How copyright makes the climate crisis worse

Many of the posts here on the Walled Culture blog examine fairly niche problems that copyright is causing. Although they are undoubtedly important, in the overall scheme of things they can hardly be called major. But sometimes copyright can have important repercussions in the wider world, as an interesting post on The Conversation makes clear.

It reports on a paper published in the Environmental Science & Policy journal by a group of researchers in the UK. It explores how policymakers make planning decisions for new offshore wind turbine developments in the UK, and what evidence they draw on. There are two kinds of literature that are used: “primary literature”, which refers to studies published in academic journals following a peer review process; and “grey literature”, which the University of Exeter Library defines as follows:

“information produced on all levels of government, academia, business and industry in electronic and print formats not controlled by commercial publishing” ie. where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body.

According to the post, it is grey literature, not the more rigorous primary literature, that policymakers prefer to draw on in this area:

Policymakers tend to favour grey literature even though it gives a less balanced outlook, perhaps due to access issues. Primary literature often sits behind paywalls, the process of review can lead to lengthy delays in publication, and these studies may just investigate one species or process in detail. Grey literature is easier to access, available much sooner, and can provide a useful overview or synthesis of available knowledge, which is exactly what regulators need.

Although surprising – you’d think that policy makers would want the best information, not simply the most accessible – it might seem a harmless bias. In fact, it has serious consequences:

Overall, 71% of outcomes reported in grey literature for the impacts of offshore wind farms are negative, compared with 36% in primary literature. This disparity could in part be due to the fact that environmental impact assessments address potential rather than specific impacts, and reflect a high proportion of the grey literature.

The considerably more negative view that grey literature takes of offshore wind farms is likely to have slowed the roll out of this technology, which is highly contested in many countries. That, in its turn, will have meant more carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels instead, causing additional global heating and its associated problems. The unnecessary exacerbation of the climate crisis is a consequence of the difficulty of accessing rigorous academic studies. It is copyright that allows publishers to lock away knowledge behind the paywalls mentioned above, in order to impose a fee for accessing it.

Open access to academic papers goes some way to alleviating that problem, since it aims to make research more widely available. But it is not a panacea. As readers of this blog know, there are various kinds of open access, with different restrictions on how and when papers can be accessed, viewed and shared. As a result, the open access landscape is complicated and confusing. Even if all research were available under open access licences, it would still be easier to turn to grey literature, which generally imposes no conditions on how material is used – or if it does, they are rarely enforced.

Unless all academic research is routinely placed in the public domain – which seems unlikely – this new paper suggests that copyright will continue to act as a brake on taking necessary action to address arguably the most serious crisis facing us today.

Featured image by US Department of Energy.

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