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December 24, 2006

arXiv Policy Statement?

Posted by John Baez

A while back David Corfield raised some important issues about the academic commons. Here’s a practical question along those lines:

Does the arXiv have an official policy statement someplace where they promise to keep papers there freely available? They should. I haven’t been able to find one! Did I miss it?

Marco Grandis raised this issue in a post to the category theory mailing list.

Here is what Marco Grandis wrote:

Dear colleagues,

Recent discussions on this list seem to highlight two main ways in which we may contrast the high costs of many scientific journals, as well as some unethical connections of big publishing companies:

1. To support, and possibly develop, free electronic journals like TAC and low-cost printed journals like Cahiers. (Here, I would like to express my gratitude to persons like Bob Rosebrugh, Michael Barr and Andrée Ehresmann, who make this possible.)

2. To systematically send our preprints to an electronic archive, and only submit them to journals which allow the permanence of such files in these archives.

As to point 2, there seems to be a clear candidate, the arXiv. (And of course it would be good to have a “universal solution”, where one would easily find things.)

I have used this possibility a few times.

Before deciding of doing so in a systematic way, I would like that there be a clear statement of the policy of the arXiv and clear assumptions of responsibility by its organisers; statements which, likely, the organisers and many of us take as understood and granted, but which I have been unable to find on the net.

For instance, what about the possibility of the system being, in future, exploited economically? What about the possibility of it being sold to a commercial company - connected or not with strange trades?

When downloading a preprint to the arXiv, the author is asked to sign (electronically) a sort of non-exclusive transfer of copyright. I think we have a right to know that this transfer will not be used, in the future, for goals which would be in contrast with the present (understood) ones, or even opposite to them.

Waiting for being able to extend my gratitude to the organisers of the arXiv,

Marco Grandis

Posted at December 24, 2006 10:58 PM UTC

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12 Comments & 1 Trackback

Re: arXiv Policy Statement?

This is an important question. Perhaps Jim Stasheff, who I believe was on the arXiv mathematics advisory committee, will read this and respond. Or perhaps John could post the same query on sci.math.research, where it will quite likely be read by Greg Kuperberg, currently chair of the committee.

Of course, one of us could just ask by email, but there’s something to be said for getting a public answer to a question of such public interest.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on December 26, 2006 6:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: arXiv Policy Statement?

Yes, I could have just emailed Ginsparg or someone, but I figured it was worthwhile getting everyone to think about this issue.

But, maybe I’ll have to post to sci.math.research or email someone to get an answer.

Posted by: John Baez on December 26, 2006 7:57 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: arXiv Policy Statement?

Speaking as an individual (not as a member of the Physics Advisory Board), I can think of two interpretations of this question, neither of which makes any sense whatsoever.

Can the arXivs guarantee that a given eprint, currently on their server (and hence, currently open-access), will remain open-access?
Obviously not. The author always has the option of withdrawing the manuscript from the arXiv tomorrow (either because it’s wrong, or because he or his publisher no longer wishes it to be open-access). And there’s not a thing the Cornell Libraries can do about it.
Even though arXivs provide open-access to manuscripts on their server, today, could the Cornell Libraries start charging for access, tomorrow?
Obviously not. This would be in clear violation of the copyrights of thousands of authors, whose manuscripts are on the server.

It is conceivable that the Cornell Libraries could change their policies with respect to new manuscripts (requiring authors to sign a copyright-release or a license-grant for the arXivs to charge for access). They could equally-well close up shop, and shut down the arXivs tomorrow (maybe because they got a really good offer to sell the arxiv.org domain to an online pornographer).

But the one thing they couldn’t do is start charging for access to the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts currently on the server.

This is so blindingly obvious, it hardly seems worth mentioning. So, perhaps I have simply misconstrued the question.

Posted by: Jacques Distler on December 26, 2006 8:23 PM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: arXiv Policy Statement?

It would be reassuring, and set a good precedent, if the arXiv had a public statement on their website saying what their goals and commitments are.

You may not be the sort of person who feels a desire for such statements. You may prefer to use your reasoning powers to deduce what the arXiv might or might not do, as you’ve done above: no, it would not be legal for them to start charging access to the papers on the arXiv; yes, it would be legal for them to close up shop tomorrow and sell the arXiv.org domain to Elsevier. (It would probably be worth a few million to Elsevier, just to have the arXiv closed down.)

But, other people are different — witness the comments by Marco Grandis, and Tom Leinster, and myself. Many people like to have some idea of what an organization seeks to do, or is committed to do, before they do business with it.

For this reason, it’s unusual for such an important entity as the arXiv not to make a public statement about its goals and committments. Consider, for example, the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, and its many signatories, or the statement by the Wellcome Trust supporting open access, or the Wikimedia mission statement and bylaws, or the Google code of conduct and privacy policy.

I had just assumed the arXiv had some sort of policy statement somewhere. I was surprised, when Marco Grandis asked, to find it apparently does not!

Posted by: John Baez on December 26, 2006 9:21 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: arXiv Policy Statement?

Indeed, I thought I knew the arXiv policies
but before shooting my mouth off, I e-mailed
other members of the advisory committee and
have yet to receive an answer. perhaps in the new year.

Posted by: jim stasheff on December 27, 2006 12:45 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: arXiv Policy Statement?

Elsevier?

I’m sure they could get more for the domain name from an online pornographer.

As I said, since the arXivs don’t demand an unrevokable license-to-distribute from the copyright holders, they can’t promise that the papers thereon will still be there tomorrow. They can’t sublicense those papers to users of the arXivs (say, for the creation of derivative works or whatever).

Perhaps they should demand such a license. Whether they should do so would be an interesting discussion. (Realize that some people will refuse the terms of such a license, and hence refuse to submit their papers to the arXivs. For comparison, the Creative Commons’s most popular license is incompatible with WikiMedia’s license, so CC-by-nc-nd licensed works cannot be used on Wikipedia.)

I happen to think it makes a heck of a lot more sense for the arXivs to leave the licensing terms of the works thereon to the copyright-holders.

Apparently, you disagree.

Posted by: Jacques Distler on December 27, 2006 12:56 AM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: arXiv Policy Statement?

Jacques wrote:

I happen to think it makes a heck of a lot more sense for the arXivs to leave the licensing terms of the works thereon to the copyright-holders.

Apparently, you disagree.

No. I don’t. I don’t care about this at all.

I’m asking that the arXiv have a publicly accessible policy statement which says what their goals are, and what their commitments are.

If you compare the front end of the arXiv to the website of any other organization of comparable importance, you’ll notice a big difference. Most of the others have an easy link to something that describes that organization’s goals and committments. The arXiv apparently does not.

This is presumably because the arXiv relies largely on word of mouth, which is quite effective in the small world of high-energy theoretical particle physics. We’re all supposed to have heard that the arXiv is run by ‘good guys’ whose main aim is to let us store our papers there, where they will be freely accessible — unless and until we remove them. We’re supposed to know that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find it converted to a cash cow for Springer Verlag or Reed Elsevier, cluttered with pop-up ads for expensive journals and books.

Since I sort of know you and Paul Ginsparg and Greg Kuperberg and Jim Stasheff and other people involved in running the arXiv, I don’t personally need an official Statement of Purpose on the arXiv website to get a sense of your goals and committments.

But, nothing on the website describes these. So, the vast world of people who don’t know you guys personally are left guessing. And, as the arXiv expands beyond the world of high-energy theoretical particle physics, this becomes more of a limitation. When a respected mathematician like Marco Grandis with few links to the theoretical physics community starts putting all his old papers on the arXiv, he naturally wonders what will happen to them. What can he count on? What can he expect?

And, when he discovers no answer is forthcoming, he wonders what’s up.

Posted by: John Baez on December 27, 2006 3:25 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: arXiv Policy Statement?

No one disagrees that the arXiv “About pages” are badly in need of reorganization.

I suppose that, unless you go through the process of submitting a paper, you don’t know that nowhere in that process do you cede any of your copyright rights, nor grant either The Cornell Libraries or the users of the arXivs any specific rights with respect to your manuscript beyond the extremely minimal ones enumerated on the submission page:

B. Legal Statement

  • I grant arXiv.org a perpetual, non-exclusive license to distribute this article.
  • I certify that I have the right to grant this license.
  • I understand that submissions cannot be completely removed once accepted.
  • I understand that arXiv.org reserves the right to reclassify or reject any submission.

◻ I agree to the above terms.

This page make no mention of copyright or licensing issues. Unlike any of the “Open-Access” initiatives that you linked to, the end-user is granted no usage rights (beyond those of Copyright Law).

Without changing that, I’m not sure what sort of “Policy Statement” the arXivs could offer, beyond “We are a free electronic preprint server. All rights to the articles herein are retained by their respective copyright holders.”

[IANAL, but it seems to me that the license grant above is insufficient to allow the Cornell Libraries to change the “free” part, which seems to be the thing you are worried about.]

Posted by: Jacques Distler on December 27, 2006 6:40 PM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: arXiv Policy Statement?

For those who have a very clear understanding of what the arXiv could and could not legally do, and do not see the need for any policy statement, perhaps it would be helpful for me to reveal my own lack of understanding.

I’ve used the arXiv for eight years and put 20 papers on it, and I tend to be careful about reading help pages and other descriptive matter, so I suspect that among arXiv contributors, I’m at least average in my level of understanding of how it works. Among all mathematicians and physicists, I should therefore be above average. But as the following will demonstrate, there are many areas where I’m unclear. That’s why an explicit statement would be so valuable.

Jacques wrote:

Can the arXivs guarantee that a given eprint, currently on their server (and hence, currently open-access), will remain open-access?

Obviously not. The author always has the option of withdrawing the manuscript from the arXiv tomorrow (either because it’s wrong, or because he or his publisher no longer wishes it to be open-access).

This is not obvious to me. Actually, I thought it was impossible to withdraw a paper. I thought that all one could do was replace it with a new, empty version (like this), but that still leaves all the previous versions available for the world to see.

Jacques wrote:

Even though arXivs provide open-access to manuscripts on their server, today, could the Cornell Libraries start charging for access, tomorrow?

Obviously not. This would be in clear violation of the copyrights of thousands of authors, whose manuscripts are on the server.

Again this isn’t obvious to me (though it surprises me less than the previous point). I own the copyright to the book I wrote, but Cambridge University Press make money selling it: hence one party can make money out of another’s copyrighted work. Presumably this is OK because I signed a contract allowing them to do this.

So, if I’ve reasoned correctly, I understand. But to me it’s not ‘blindingly obvious’.

When I started using the arXiv it was at xxx.lanl.gov, and I don’t think I really knew who operated it. At some point I became dimly aware that it had become associated with Cornell. I didn’t know it was ‘owned’ by Cornell until I read it at the bottom of the arXiv front page a few minutes ago. I’m not too sure what ‘owned’ means.

I’m explaining these areas where I’m unclear not so that someone can put me right, but to illustrate how little a typical user might understand of the situation, and therefore how much need there is for an explicit statement.

If the ownership of the arXiv changed to another university, I wouldn’t mind. If it was bought by a commercial publisher and, as John puts it, ‘cluttered with pop-up ads for expensive journals and books’, I would mind.

I’d like to see a commitment that ownership of the arXiv will not be transferred to a profit-making company. I’d like to see a commitment that the arXiv will not start charging for access (even if there are laws preventing them from doing this anyway). I’d like to see a commitment that the arXiv won’t display advertising. (I wouldn’t want Ronald McDonald popping up next to my abstract.) I’d like to see it as a stated aim that all papers will always remain open-access except where the author has requested otherwise or in exceptional circumstances (e.g. defamatory material in a paper).

I think all these commitments and aims are reasonable, and I don’t think any of them are obvious. I’ll continue to do as I’ve always done and trust that the arXiv is run by the ‘good guys’. But I still think we should have that statement.


Posted by: Tom Leinster on December 27, 2006 6:09 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: arXiv Policy Statement?

Jacques wrote:

Can the arXivs guarantee that a given eprint, currently on their server (and hence, currently open-access), will remain open-access?

Obviously not. The author always has the option of withdrawing the manuscript from the arXiv tomorrow (either because it’s wrong, or because he or his publisher no longer wishes it to be open-access).

But, he also notes that on the arXiv submission page one fills out a form saying:

I understand that submissions cannot be completely removed once accepted.

So, I don’t see why the answer to the above question is ‘obvious’.

I don’t care too much what the answer is, but it would be nice to have it be clear, and to have it readable somewhere before one actually submits a paper.

Posted by: John Baez on December 27, 2006 7:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: arXiv Policy Statement?

The original email submission did not have such an irrevocable license-to-distribute grant. And the web submission form only started sporting one relatively recently. That is to say that most of the papers on the arXivs were submitted with only an implicit (revocable) license-to-distribute.

As I said, the terms under which manuscripts are submitted could be changed again tomorrow (whether towards a model conferring explicit rights on end-users, as in the “Open Access” models you cited, or towards a model conferring commercial distribution rights on The Cornell Libraries). But that change would not affect the hundreds of thousands of already-submitted manuscripts.

Posted by: Jacques Distler on December 28, 2006 5:27 AM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this
Read the post links for 2007-01-01
Weblog: leuschke.org
Excerpt: Curriculum Vitae of MICHAEL RENARDY see his "academic ancestry" -- superdetailed, with glosses (tags: academia genealogy mathematicians mathematics) arXiv Policy Statement? [The n-Category Café] Jacques Distler's response is utterly unsatisfactory. (...
Tracked: January 1, 2007 5:19 AM

Allowed Trackback Sites

In the interests of transparency, I’d like to note another feature of the arXiv which should be addressed: from which sites are trackbacks accepted?

This issue came up last year, during a kerfuffle over trackback policy. I was a little surprised that a list isn’t readily available; one can find the most recent trackbacks, but I couldn’t find a page showing the sites which can send trackbacks. I asked Jacques Distler about this, since it’s the kind of information I’d like to put on EUREKA, and apparently the reason I couldn’t find that page is because it doesn’t exist. Unfortunate, but perhaps it will be remedied.

(I’d suppose this is a fairly simple SQL query to run, but I don’t know how Cornell has their servers set up.)

Posted by: Blake Stacey on December 10, 2007 10:28 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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