Researchers to gain new text and data mining rights under EU proposal

14 Sep 2016 | News
EU Commission presents its plan to ease copyright laws, but the limited scope leaves some unhappy

New copyright law proposed by the European Commission will give universities, research institutes and research-performing companies legal backing to scour text and data produced in scientific journals in Europe.

The proposal, part of a broad package of copyright reforms announced on Wednesday, would grant researchers a clear right to use computer programmes that can speed-read and synthesise thousands of pages of academic literature “in full legal certainty wherever they are in EU,” the Commission said.

Carlos Moedas, EU Commissioner for Research said, “This proposed copyright exception will give researchers the freedom to pursue their work without fear of legal repercussions."

It comes after a three-year review aimed at reshaping copyright law, which has gone without an update for 15 years. However, it could take several more years to ratify through the European Parliament and EU states, with significant horse-trading expected over the details.

Research advocates broadly welcomed the announcement, which had been well signposted through recent leaks.

“Although there is still room for improvement, this proposed directive really can be the first step in tipping the balance towards a more equitable situation for research,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of The League of European Research Universities (LERU).

Limited scope

Under the new proposal, companies may also receive permission to download and analyse large numbers of publishers’ papers, but only when working on projects with universities or research institutes.

This limited scope for commercial mining means, “Europe will be a less attractive place for start-ups,” said Lenard Koschwitz, director of European affairs with the Allied for Startups.

“Data mining start-ups are marginalised [in the new rules] and will have a hard time convincing investors that their business can grow and scale in Europe rather than elsewhere,” he said.

And as Peter-Murray Rust, Reader Emeritus at Cambridge University and text and data mining advocate points out, “Individuals can’t mine either.” Citizen scientists, freelance researchers, data journalists and advocacy groups would not receive any new rights to pull data from scientific journals.

The Commission justifies limiting mining rights on the grounds that extra requests could make publishers’ websites slower for everyone to use.

“In view of a potentially high number of access requests to and downloads of their works or other subject-matter, right holders should be allowed to apply measures where there is risk that the security and integrity of the system or databases where the works or other subject-matter are hosted would be jeopardised,” it says.

However this is rejected by LERU, which fears that the “provision will be unfairly used (and abused) by publishers to limit the right to text and data mining and to prevent researchers from using their own tools.”

Ending a complex system

Currently there is a lot of legal uncertainty surrounding text and data mining in Europe. Where researchers have lawful access to content, for example through subscriptions to publications or open access licences, the terms of the licences may exclude the use of mining tools.

Researchers have long lamented the high costs of navigating the current system for mining.

University College London, for example, says the cost of negotiating mining rights with publishers and checking whether researchers are staying on the right side of the rules can run up to £500,000 per year, while the UK’s Wellcome Trust has calculated that a researcher wanting to mine papers which include the word malaria would need to contact 1,024 journals at a cost of £18,630.

“Perhaps the single most important aspect of the proposed exception for TDM is that contracts will not be able to override the exception,” said Liber, an association of European research libraries, in a press release. “Having demonstrated the unsustainable transaction costs of addressing TDM in licences, we strongly applaud that this problem is being addressed.”

Big publishing companies, which fear unlawful redistribution of their articles, are likely to offer resistance to the proposal. They say the demand to mine data is lower than the hype might suggest.

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