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EU copyright reforms draw fire from scientists

Planned changes threaten open science, research advocates warn.

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An influential committee of the European Parliament is due to vote this month on changes to copyright regulations in the European Union, but the latest drafts of the rules have triggered a wave of criticism from open-science advocates. They say that the proposals will stifle research and scholarly communication.

Intellectual-property experts agree that existing EU copyright rules need an overhaul for the digital age, and a proposal first circulated by the European Commission in 2016 had this goal in mind. But critics worry that some provisions in more-recent proposals for the law — known as the directive on copyright in the digital single market — conflict with Europe’s principles of open science and freedom of expression.

“Copyright law must not hamper open science,” says Vanessa Proudman, European director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), a science-advocacy group in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands. “The EU has made significant headway towards open access of research funded by European citizens. The proposed new rules would clearly impede further progress, threatening the visibility of Europe’s research,” she says.

Concerns focus on a provision that would let publishers claim royalties for the use of snippets of information, such as tables or headlines. This was included with the aim of enabling news publishers to secure revenue from social-media platforms such as Facebook and Google. But a proposal added by a European Parliament committee would mean that the provision also applies to academic publications.

Many scholarly publishers, including the International Association for Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM), based in Oxford, UK, support this amendment. But open-research advocates say that facts and information in a scientific article must remain free from copyright. “We really don’t want further paywalls on top of any research materials libraries have paid for already,” says Maria Rehbinder, a copyright specialist in Finland with the Association of European Research Libraries.

Some researchers express concern that the proposed rule might even force scientists to pay fees to publishers for references they include in their own publications. But STM “cannot envisage any situation where students and researchers would need to pay fees” for citations, says Matt McKay, a spokesperson for the association.

Extra burdens

The EU copyright law, as written, would also compel repositories of research articles to prevent uploads of copyrighted papers and other content. Currently, the onus is on academic publishers to issue take-down notices for papers illegally posted to repositories.

The scholarly social network ResearchGate, for example, has in recent months disabled public access to more than 1.7 million papers on its site, in compliance with take-down messages by publishers. This process of removing articles upon request, says Proudman, works well and effectively for institutional repositories. Forcing all existing non-profit educational and research-data services, including more than 1,000 university repositories, to seek copyright licences and install upload filters would overburden most institutions, she says. “The proposed level of surveillance would put science repositories in the same boat as Facebook or YouTube,” she says, by requiring them to scan submissions for possible copyright violations.

The proposed rules aren’t all bad news for science, says Marie Timmermann, who is in charge of EU legislation and regulatory affairs at Science Europe, an association of national research-funding agencies in Brussels. Text-mining — whereby researchers use computer programs to extract data automatically from large numbers of texts — is exempted from the copyright law, when carried out in the public interest. Scientists at public research organizations would be allowed to harvest facts and data from all sources they have legal access to read.

However, this exemption does not extend to companies — a possible problem for EU-funded research projects, which increasingly include commercial partners, Timmermann notes.

The European Parliament legal committee’s vote on the law, scheduled for 23–24 April, will be a crucial test of whether lawmakers are listening to scientists’ concerns. The precise version the committee will consider has not yet been finalized and circulated, and the final law will also need to be approved by the entire parliament and by EU member states before it can come into effect, due for next year. “For the sake of European research, we hope the worst flaws will yet be deleted,” Timmerman says.

Nature 556, 14-15 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-03837-7
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Updates & Corrections

  • Clarification 04 April 2018: This story has been updated from an earlier version to clarify Vanessa Proudman’s opinion that effective mechanisms already exist for institutional repositories to remove copyrighted material.