MLA Position Statements and FAQs
Electronic Publishing Position Statement
The emergence of electronic publishing models that seek to establish electronic repositories of scientific research information offers unprecedented potential for accessing the literature by health professionals, students, educators, researchers, and the public. Some models, such as PubMed Central, proposed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), seek to establish a Web-based repository that will archive, organize, and distribute peer-reviewed reports from journals as well as reports that have been screened but not formally reviewed.
The Medical Library Association supports these initiatives and the opportunities they present for more efficient and free access to the literature. MLA maintains that health sciences librarians must be involved in the development of electronic publishing initiatives. Librarians have highly developed skills, expertise, and training in the organization, collection, dissemination, and preservation of print information. As collections of information transition from print to electronic format, librarians will continue to play a crucial role in the development and dissemination of these collections.
Electronic publishing initiatives, such as the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), BioOne, and PubMed Central, have generated widespread discussion among publishers, scholarly and scientific societies, and librarians on a number of issues that are common to many of the proposals that have been introduced.
Copyright, Licensing, and Fair Use
MLA maintains that librarians serve their clients best by striving to preserve the principles of fair use as embodied in current copyright law. The exceptions to exclusive copyright that are provided by the fair use doctrine are a fundamental tool in the ability of librarians to provide access to information that supports education, research, and patient care.
Electronic publishing has the potential to make information more accessible by empowering researchers and their institutions to hold copyright on works. It also has the potential to eliminate fair use through the establishment of licensing contracts that seek to restrict access to information. It is imperative that the library community works in partnership with other members of the academic and publishing communities to educate electronic information users about the principles of fair use and to ensure that developments in electronic publishing do not create barriers but open doors to information collections.
It is equally important that librarians collaborate with the academic and publishing communities on the development of licensing standards that support the principles of fair use.
The Role of Professional Societies
The role of professional societies in the development of electronic publishing is critical. Some societies view their role as an opportunity to make the literature available more quickly and for less cost for the user. However, in doing so, they also threaten their own financial stability through the loss of revenues on journal subscriptions.
No single issue has evoked more discussion than that of peer review. Peer review is a crucial element for the preservation of authenticity and validity in scientific research literature and to the development of reliable information collections.
MLA supports the need to preserve the rigor of the professional peer review process in both research and clinical care literature. However, MLA also recognizes the potential benefits of providing additional mechanisms for sharing research results and discussions that have undergone a more streamlined review process.
MLA maintains that librarians must play a crucial role in educating information consumers, in the research, education, clinical care, consumer health, and general public communities concerning the reliability and validity of information distributed through less rigorously peer reviewed mechanisms.
The Role of Commercial Publishers
The Copyright Law was established to balance the rights of authors and publishers with the needs of information users. MLA maintains that these rights must be preserved regardless of distribution format. The importance of maintaining this principle is also addressed in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and its recommendations for copyright protection and use of digital information.
While electronic publishing offers unprecedented opportunities for improving access to consumers of information, it also poses serious compensation and distribution concerns for publishers and owners of information. MLA recognizes the value of licensing agreements and the value-added services that are provided as part of this agreement. However, the association is concerned that these agreements also have the potential to lead to restrictive licensing that may unnecessarily restrict access to information consumers and hamper the ability of the library community to effectively serve its diverse clientele.
For this reason, it is important that licensing agreements not impose multi-site restrictions, and allow libraries to distribute information to geographically disbursed locations. MLA believes it is imperative that librarians work closely with the for-profit sector to establish licensing agreements that do not create barriers to the information or eliminate the fair use principles that are embodied in the copyright law.
Because electronic publishing has the potential to change the way the literature is used, it will stimulate entrepreneurial activity in the private sector. While it may create new and interesting electronic publications, it may also limit access to federal information currently paid for by United States citizens through their tax dollars. There is value in putting on the public record a large body of data that might not otherwise be available. Ethical issues surrounding federally funded projects that provide private sector commercial opportunities and/or future control of information previously in the public domain must be addressed.
Integration of Resources at the Institutional Level
The concept of an electronic information system to serve as a gateway to all life sciences research literature is laudable; however, an electronic information system that does not provide for commentary, editorials, correspondence, and reviews is flawed. The role of librarians in facilitating access to information that is appropriate to the particular clientele served is fundamentally the same whether dealing with print or electronic materials.
As the field of electronic publishing evolves, MLA maintains that librarians must continue to be the key information access facilitators, developing institutional access policies and customized interfaces, negotiating licenses, and effectively managing budgets.
Preservation and Archiving
In the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, Congress recognized the value of information preservation when it updated the Copyright Act to permit a library or archive to reproduce up to three copies of a work for purposes of preservation. It is imperative that librarians continue to play a strong role in addressing the importance of preservation and archiving in all electronic publishing models that emerge in the future.
Current electronic information access proposals and projects have the potential to revolutionize the way that scientific and clinical information is communicated. Technology brings risk. Each stakeholder in the biomedical community - researchers, society publishers, for profit publishers, institutional administrators, students, patients, etc. - has a key role to play in the outcome.
Librarians have traditionally played a key role in helping to balance these various and sometimes competing interests in service of the idea of making sure that each constituency has access to the information that it needs, when it needs it, and in the most easily accessible form. The importance of collaboration among the academic community, the library profession, and all information producers and consumers to fully understand the strengths and weaknesses of electronic publishing schemes has never been more important, and will assume even greater importance as technology produces platforms that integrate image and text, sound and motion.
Prepared May 2000 by
Logan Ludwig, Ph.D., Chair-designate, MLA Governmental Relations Committee, and Associate Dean of Library Services, Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine, and Director of Media Services, Loyola University Health System, Maywood, IL.
For more information, contact Mary Langman, 312.419.9094 x27.
Medical Library Association
Last Updated: 2007 July 13