Hi everyone -

Emily, thanks for sharing this with the list. I too was disturbed by the conclusions asserted by this article.

It is unclear to me whether it was actually published in a peer-reviewed journal--the RIO journal advertises that it publishes work from "every stage of the research cycle", and clicking on the "Reviews" tab of the article page brings up a note stating that the article was submitted to PLoS Biology but was not accepted after peer review. From the acknowledgments it sounds like the authors made changes based on reviews they received but it is unclear whether there was any external editorial approval or oversight from RIO.

It was also posted on biorxiv last fall and the comments there are few but insightful: http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2016/11/11/087015

One of the authors has a post on his personal blog about the paper and his goals for a wider conversation: http://punkish.org/Copyright-and-the-Use-of-Images-as-Biodiversity-Data

I tend to be sympathetic to many arguments for copyright limits, but Egloff et al. go beyond anything I've ever seen. They propose that copyright simply doesn't apply to a significant subset of scientific illustration, from taxonomic character diagrams to field guide identification plates. The authors reduce scientific illustration to a container for conveying information, and dismiss any notion of creative effort on the part of the illustrator. They even go so far as to say that, because scientific images cannot be copyrighted, attribution is not legally required (although they affirm their personal view that using images without attribution is tantamount to plagiarism).

I think the authors overreach in their interpretation of copyright law, and they also err greatly by conflating the images with the information they convey. Scientific information should be reproducible, sure, but also verifiable. Redrawing a specimen or taxon reproduces the original descriptive process and helps verify or correct previous work, but republishing an existing image only reinforces the conclusions (and errors) that came before. Legal issues aside, this article's take on copyright would be devastating to the field of scientific illustration and detrimental to science as a whole.

I'd also be curious to hear others' thoughts on the article. I'll cast my vote in favor of a GNSI reply—the bibliography shows that some of the authors have published on similar topics before and I suspect that this might be an article that gets referenced in the future.

Thanks again to Emily for providing an opportunity to discuss this on the list -


-Matt Celeskey
Dead Animal Design
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On Sat, Mar 11, 2017 at 4:28 PM, Emily S. Damstra <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Hi all,
Glendon Mellow just brought  to my attention this journal article about scientific images in scientific literature:

A few pertinent quotes:

"Standards in scientific imaging minimize creative variation to ensure that the subject is represented in a consistent way and can be integrated into the corpus of scientific literature. Because of the need to comply with standards, we argue that such images lack “sufficient individuality”, the central criterion used to determine if an illustration qualifies as a “work” in the sense of copyright law."

"Illustrations that follow predefined rules or conventions do not qualify as copyrightable works. Illustrations of biological information, especially in taxonomy, usually follow conventions that facilitate comparisons with similar illustrations. When this is the case, the images do not qualify as copyrightable works."

"Considering this outline of intellectual property rights, we conclude that principles of copyright do not normally apply to scientific images because most images adhere to the conventions of the discipline. Certainly, copyright is not applicable to images that are intended to facilitate comparison among related taxa."

I find it disturbing that this article was published in a peer reviewed journal. It sounds to me like these authors are trying to play at being Intellectual Property Judges. As far as I'm concerned, they're entitled to their opinions but they have no right to make blanket statements about what is or is not copyright infringement. I presume they've never tried to make a living creating images. It's disheartening to read this sort of thing. I wonder if GNSI should publish a reply. (Then again, perhaps it is better to simply ignore it).

I would be curious to know what everyone else thinks about this article.
Emily S. Damstra
natural science illustration
Guelph, Ontario
(519) 616-3654
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