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Should Copyright Protect Ideas or Words in Academic Publishing?

Posted by David Rothschild on Dec 21, 2011 2:49:00 PM

copyright_plagiarismTechdirt recently published a very interesting article that examines the current state of copyright in academia.  Building off of an article from QuestionCopyright, Techdirt columnist Glyn Moody poses the question of whether copyright is being effectively utilized for academics.  The logic essentially says that academics are more interested in getting attribution for the ideas in their papers, rather than protecting the paper's specific wording.

Moody then goes on to say that perhaps abolishing academic copyright all together would improve the research and publishing environment:  “fully opening up research would also be the best way of tackling what seems to be the chief fear of academic authors: plagiarism. More readers able to access more works would mean a greater likelihood that unacknowledged copying between them would be noticed and exposed.”

There are a few viewpoints to examine this concept from.  From the position of the average individual researcher: they could very well be more concerned with their ideas than the specifics of the content.  However, it wouldn’t be smart to implement drastic changes based on a hunch – this viewpoint could vary greatly depending on the field and location of the researcher.  More standardized data needs to first be collected on what researchers actually think about the topic.

The ideas vs. words argument also discounts the often understated effect that good writing and language can have on getting published.  A good idea spelled out with bad wording could easily be overlooked and discarded during the publication or grant funding process.  On the flip side, an academic author who is adept at conveying their research through efficient and descriptive writing may get funded or published with only average ideas.   

Another viewpoint on academic copyright is that of the publisher.  For a publisher, content is equal to revenue.  Just as any business has a product which they need to sell, a publisher sells content.  It is in the publisher’s interest to protect the integrity of the content – whether that is the core idea of paper or the specific way that it is worded.   It also is in a publisher’s interest to have control over where their content is distributed; without careful vetting of distribution sources the content could easily lose its unique value.  Completely abolishing academic copyright would wreak havoc on the business models of reputable publishers that have shined light on many wonderful ideas over the years.

As far as opening up copyright for the purpose of catching plagiarism more often; this could work in some cases.  Crowdsourced peer review has often been an editorial practice (employed even before the age of blog commentary) where avid readers point out instances of factual errors and plagiarism.  Although this strategy provides more eyes to catch problems, it certainly isn’t even close to a fail-safe to prevent plagiarism.  Much depends on the reader-base for the published paper – for all we know, a specific paper could primarily resonate on Google with high school students looking to pad the sources section of their research project.  In this case, the primary reader base would be unlikely to point out a case of plagiarism.  In most cases, a multi-layered peer-review process that includes both standard editing, crowdsourced input as well as plagiarism detection software is the best bet.

Overall, copyright is definitely something that is evolving both in definition and utilization.  It makes sense to reexamine copyright law: how it is affecting research and whether it could be improved in many aspects.  However, taking a drastic step off the bat such as removing academic copyright wouldn’t be a good idea, especially while multiple ecosystems revolve around its existence.


Moody, Glyn.  "Do We Really Need Copyright for Academic Publishing?" Techdirt. December 20th, 2011