WHO’s journal has backwards approach to open access

The World Health Organization, an agency of the United Nations, is ostensibly an organization dedicated to the public interest. The fourth point of the WHO agenda is “harnessing research, information and evidence”. In support of these goals, the agency publishes a scientific journal, the Bulletin of the World Health Organization. In their own words:

Since it was first published in 1948, the Bulletin has become one of the world’s leading public health journals. … [The Bulletin is] the flagship periodical of the World Health Organization…
(from “About the Bulletin”)

The Bulletin is no scientific backwater; it’s a relatively influential journal:

  • Eigenfactor: Ranks 14th out of 119 journals in the field (2005)
  • Article Influence: Ranks 11th by out of 119 journals in the field (2005)
  • Impact factor: Ranks 6th out of 89 journals in the field (2006 – Journal Citation Reports)

As the publication of an organization dedicated to advancing human health, the Bulletin should strive for the widest-possible distribution of its articles, and facilitate any responsible scientific re-use of its contents. Since the WHO is a UN agency, every citizen of a UN member state (i.e. almost everyone on Earth) has an interest here. Especially given the consequence of the subject matter, the WHO has a responsibility to make every effort to support education and the advancement of science.

After some investigation, my verdict is: close, but no cigar.

The Bulletin gets one major point right:

In keeping with its mission statement, the peer-reviewed monthly maintains an open-access policy so that the full contents of the journal and its archives are available online free of charge.
(from “About the Bulletin”)

Another point in the Bulletin‘s favor: the full text of articles is available in both HTML and PDF formats. This increases the “findability” of Bulletin content by search engines such as Google. It may also improve accessibility to handicapped users and to users of low-powered PCs (you might be able to view a Web site on a mobile phone, but you probably can’t view a PDF).

The Bulletin also seems to aim for wide inclusion in indexes and databases, which facilitates broad access and “findability”. The “About” page notes that “all peer-reviewed articles are indexed, including in ISI Web of Science and MEDLINE.” Bulletin content is also available via the Directory of Open Access Journals (and thus via OAIster). The Bulletin also participates in the WHO‘s HINARI program to support access to research in developing countries.

Print subscriptions to the Bulletin are also available and relatively affordable: $298 annually for developed countries, $163 for developing countries (both including shipping).

The Bulletin is published in English, with article abstracts and MeSH descriptors of main articles translated into Arabic, French and Spanish. This is not a complete solution to overcome language barriers, but it is a good start. (No journal has the resources to translate its content into every human language, or even the six official languages of the UN.)

This is where things start to go downhill.

If the Bulletin wants to facilitate solutions to overcome language barriers, it should grant users the right to freely make translations of articles. The Public Library of Science journals and others do this by adopting Creative Commons licenses that permit derivative works. In fact, PLoS maintains a list of translations of its articles, enabled by the CC Attribution license.

Any concerns of quality control should be assuaged by the following factors:

  • All the standard CC licenses include attribution to the original author as a requirement to make derivative works. This ensures that readers of a translation know that they are reading a derivative work, and lets them know where to find the original. The licenses even require that the user give attribution “in the manner specified by the author”, so the Bulletin can require that readers of a translation are suitably informed.
  • Another feature of the CC licenses: Derivative works cannot suggest the original author’s endorsement of the derivative work or its creator. So there is no concern that readers of an unofficial translation will be duped into thinking the translation is endorsed by the Bulletin.
  • As this PLoS Biology editorial notes, “almost any translation is better than none for those excluded by language barriers”.

In the face of these compelling arguments to allow user translations, what does the Bulletin‘s policy say?

The Bulletin requires each author of a contribution to grant an exclusive licence to help ensure international protection against infringement of copyright, in particular unauthorized photocopying, digital distribution, and other use by third parties, and so that it can handle requests from third parties to reproduce contributions or parts of contributions.
(from “Licence for publication”)

So the Bulletin does not use open license. Moreover, the Bulletin requires authors to assign their copyright to the journal, so the authors themselves cannot adopt a CC license for their articles. (However, it is believed that in such transfers, journals only acquire the copyright on the article in its form as finally published, i.e. not on earlier revisions. Therefore, an author would still be legally entitled to adopt a CC license for a pre-print of the article.)

Translation (to overcome language barriers) is not the only beneficial use enabled by open licensing. As I note in my post at Terra Incognita (forthcoming), removing permission barriers also opens possibilities such as summary, annotation and commentary. Such uses overcome what might be called “specialization barriers”: enabling non-specialists to better understand the content. This is particularly beneficial in the field of public health, since it permits the public to better understand risks and how to protect themselves. However, such uses are beneficial even for specialists, because they lower barriers and open new opportunities, which supports the advancement of science.

Another use which supports the advancement of science is computer-facilitated research, e.g. data mining. As John Wilbanks and James Boyle note in the Science Commons concept paper, using a hypothetical Harvard researcher as an example:

Of course, in theory, computers could help us mine the wealth of data that computers have made available to us. Our researcher could use some advanced technology to help her. She could use software tools to extract the facts from the literature, to find new connections in the existing knowledge, to tie datasets and journals together and tag the information so that it could be found by others in the future. Unfortunately, the contracts that Harvard signed with the publishers often make that illegal, and digital rights management technologies enforce those contracts.

If she builds a collaboration with the inventor of the World Wide Web to try out his new “semantic web” technologies on the articles and data she needs, she puts Harvard at financial risk for breach of contract. …

The situation is not so dire with the Bulletin: there is no DRM wrapped around its articles. But the WHO copyright notice may serve to inspire uncertainty:

Extracts of the information in the web site may be reviewed, reproduced or translated for research or private study but not for sale or for use in conjunction with commercial purposes. … Reproduction or translation of substantial portions of the web site, or any use other than for educational or other non-commercial purposes, require explicit, prior authorization in writing.

Whether this statement is meant to permit data mining for research purposes is a debate for the copyright lawyers. If it does, whether it permits researchers employed by for-profit organizations to do so is equally unclear. (Why the WHO would seek to do either is even foggier.)

Even worse, the copyright transfer agreement further muddies the water:

I/we hereby grant to the publisher for the full period of copyright including any renewals or extensions throughout the world and in all languages an exclusive licence to publish the above contribution … and to exploit subsidiary rights in the contributions, including database rights. (emphasis added)

This is counterproductive on two grounds:

  1. It is incredibly vague. Moreover, since database rights are standardized only in the EU, users elsewhere are left to ponder what “database rights” exist in their jurisdiction, if they exist at all.
  2. It is the polar opposite of what the WHO should encourage: the proliferation of Bulletin articles in databases, which will increase access and “findability” for users.

To be fair, the copyright transfer does include a handful of rights for the author or her institution. However, the rights granted are far less than the author (and all other users) would receive with a CC license – less rights, I will argue, than are sufficient.

It remains unclear how the Bulletin proposes to enforce the publication agreement against authors who can claim no copyright in their article, such as this article by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As icing on the cake, the Bulletin adheres to the Ingelfinger rule. This means a researcher with important public health discoveries may not publish, “in whole or substantial part”, his findings – including, one can assume, on a blog or other Web site – if he wishes to be considered for publication in the Bulletin. In attempting to reserve prestige for the journal, the Bulletin does a disservice to both science and public health, by discouraging the quickest and widest possible dissemination and discussion of research.

It’s time for the Bulletin to amend its policies: to reflect the realities of research in the 21st century, and to maximize the WHO‘s investment in human health.

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  1. Pingback: Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - petermr’s blog » Blog Archive » Access to WHO?

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