Academic Access Rights

Larry Press

I am a professor, and when I arrived on campus the first day of last semester, I switched on my PC and launched Netscape. The browser tried to link to the year-old Web site my students and I had designed and built for my School, but it was not found. Figuring the server had crashed, I looked for our support person.

But, there had been no crash. An Associate Dean had decided to turn my site off, and create a new Web presence for the School. The appearance and organization would be changed, but some of my content would be used. The old server would be turned off, and my material deleted once the copying was complete. They estimated this would take only a few days, and the old domain name would become an alias for new site. I had made a significant investment in work that was put on university-owned computers which could only be accessed over university-owned and controlled communication links. This left me feeling very vulnerable.

My first reaction was astonishment at the Associate Dean's professional disrespect, but on reflection, I realized that my case was probably not isolated, and that the general issue of access rights and customs was important. I posted an account of this incident on several listservs, and received dozens of messages from others with similar stories. The experience of OncoLink [2], a cancer information server, was the most important.

OncoLink was established in March, 1994 by Loren Buhle, then Assistant Professor of Medical Physics in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, after his daughter was diagnosed with leukemia [1]. In addition to peer-reviewed research reports, the site included information on alternative medicine, patient experiences and advice, research in progress and under evaluation, newspaper articles, drawings from sick children, and so forth. Buhle was highly motivated by his own case and the needs of others. OncoLink was judged "Best of the Web" for professional services in 1994, and it grew rapidly to around 10,000 hits per day by December, 1994.

At that time, the University asked Buhle to stop posting certain items and remove others, subject to review by an editorial board, and when he refused, control over the server was taken from him. The university insisted that this was not an issue of censorship. Dr. W. Gillies McKenna, department chairman, said it was a "question of editorial integrity," and stated they "were not interested in being the National Enquirer of cancer." [5] McKenna felt Buhle wanted the university imprimatur while disregarding its policies.

Buhle felt he was performing a valuable service in providing both peer-reviewed and non-traditional material to medical consumers, and a disclaimer appears on every page stating that the material is educational, and advising readers to contact physicians. From all accounts, OncoLink users were solidly with Buhle. They felt they were intelligent enough to separate the wheat from the chafe, and were happy to have a readily accessible source of oncological information. They were also motivated to spend the time to thoroughly research their cases and current developments -- time a harried physician may not be able to spend (particularly in some managed-care environments).

These incidents and others like them point out user's vulnerability in a networked age, and raise disturbing questions. I will explore several of these below, and suggest that we need policies to protect users. While I will concentrate on universities, the final section addresses commercial organizations.

Is there a Right of Academic Access?

If by this one means a strictly legal right, I would think the answer is "no." University or industrial employment contracts seldom promise email accounts, space on servers, or other access rights. However, professors are not explicitly promised desks, pens, telephones, electricity or running water either, but it is assumed they will be provided. We are dealing with issues of custom and culture here more than legality. The policies and practices we establish today will be taken for granted tomorrow.

But, when should we elevate a custom or common practice to the level of a "right?" My answer would be that we should do so when the facility in question is essential to performance of the person's job. 50 years ago, a professor needed a desk to do his or her job, at some point, a telephone became a necessity, and then, in most disciplines, a personal computer or workstation. Today one cannot teach and do research without an email account and, in many cases, reachable server space. In ten years my guess is that access to these and other network-based services will be necessities for all faculty members. The necessity for students may not be as pressing, but again, in ten years, will it be possible to be an effective student in any discipline without email and network access?

Legal Issues

While I feel the key issues here are those of custom and culture, there may also be legal issues. For example, if a professor puts material on a university web server, who owns it? It is my understanding that original, creative material fixed in a tangible medium belongs to the creator until it is transferred to someone else. In the absence of an employment contract that grants rights to the university, that would seem to cover teaching and research material on a web server.

This has generally been the relationship between faculty and universities. Universities have seldom claimed ownership of class notes or articles or even a professor's text books or literary work. I suppose the assumption was that the material usually had little market value, was done on the professor's time, and whatever value it did have was a fringe benefit of employment. Professors would like to keep all rights.

The university would argue that this model was realistic in the past, when teaching materials might be only lecture outlines or overhead transparencies, but that times have changed. Today the professor may use expensive university equipment to produce multimedia materials which may be placed on an expensive server or used in distance education. The relationship is more like that between a faculty member and a producer or publisher, where the author typically does relinquish copyright.

No doubt new norms will have to be worked out for valuable material produced and distributed using university resources in the future, and a middle ground established. But what of material that has no substantial market value? Only a small bit of faculty-produced material on the net has a market value. Faculty web sites generally contain course syllabi, reading lists, articles they have written, links to related sites, and so forth. Perhaps when micro-payment technology is perfected, such material will generate revenue, but it surely does not today. More substantial work, like Buhle's, has the potential of generating revenue (through advertising or direct charges for viewing or copying), but it was not so exploited.

Although such material generally has little or no commercial value, it is of great value to the professor who spends time on it and assumes it will be available for teaching or for review by scholarly peers. Teaching and scholarly accomplishment are at the heart of a professor's career and have great personal value - - they are the basis of employment, promotion and tenure. If a professor's non-commercial Web site is cut off he or she loses intellectual capital, as if lecture notes were destroyed and articles expunged from library shelves. While the university has a legitimate claim to a share of commercially valuable material, it should be our custom that such non-commercial material remain the property of the professor.

What is Really Going On?

When I posted a description of the confiscation of my server, I received replies with dozens of similar anecdotes, and many more expressions of sympathy. (Only one person took me to task, suggesting that I stop whining and move my material to a commercial account). The overwhelming tenor of these responses was, sadly, one of Faculty versus Administration.

It would be naive not to recognize that control over access to the net confers power and is therefore part of campus politics. Since returning to academia, I have surely seen petty political games and power struggles, and the quip that the viciousness of academic power struggles is due to the miniscule stakes rings true. There are those for whom control over net access would be an end in itself.

There is also the issue of "credit" within the institution. For example, the Web server I built for my school had a link to send me email with suggestions, but the new server shows someone else as "webmaster." I suppose this might help him at a salary review. Dr. Buhle also feels issues like his being a junior faculty member with a Ph. D. and not an M. D. played a role in his losing control over OncoLink, and that the ensuing struggle cost him his job.

This is going on in the broader context of change in the university. Times are hard -- resources are often being cut, and there is increasing competition, some of it facilitated by the net. In many cases the faculty and administration react to a shrinking pie by fighting for larger shares, for redefinition of the rules of the game. For example, tenure policy is being re-examined in many universities, including a highly publicized case at the University of Minnesota [6]. Proposals to end or weaken tenure are motivated by a desire to curb faculty excess and abuse and solve financial problems, but they would also erode faculty power. Net access is too important to be left solely in the hands of the administration or the faculty.

Toward an Access Rights Policy

Nearly every university has an acceptable use policy (AUP) restricting the content and perhaps the appearance of material published by faculty and students, but few have an access rights policy (ARP) defining their rights. We need both, and they are not in opposition, but are complementary. Some of the provisions and issues I would include in an ARP are listed below. They are based on the assumption that electronic access is or will become a necessity, not a luxury, for every professor and student.

A policy like this would of course have to be backed up by operational procedures, committees, budgets and so forth, and it it needs careful consideration.

Faculty vulnerability will increase if, in the future, scholarly work migrates from print journals and proceedings to electronic media controlled by university administrators and teaching material moves from textbooks and notebooks to the Net. We need cultural norms and explicit agreements and guarantees for university-based electronic publication. Incidents like mine and Buhle's might have been avoided had our universities had explicit ARPs.

Beyond the Academic

I have been discussing access rights in an academic context, but parallel issues exist in commercial or other sorts of organizations, including the administrative and business units at universities. Computer and network access are as essential for many employees of commercial organizations as they are for professors and students.

In a discussion of corporate Internet strategies [7], Ed Yourdon asks the question "who is allowed to publish information?" and points out that the answer is tied to the corporate culture and management style. An organization that values employee initiative and empowerment, would tend to allow wide-spread access. This might be as simple as letting the employee update his or her own address in the personnel file or letting them have a home page for personal and professional material.

While the publication of a professor or student is relatively self-contained and their own opinion and responsibility, administrative and commercial employees are more closely tied to their organizations. Therefore Yourdon points out that other policy issues must also be addressed:


Whether in academia or industry, a person's professional identity is increasingly dependent upon network access. When my web site was commandeered, the faculty home pages were copied to a new server with a slightly different file structure, which meant that our URLs were changed. That meant all references to our URLs -- printed references, business cards, bookmark links, search engine links, and so forth -- were invalidated. During the two months the university took to make the simple technical change to rectify this problem, every attempt to reach the information of faculty in our school resulted in a "file not found" error message. This reflected poorly on the faculty member and the University.

This sort of action has serious professional consequences today since we commonly use networks to find people [3] -- searching for information on a topic, then contacting the person who posted it. A person who loses access loses professional visibility. If we look to the future, when more professions and a higher percent of people take the net for granted, the consequences of the denial of access will become more serious. It is not a great leap from there to science fiction stories where a person's total identity is erased by removing them from the net.

The day I saw the Popular Electronics article [4] announcing the availability of the Altair, a kit for the first commercially viable personal computer, I knew it was a good thing. I realized that, as a computer professional, I would soon be in a position to own my own tools. I would no longer be dependent on an employer for an account or machine time and that my development tools could not be taken away. Well, it was a good time while it lasted. Now that it turns out that my personal computer was really a communication device, I am more vulnerable to the whims of my employer than ever. I hope we find policies and customs which allow us to keep connected.

This piece will also appear in the May, 1997, Communications of the ACM

KAIROS Kairos: A Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments.
Vol. 2 No. 1 Spring 1997