Credit for e-cademic work

I came across this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education the other day and thought it might be interesting for the blogosphere; especially for those of us who put up original work in our blogs. The article is about a professor who started creating an on-line bibliography of work dealing with “a modern figure in early modern studies.” After years of adding to and updating the bibliography, he was asked to review a recently published book on the same topic, only to find that his entire web site had been copied, wholesale (errors and typos included) without giving him a shred of credit. It represented a tremendous amount of work; he had no problem with his work being used, but the fact he was not given credit anywhere in the book meant that it would not be something he could include in his own CV or in the tenure packet he was putting together. The author of the article was not trying to get some slice of the proceeds from the sale of the book, mainly just the proper acknowledgment that he was responsible for a great deal of the contents.

He pursued the issue with the publisher and got responses from both the publisher and one of the authors. The publisher responded with two legal questions, first whether or not a copyright could be asserted for a web site, and second if a bibliography could itself be copyrighted, since “presumably all bibliographies are compilations of previous bibliographies.” I don’t like either of these questions myself, although admittedly all of my legal training is from “Law and Order” episodes, and to my knowledge they haven’t yet tackled a case like this. Whether or not it is legally copyrighted is besides the point, it goes straight to the heart of academic honesty. How many times do you see personal communications referenced in papers? Especially when the product is something you are hoping to sell and make money off of, the legality should be secondary. The second point the publisher makes, about whether or not bibliographies can be copyrighted at all, makes me want to retype their book, print it off at Kinkos and sell it for half price, I bet we’d then see how copyrighted they think bibliographies can be.

The author responded with an apology and explanation that in the rush to finish and publish all reference to the web site or its creator was accidentally omitted. This excuse, to me, is lame. Perhaps it could be accepted if it was one reference or some small little factoid, but from the description in the article the web site represented a tremendous amount of work. That is academic dishonesty, plain and simple; either that or the book author is a complete buffoon and/or donkey.

But what protection does any of our original work have? I’ve never worried about it, this is not something I am doing for money, and I have yet to publish anything that I’d consider a serious academic contribution. I also don’t care if people use anything I do on a not-for-profit basis, that is kind of the whole point. Other bloggers have certainly done more original work (or are aiming to do more) and although they see this as an open way to provide quality earth science educational materials, I am not sure anyone would be happy seeing their work copied in a textbook, especially one of those $125.00 gems intro students now have to pony up for. I suppose the hope is that since we provide the information free of charge that there is no incentive to copy our e-cademic work, but are there really any protections? Will our web sites become open farms for textbook authors with fast approaching deadlines?

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5 Responses to Credit for e-cademic work

  1. Anonymous says:

    Disclaimer: I’m not a practicing copyright attorney, so be forewarned.Material on a web page probably was copyrighted, but the publisher raises an interesting question, since (from your description) it sound like the material copied was just a list of references. (At least a few years ago, it was long settled law that you can’t copyright compilations of information like databases (e.g., the phone book). However, there was a lot of pressure by database compliers to include databases in the things that can be copyrighted, and I’m not sure if things have changed.) The answer to that second question by the publisher probably depends on exactly what they copied.If they are copyrighted, they don’t just have to cite him, they need his permission. If its not, they don’t have to do either. (Have they offered to buy him off, just to get things resolved? They probably would be interested in having this settled quickly.)With respect to a blog, the posts/comments/articles you write are copyrighted (now-a-days, you don’t have to go file it with the copyright office, although your protection is stronger if you do, so if you write a novel, file it). You might want to put a notice on your web page to that effect.

  2. Interesting, I see why compilations might be questionable, but bibliographies for what this guy studied seem to involve a lot of work (e.g. finding rare or single edition manuscripts, lots of time in the archives, etc..) The publisher ended up putting out an addendum with him referenced, which made it possible for him to include it on his CV (his main worry), but didn’t do much else. Many copies of the original were shipped to libraries already. It is interesting how copyright law is tweaked with all kinds of digital media though, music, texts, photos, etc.. Thanks for the insight.

  3. “Disclaimer: I’m not a practicing copyright attorney” but I play one on TV?

  4. thm says:

    Chiming in a bit late here, but:Of course, IANAL, but I do read lots of IP-related stories on < HREF="slashdot.org" REL="nofollow">slashdot<>, and when I was in grad school we had a very good presentation about copyright and the web from one of the University’s legal counsels.First, remember that copyright is a noun, and refers to the rights that are granted to the author of a creative work at the moment of creation. Of course copyrights exist for material published on web sites, just as they exist for television broadcasts and audio recordings.Can a bibliography enjoy copyright protection? In this case, probably: the definitive case is < HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feist_Publications_v._Rural_Telephone_Service" REL="nofollow">Feist v. Rural<>. Raw information, such as each entry in the bibliography, is not subject to copyright protection, so things like an alphabetical list of telephone subscribers, or a chronological list of Shakespeare’s plays, can be freely copied. The key to copyright is originality, and any shred of originality used to compile a list does have copyright protection, so a list ranking the most under-appreciated of Shakespeare’s plays would get copyright protection.The < HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright" REL="nofollow">Wikipedia entry on copyright<> is worth reading.

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