Intellectual Freedom and Access to Information: Some Emerging Issues

In its internal structures, IFLA deals with copyright and other legal matters and freedom of access to information and freedom of expression through different committees. This does not mean that the two issues are not connected, or of course that the committees work in isolation. Indeed, the two work together on ongoing policy issues, and co-organise a session at World Library and Information Congresses.

The most recent such session – held in Wroclaw in August 2017 – focused on open access. This has an obvious importance from a freedom of access to information point of view – indeed, Article 27(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, underlines that ‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’.

However, in recent weeks, there has been renewed attention on a number of lists and blogs about whether open access policies – and in particular an obligation on researchers receiving public funding to publish open access – are compatible with intellectual freedom. This blog raises four questions for libraries about the cross-over between issues relating to access to information, copyright and intellectual freedom.

 

Do Open Access Mandates Restrict Freedom to Publish?

This is a contentious topic at the moment. In Germany, a number of academics have challenged an open access mandate implemented by a regional government, arguing that this limited their choice of where to publish their works. Given that the career progression of researchers can depend on publishing in a journal with the best possible ‘impact factor’, it is understandable that in the short term, it is frustrating to have to publish in a journal that has a lower impact factor.

Nonetheless, others have questioned whether an obligation to publish open access is a restriction on academic freedom. A blog by Dr Danny Kingsley from Cambridge University’s Office for Scholarly Communications sets out the case against this argument. Others, such as Rick Anderson, have suggested that open access publishing limits the opportunity for an author to turn their works into (paid-for) books or other works in future.

  • Libraries have already expressed their support for open access, in particular for publicly funded research (Statement of 2011). What can we do to convince researchers of the value of open access?

 

Can We Have Freedom of Expression Without Freedom to Publish?

Arguably, no. Under the current dominant way of doing things, the publishing industry does invaluable work in supporting authors (i.e. through the advances that give them the time and freedom to write), and ensuring the quality that gets to the market. If publishers are subject to censorship, persecution or harassment, they are less able to fulfill this role.

The importance of freedom to publish has been highlighted by the success of the International Publishers Association’s Prix Voltaire, which honours publishers who have fought to defend this. Libraries have a strong interest in promoting freedom to publish, that this is a key factor in ensuring that libraries can acquire works for the benefit of their users. Keep an eye on the International Publishers Association website for details on when to nominate.

  • What can libraries do to support those who have the courage to exercise the freedom to publish in the face of restrictions and oppression?

 

Is Freedom to Publish the Same Thing as Intellectual Freedom?

Again, no. Intellectual freedom is broader. Freedom to publish is just one part – an essential part – of this broader freedom, in just the same way as formal publishing is just one form of expression.

For example, intellectual freedom relies on the possibility for quotation and criticism, without payments or requirements to seek permission over and above what is necessary to access a work in the first place. Nonetheless, only quotation is currently the subject of an obligatory limitation or exception to copyright under the Berne Convention, although not all countries or regions (such as the European Union) have implemented this properly. There is no obligation to allow for an exception for criticism, satire or parody – itself a serious concern.

Creators benefit from more flexible copyright exceptions and limitations. As the Authors’ Alliance has underlined, fair use – a flexible approach based on principles rather than rigid rules can empower writers. Clearly those who choose to live by their writing need to have the possibility to earn enough to do this. The need for a balance in copyright exceptions which both allows writers to exercise their rights, but then also have the possibility to be remunerated, is the goal.

  • How can libraries make the case for balanced exceptions and limitations as allowing both for intellectual freedom and enjoying the fruit of their work?

 

Electronic Access: Sacrificing Privacy for Convenience?

Intellectual freedom also depends on the confidence and safety of researchers. While the Internet and other digital tools have massively facilitated access to information, this is not without risks or costs.

In IFLA’s work on licensing, it has been clear that the shift to electronic resources has too often meant that exceptions and limitations to copyright in law have been made meaningless. In addition, electronic access makes it much easier to track user behaviour. As IFLA’s 2015 Statement on Privacy in the Library Environment underlines, excessive data collection can have a chilling effect on society. The challenge then is what constitutes ‘excessive’.

Will a potential shift to giving access to academic literature by individual user, rather than by IP address, mean that researchers can no longer benefit from privacy in what sources and works they are consulting (see this this piece by Lisa Hinchliffe, and this by Aaron Tay for more)? The same applies to potential obligations to use rightholder APIs to undertake text and data mining, rather than being able to use their own (see IFLA’s position on TDM in the ongoing EU copyright reforms). In both cases, the potential to build up a profile of the behaviour researchers grows, and with it the risks to privacy.

  • How can libraries understand the challenges posed to researcher privacy, and act to educate and protect their users?

 

One blog is certainly not enough to get into any depth on these points. But with discussions current on all of these themes, there is certainly plenty of cross-over where further reflection is valuable.

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