Who has the right to make your scholarship available? Who is able to read it? And who can disappear it?
If you haven’t given these questions much thought to date, it is worth having a fresh look as national conversations about the power of information—and the awful power of misinformation—continue to grow in prominence. It is a bleak testament to the importance of the academic enterprise that the ways in which scholarship is made and accessed are disputed territory in the campaign against facts.
Information—and access to information—are surprisingly fragile. Yes, an increasing amount of scholarship and research data is now made publicly available, even when not published “open access,” particularly when federally funded or produced by the government. But many times, these public access resources are held only by the government or are only made freely available to the public through government programs. Even assuming the best, as formerly publicly accessible governmental resources go dark, the precariousness of single points of access to information and research of public importance has never been in sharper relief.
UC campuses and universities around the United States, distressed at the potential disappearance of government data, have been working to see it backed up. The Internet Archive, similarly, is creating a complete backup of its collections (including the invaluable materials in its Wayback Machine) in Canada to ensure they stay safe. But what can individual researchers at UC do to make certain their contributions remain available, regardless of what happens in DC?
The best first step is to see that your work isn’t merely available somewhere, but that it is redundantly available.
Today’s environment is an important reminder that any given institution might ultimately prove to be a flawed steward of the information in its control. Unfortunately, this risk can be compounded by our traditional mechanism for conveying knowledge, namely, to concentrate the authority to distribute scholarship, via the author’s copyright, in the hands of a very limited number of parties. Most typically, this would mean giving a single publisher broad control over where, when, and how a work of scholarship might appear. The risk this arrangement poses for authors and for the public is that a copyright owner might use its control to silence a work, rather than to further its reach. This might sound paranoid, but there is no shortage of examples of copyright used in precisely this way, whether it is the Ecuadorian government seeking to silence criticism of its former president or the owner of a basketball team looking to get rid of an embarrassing photograph. Less overtly censorial (but just as problematic) is the long track record among copyright holders of letting works fall out of print and out of view—or literally letting them rot—rather than keep them in the public eye for the duration of our ever-longer copyright terms.
Happily, it’s increasingly common for the rights over scholarship to be more diffusely distributed, and savvy authors have multiple avenues for ensuring their work doesn’t go dark. Each of the following might have the power to share a particular work of scholarship with the public:
- Publishers, of course, serve this function.
- Authors often retain rights to share their work, most particularly as a “preprint” version. You can learn more about publisher policies on author sharing on SHERPA/RoMEO.
- Universities, under open access policies, can have the right to share institutionally affiliated scholarship (see below).
- Government agencies now often require authors to share the research they fund.
- The public itself might be empowered to share scholarly work, such as when it is published on open access terms under a Creative Commons license.
Posting scholarship redundantly helps overcome the shortcomings of a given venue. For UC researchers, our open access policies can be a particularly important bulwark against threats to your work’s accessibility. The mechanics are simple: the policies empower you to make your scholarship publicly available through an additional channel, UC’s eScholarship. In most cases, you have this right regardless of the specific language used in your publishing agreements. It’s a powerful way around restrictions that might otherwise keep your work solely in someone else’s control.
Don’t let your work go dark. Share, and share redundantly.
Michael Wolfe leads the Scholarly Communications Program at the UC Davis Library. The former executive director of Authors Alliance, Michael has a law degree from Duke Law and is a member of the California State Bar.