When your Open Access paper gets paywalled – part 1

oa4usdThis year I published my first peer-reviewed paper as a co-author – a report on training developing country researchers using MOOCs. Navigating the co-authoring process with two of my colleagues was certainly a fascinating and character-building journey (and probably worthy of its own blog post) but in the end the paper was accepted after some revisions, and published in the March issue of Open Praxis, the journal of the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) (full text here). As a bit of an Open Access fan, it was great to be able to publish the paper in a fully Open Access journal which uses the Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0 licence. This ticked all the ‘openness’ boxes and, more importantly, we were confident that this would reach as wide a readership as possible.

Following the excitement of my first publication, I had been eagerly awaiting our first citation (a little presumptuous, I know), so I thought I would check Google Scholar to see if the paper had any citations yet … and I stumbled upon a curious thing – the default hyperlink for the paper in Google Scholar wasn’t for Open Praxis, but something called ‘search.informit.com.au’.
paywall4 (3) I followed the link through to what looked like some kind of Australian library website. And… wait… is that a PAYWALL?  Imagine my surprise at seeing a charge of $4 Australian dollars for a copy of the PDF. No link to the journal, no indication that it was Open Access. Just a $4 charge (+tax).



So how did our openly licensed paper advocating open courses, published in Open Praxis (a journal that champions open educational practices) end up behind a paywall? I had a quick look on the Informit website, which revealed that they are an Australian content aggregator website providing “...information management services to the education, government and corporate sectors“. In fact, the service apparently “…exists to preserve, enhance and distribute hard to find content.“, which is all well and good, but this isn’t hard to find content – our paper is the #2 result in Google Scholar if you search for “MOOC developing countries” in 2017.

I took to Twitter to ask ‘Informit’ what they were up to:

I didn’t get an answer at first, by my co-author Ravi Murugesan did (I guess first author status carries more clout!):

To be fair their response was quick and detailed:

There are some fair points here. Yes, the paper is available free online, but for some inexplicable reason one of those sources links to their ‘added value’ paywalled version, and gives no other options to access the paper.

And it’s fine for them to add metadata and categorise articles by subject, but that’s also what academic journals do. For example Open Praxis.

And about this ‘added value’ they are providing. It certainly isn’t adding value for us, and for those who stumble upon this page by accident. It is adding some value for Informit though, or as Ravi remarks:

With regards to the licence, I’m guessing they mean the creative commons licence the article/journal published with. But it’s the author who owns the copyright, under Creative Commons, as Ravi points out:

However, having said this, the copyright holder may not have the right to ask for the content to be removed. The CC-BY licence allows other users to more-or-less do whatever they like with the content as long as the creators of the work are credited, or in the words of the licence itself, “The licensor cannot revoke these freedoms…”.

But is this reasonable, fair use of the material?

There were differing views on Twitter:

Pippa’s example is the really interesting, similar-ish case of the enterprising ‘Samuel Barrack’ who repackaged a collection of World Health Organisation research papers and sold it as a book on Amazon. Because the works were licensed as CC-BY, this is perfectly legitimate and legal, even if the WHO aren’t particularly happy about it.

The WHO would undoubtedly have been able to prevent this by adding an NC clause. But would we have been able to prevent the paywalling of our paper via this means? (More about this in part 2). We didn’t have much time to ponder on this, because…


After the negative public feedback, Informit decided to back down and un-paywall our paper

So the whole of the Open Praxis journal is now fully OA with no paywalls for Informit. Whether this was due to Ravi’s request or bad press, we aren’t sure. Informit backed down before we got the chance to test out a). the boundaries of legality and ethics of this kind of usage, and b). the rights of the copyright holder once his/her work has been published via CC-BY.

Some problems remain, however – Google Scholar still points to the Informit version, which is an issue we will have to take up with them. Why did Google Scholar prioritise a commercial Australian aggregator website over the original, open source? This is potentially a very troubling precedent.

Also, Informit appears to have removed the whole issue of Open Praxis that our article was published in, so the Google Scholar link is hitting a ‘page not found’ 404 page, which is still going to prevent people from getting to the paper.

We’ll continue to work on fixing this, but in the meantime, this has got me rethinking the value of Creative Commons clauses (NC and ND)  – more in part 2 of this blog post…



  1. Marc Couture

    Well, informit could well be in breach of CC attribution conditions, which require (1) displaying the licence and (2) providing a link to the “source” or “original” Maybe the title is a hyperlink to the paper on Open Praxis website (I can’t tell), but even if it is, it’s certainly not obvious for visitors).

    However, I was quite surprised that a similar breach of condition #1 above is also found on the Open Praxis website: the licence is not displayed or mentioned on the article page. In fact, one finds mentions of the CC BY licence, which applies to all the articles (or so it seems), only (1) in a sub-section of the Submissions section and (2) on the last page of the PDF of the article.

    Maybe one could argue that, technically, the requirement of displaying the CC licence doesn’t apply to the article page (which contains bibliographical info, including the abstract and references), but only to the full-text (PDF), so that there is no breach of condition #1 in either website. However, these are certainly no examples of “best practices” (http://wiki.creativecommons.org/wiki/Best_practices_for_attribution).

    These legal intricacies notwithstanding, OA journals are usually proud (as they should be) of their use of a CC license, and understand that this information is important to visitors, so they display it prominently both on their website and in the PDFs (usually on the first page).

  2. Andy

    Hi Marc,

    That’s a very good point. I hadn’t realised that the CC-BY licence was so well hidden on the Open Praxis website!

    I’ve worked with journals that publish using the same platform (Open Journals Systems) and it’s pretty straightforward to embed creative commons licenses on each abstract page. For example: http://nepjol.info/index.php/NJOG/article/view/17455

    Actually, Informit were selling access to the PDF version rather than the page. Although I’ve no idea if this was the original PDF or if they’ve rebranded or created a derivative version.

    Thanks for your thoughts

    1. Marc Couture


      This is indeed a further concern: we don’t know if (or how) the information about the licence is displayed in the PDF (which may have been altered as you point out) unless we pay the access fee. At stake here are ethical as well as legal issues (probably related to misrepresentation, if not actual breach of license conditions).

      As to Open Praxis well-hidden CC license, one should contact them, as I assume it’s just a matter of a lack of awareness, or insufficient knowledge of copyright issues.

      Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of this in small but perfectly legit OA journals, that often rely mainly upon volunteering, with the possible drawback, for instance, of not being eligible for indexing in DOAJ, which is more and more used to identify non-predatory journals. Open Praxis is in DOAJ though, because at least they provide somewhere in their website their copyright policy.

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