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?