Copyright and systematic reviews: a response

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It’s been a busy week on our blog, in just over a week we’ve had over 1500 views on one single blog post, and that’s aside from the hits on other parts of our website. The blog post in question arose from a conversation I had on twitter shortly before Christmas, where I interjected to a tweet I saw from Jane Falconer (@falkie71) from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine bemoaning copyright restrictions. I’ve know Jane for a while as an experienced health librarian, through our mutual interest in information literacy, and she was not one to be typically tweeting about copyright, so I was intrigued. Through the course of a twitter exchange I gleaned there might be an interesting story to tell about how copyright and licences are impacting on medical librarians when they carry out systematic reviews. Jane’s blog post clearly touched a nerve, partly because it highlights an important issue around copyright potentially stopping medical research from being carried out, and it has been an opportunity for the open access community to highlight another reason why the current system is not working. Here’s a couple of the tweets that it generated last week:


We also had some interesting responses to the claim that perhaps this was already possible because the STM had some sharing principles in place:

However, my interest, and the reason the UK Copyright Literacy team jumped on this was actually more related to copyright literacy issues. It occurred to me that many medical librarians are not copyright experts. If we were to draw a Venn Diagram of copyright library folks and medical library folks, I don’t think there would be too many in that overlapping space (if I am wrong please do shout out as I am aware the Wellcome Trust do have a copyright expert!). But in the main medical librarians are too busy saving lives, literally. That sounds like I’m being a bit flippant and we did title one of our tweets about the issue ‘Copyright – a matter of life or death’.

So were we just being alarmist? The reality is that copyright and licences are not causing large numbers of people to die, however, I think copyright is causing a lot of stress and we all know stress is bad for our health. And concerns over copyright are perhaps leading health librarians to have to do things that they may believe to be illegal or breaking the terms of their licence agreements, or not do those things at all. Or not be open about what they are doing for fear they are going to get in trouble.

So would open access solve this problem? Well possibly, but I think copyright literacy might play a part too. We also had a response suggesting the Copyright Licensing Agency are keen to see what help they can offer. However it seems to me that what we need is some clear advice, and what the copyright literacy survey back in 2013 showed, was that copyright is causing a lot of unnecessary fear. We desperately need more confidence in the sector and we need to be challenging licence agreements that might prevent the type of sharing that saves lives.

We were both heartened to watch some of the opening keynote from the Australian Digital Alliance’s (ADA) Copyright Forum on Friday by Professor Ruth Okediji, the Jeremiah Smith. Jr, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Co-Director of the Berkman Klein Center. The ADA are not winning too many friends in the publishing world in Australia, because they are pushing for ‘Fair Use’ and a relaxation in copyright rules for libraries, archives and the cultural heritage sector. This was the message we got firmly from Jessica Coates last August at the IFLA Copyright education event. However, at the same time they are encouraging librarians to be more confident about the exceptions available to them. This message could do with being heard more loudly in the UK. Professor Ronan Deazley made the point last summer at our UUK Summer Event, and I hope he’ll say something similar at Icepops in April. In the meantime we’d love to hear from any health librarians about the issues they have faced related to copyright, or any solutions they might have found to these issues. Any views from publishers and other rightsholders are also most welcome.

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