

At the turn of the century when print still dominated scholarly publishing, while online platforms, as well as PKP, were just getting started, Michael Mabe estimated in a study that there were 15,000 journals. The stunning increase in journal numbers reported here reflects a number of factors at work. The global growth in higher education has multiplied the number of institutions, faculty and students; the digital era has made not only the global circulation of research a reality, but its indexing as well. Now OJS is only one of the platforms supporting open access journals (with others using such open source platforms as Janeway and Ambra, as well as proprietary ones).

What it all adds up to is a global knowledge exchange that is continuing to demonstrate the viability of a distinct scholarly publishing economy, in which copyright is licensed against its inhibiting aspects. It can serve as a beacon to the rest of the literature, vast amounts of which, including most of what researchers consider the leading journals in their fields, remain under the traditionally prohibitive forms of copyright licensing that continue to limit the circulation of research. Nonetheless, we at PKP are delighted and encouraged by the extent to which creative approaches to copyright are bringing about changes that serve the goals of this particular form of intellectual property.

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