Open Access Open Badges Research article

Restrictions impeding web-based courses: a survey of publishers' variation in authorising access to high quality on-line literature

Michele Langlois*, Richard F Heller, Richard Edwards, Georgios Lyratzopoulos and John Sandars

Author Affiliations

Evidence for Population Health Unit, School of Epidemiology and Health Sciences, The Medical School, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester. M13 9PT. United Kingdom

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BMC Medical Education 2004, 4:7  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-4-7

Published: 7 April 2004



Web-based delivery of educational programmes is becoming increasingly popular and is expected to expand, especially in medicine. The successful implementation of these programmes is reliant on their ability to provide access to web based materials, including high quality published work. Publishers' responses to requests to access health literature in the context of developing an electronic Master's degree course are described.


Two different permission requests were submitted to publishers. The first was to store an electronic version of a journal article, to which we subscribe, on a secure password protected server. The second was to reproduce extracts of published material on password protected web pages and CD Rom.


Eight of 16 publishers were willing to grant permission to store electronic versions of articles without levying charges additional to the subscription. Twenty of 35 publishers gave permission to reproduce extracts of published work at no fee. Publishers' responses were highly variable to the requests for access to published material. This may be influenced by vague terminology within the 'fair dealing' provision in the copyright legislation, which seems to leave it open to individual interpretation. Considerable resource costs were incurred by the exercise. Time expended included those incurred by us: research to identify informed representatives within the publishing organisation, request 'chase-ups' and alternative examples being sought if publishers were uncooperative; and the publisher when dealing with numerous permission requests. Financial costs were also incurred by both parties through additional staffing and paperwork generated by the permission process, the latter including those purely borne by educators due to the necessary provision of photocopy 'course packs' when no suitably alternative material could be found if publishers were uncooperative. Finally we discuss the resultant bias in material towards readily available electronic resources as a result of publisher's uncooperative stance and encourage initiatives that aim to improve open electronic access.


The permission request process has been expensive and has resulted in reduced access for students to the relevant literature. Variations in the responses from publishers suggest that for educational purposes common policies could be agreed and unnecessary restrictions removed in the future.