Harvard Business Review is cray-cray for copyright

Do_Not_Enter_HBRThere are many examples of copyright and licensing monkeyshines in higher education–far too many. Not just the regular, run-of-the-mill monkeyshines, but outright knavery (as I see it). One example, is mega-publisher Reed-Elsevier that enforces a research publishing cycle that disenfranchises tax payers not just once, not just twice, but three times: (1) selling universities expensive subscriptions to journals full of (2) publicly-funded research results, (3) peer-reviewed for free by publicly-funded faculty. Elsevier isn’t the only bogeyman here, just the biggest. These practices are shared by other for-profit educational publishers. Elsevier specifically has also actively opposed legislation that would openly license tax payer funded research and products.

Another example is the illustrious Harvard Business Review’s indefensible (as I see it) new practice of charging their institutional subscribers an additional fee–per student, per course– to use the HBR in a course. Use is applied loosely here–an HBR article can be recommended, but a faculty member can’t make it easy for them by providing a link to the article. That costs extra.

HBR’s policy is a bridge too far for Joshua Gans, professor and Jeffrey Skoll Chair in technical innovation and entrepreneurship at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, who penned a piece critical of the HBR in the Financial Times. From the article:

Even though those institutions’ libraries had a subscription to HBR that allowed students and teaching faculty to access them, these articles were “not intended for use as assigned course material in academic institutions”. This does not only apply to articles copied into course packs as required readings. It applies to everything else, including links from class web pages or even mere suggestions given to students to deepen their understanding of certain areas. HBSP would now only permit institutions to do any of those common activities if they paid a fee for each article and for each student enrolled in the course (whether the student accessed the article or not).

In the article, Gans calls for the removal of HBR from the FT 45, a research component of the Financial Time’s based on a list of the top 45 academic and practitioner journals, including the HBR. “How can it be, therefore, that the FT can consider HBR as a journal that connects students to knowledge creators? HBSP has relegated HBR to second-tier status and so should the FT.”

Das Narayandas, senior associate dean of Executive Education and Publishing and the James J. Hill professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, responded in defense of the HBR. You can read Narayandas’s response here, as well as a follow-up post and clarification from Joshua Gans here.

HBR’s doubling-down to protect its editorial content reminds me of the ham-handed response of another disrupted market, the music industry, during the surge of Napster and digital downloads. Rather than try to find an innovative solution, Big Music decided to sue its customers and lockdown its product with DRM. This may be a calculated risk on the part of HBR, and perhaps their approach will be successful–at least for the short-term. But that should be little comfort to HBR, or to anyone who values knowledge production and the open academy.

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