Greed and Buffoonery in Academic Publishing

I’ve just signed another one of Sage Publications’ ridiculous publishing agreements, prompting Aard’s first re-run of an entry from my old blog. Here’s something from 29 September 2006.

i-407f4a5b72159fb7230565b69377706a-eja.gifI agreed to a really crappy business deal today.

For a long time, academic journals from commercial publishers have grown in number and become more and more expensive. Individual scholars can no longer afford subscribing to them at all, and most research libraries have to prioritise strictly when choosing which ones to take. There is a successful resistance movement against these tendencies, Open Access publishing on the net. But culture changes slowly, and commercial journals are still indispensable reading in many fields of inquiry.

Last spring, Cornelius Holtorf at the European Journal of Archaeology kindly offered me a review copy of Martin Carver’s massive publication on the excavations at Sutton Hoo in the 80s and 90s. I accepted gladly, I got the book, and recently I read enough of it that I could write a review. Great book on heroic fieldwork, I’m glad to have it. So far, so good.

You never get paid for writing in academic journals. Scholars and journals have a symbiotic relationship where one could not survive without the other. We feed the journals material, and they feed our CVs. A review copy of an expensive book is all the tangible remuneration you can hope for as a contributor. But in this case I had to pay to get my review published.

“Author pays” is a common funding model for Open Access journals. The idea there is that instead of paying exorbitant prices for journal subscriptions, university departments will pay a sum to the OA journal when it accepts a piece of work by one of the department’s staff for publication, and the work will then be disseminated for free. But the European Journal of Archaeology isn’t OA. It’s a commercial product put out by Sage Publications.

After I had written and submitted the review, Sage informed me that in order to print the piece they need me to cede my copyright to them. They try to sweeten the deal by allowing me to use the text in certain ways (including putting it on-line at my web site) once a year has passed after the publication of the piece. But still, what they’re saying is that they don’t just want to borrow my stuff and print it once for free, like a civilised journal: they want me to give them my stuff for free and then they will lend it back to me under certain controlled circumstances.

This is really silly. Because the piece of intellectual property we’re discussing here is not the new Beyoncé record or Harry Potter novel. It’s 1400 words of scholarly prose about a book with an estimated readership of maybe 200 people in the whole world. There’s no way for Sage to make any money out of owning the copyright. But they will own it once I mail the contract. And I will mail it, because I mildly want to publish in the EJA, and I don’t want to cause the unhappy reviews editors trouble. And finally, I understand how little the copyright on this thing is worth. But I find it aggravating that Sage are willing to alienate contributors over such a small value.

I wonder what Sage would do if I broke the contract and, say, put the review on-line the minute the journal was published. It would almost be worth the hassle if they sent lawyers after me over such a pittance, just to see them make fools out of themselves. But I guess all that would happen would in fact be that no more review copies be sent my way from that particular journal. And I guess I could probably live with that too.

Update same evening: Very timely, a bill is being voted upon in the US Senate to require anyone who receives research funding from the National Institutes of Health to publish their results openly on the net.

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14 thoughts on “Greed and Buffoonery in Academic Publishing

  1. Martin! Skip writing those nonsense text and start writing sales text for bookclubs instead. I mean, at least I get paid for my work!
    And I get to write some bigger texts, both presentations and a couple of popular scientific ones. Get my name and get paid.
    Just a tip. Not that it will make you richer, though.

    How about those damn journals figured out how to become cheaper instead of becoming increasingly glossy and expensive. Hey, they may even be able to give the authors a litte pay. At least not try and rob them of their copyright for nothing.


  2. Martin!

    I could not more agree!! And remember that your frustration over is shared in wide circles and has support from many university leaders. Note that the vice-chancellor of Stockholm University, as many other vice-chancellors and academies has signed the Berlin declaration of open access:

    More info in Swedish on Stockholm University position

    As employes at Stockholm University we are thus asked to post our publications in our university digital (and open) archive.

    As long as the open access journals are to few (and many are not so prestigous) there are two ways to handle this. One is to sign the agreement only after having changed a few words in it. This is practiced by some of my colleagues. The assumption is that the technical editors or whoever collects these forms will not see the scribbles or will not care. Regardless if you have done this or not you can then continue to post your articles (at least in manuscript version) on your personal web page. I am not aware of any judicial process coming out of such behaviour — has any one out there?? I suspect that such a process (e.g. Elsevier or Springer vs. Stockholm University or Sage publications vs. Rundkvist) is unlikely, but I may be wrong.

    Mats Widgren


  3. Martin, this all sounds very familiar: I’ve had to sign similar agreements for all my (limited) publications. I don’t think it’s necessarily as sinister as you make out, though. In a world where the publishers are now distributing our work through a variety of electronic and indexing services, I think it just leaves them more freely able to handle such agreements if they don’t have to establish a permission to do so with the thousands of authors involved each time. I’m sure they realise that the only money coming out of these works is through such distribution, but even there it’s the same two-way process for them as for us; they get distribution for product, same as you describe for academics. I don’t even know which side pays which in such agreements.

    That said, I fully agree that conceding rights to do what we like with our own work is thoroughly unpleasant, and I think there is a lot to be said for the `strike out the offending clauses’ strategy. But I honestly think they’re not stealing our assets but merely covering their asses. Lawyers are the problem!


  4. I agree, their motivations are most likely not sinister. But their behaviour is silly and will drive ever more authors to Open Access publishing. Paper publishers are acting as if there still were no good alternatives to their model of information distribution.


  5. Martin!
    I was so eager this morning that my language was not the most clear. Let me try again: The two complimentary ways of handling this are 1. Scribble some changes in the agreement before you sign 2.Post it on the web. Number 2 can easily also be tried without number 1 (until the unlikely event of a court case….)


  6. Physics and mathematics seem to have a more flourishing “open access culture” than other fields. Interestingly, the “author pays” model is much rarer there than it is in, say, biology. As a physicist if they have to pay a fee to make their article OA, and the response will likely be, “What? I was just going to put it on the arXiv.”

    This is why the EUREKA Science Journal Watch is starting with the math and physics community: it’s the physics types who are working on it, and we’re naturally a little boggled by the strange practices of other fields!


  7. The question then becomes how the arXiv is funded and who guarantees that it’ll still be around in 50 years. According to Wikipedia, the arXiv is “hosted and operated by Cornell University”, “currently funded by the Cornell University and by the National Science Foundation”. Of course, in that case you don’t need a fee from the contributors.

    One reason that the arXiv is free is probably that it isn’t properly peer-reviewed. So its costs must be pretty low.


  8. One reason that the arXiv is free is probably that it isn’t properly peer-reviewed.

    Which, in turn, is why journals in the areas covered by the arXiv are hardly in danger of disappearing. The important thing is that many people in those fields expect that by default, free copies of any article published in the last ten years or so can be found online — that the contents of the arXiv are a superset of the peer-reviewed literature.


  9. Declaration of Conflict of Interest: I am an editor of two ‘old-fashioned’ print journals owned by a commercial academic publisher (not one of the really greedy ones, tho – ie not Springer or Reed-Elsevier). I am writing the following strictly in my personal capacity, but in a reasonably informed one at that.

    1) Open-access is not in any meaningful way a free-for-all publishing activity insofar as authors have to find cash to publish. More often than not that’s impossible for folks in the humanities, for instance because research there frequently takes place without grant funding.
    2) Open-access (if we accept this misnomer, given that access is limited to authors with cash, or else their business model would sink) fails in many areas (but not in all) because the quality controls that are in-built when you’ve limited print ‘real estate’ are absent. Biomed central has journals that publish everything that is methodologically sound. The result is an ever growing deluge of inane research outputs dumped on open access servers. This inane content frequently forms the basis of submissions you’d receive from developing countries as access is free. So, instead of fighting for access to high quality content for folks in such places they frequently have to rely on suboptimal low-quality blurb from open access publications. Gives a new meaning to the term digital divide I suppose.
    3) Open access on-line only journals rely in the reliability of folks maintaining their servers, while any journals existing in print can be traced in libraries even if by a fluke a few of em burn down. I wonder whether the same can be said for on-line only journals. If my publishers goes bankrupt and nobody buys the journal, our past output is safely secured on library shelves the world all over. What is the on-line only equivalent to this? (In fact, there might be one, and I would be very interested in knowing what it is, in case someone who knows reads this.) I don’t even want to bother commenting on the idea that universities keep their faculty’s outputs on their servers. I would never entrust my academic output to any IT department (no hard feelings).
    4) Most commercial publishers these days offer open access alternatives to authors wanting to pay the open access fee. I find that preferrable, because of my concerns about the importance of the paper copy as a reliable historical record. To me that’s the best of both worlds, an in-print historical record and open access for those wealthy enough to cough up the ‘open access’ fee. There’s, of course, in-print papers like the PNAS that always charged even for in-print publications it accepted.
    5) Most commercial publishers run some kind or other of on-line early publication (complete with doi number). So that removes the quick turn-around advantage of on-line only open access.

    Having declared my Conflict of Interest, I should possibly also mention that my editorial work doesn’t pay me sufficiently to actually bias me in favour of that publishing model :). I just think many of the arguments floated in favour of open access are a tad bit rosetinted.


  10. Apologies for this post scriptum: I think it is true to say that these days the more decent among the academic publishing houses will permit authors to publish some version of their paper on their website (either a pre-print, frequently also the pdf’s tho). I think it is very much worth putting up a fight over this issue when the copyright forms come your way. There are so many precedents these days that it would be difficult for any publisher to just continue saying ‘njet’. I also think that simply putting up the pdf on your site and ignoring the copyright form has much to be said in favour of it. It is VERY unlikely that any publisher would go after you, they’re more concerned about their ability to potentially recycle your text and be able to charge for that, then about you using it on your website. I always put my pdf’s up on my site straight on the day of publication. Haven’t run into trouble once about this matter.


  11. Thank you for your thoughtful comments!

    I also happen to be an editor of two old-fashioned print journals, both quarterlies. Folkvett is non-academic, put out by an association with 2000 members and paid for by their membership fees. Fornvännen is a 102-year-old academic journal in the humanities which I believe is leading in its field. It’s put out by a wealthy old academy and has an annual subscription rate of SEK 200 / $31 / €22 / £15. Both Folkvett and Fornvännen publish their entire content on-line for free.

    1. Publishing on the net is cheap. Maybe you can’t afford the OA fee, but you can always get your stuff on-line and market it yourself on mailing lists and web forums.

    2. Most OA journals have editorial standards, you know. One reason they extract a fee is to be able to pay their editors. I’m not talking about free-for-all “repositories”.

    3. The arXiv is mirrored, i.e., there are several live copies of it on servers around the world. It could be argued that if something really bad happens and takes out all those servers at the same time, then humanity will have more pressing concerns than the availability of old physics papers. And besides, those servers are backed up daily.

    I have suggested for Fornvännen that once we’ve moved on-line in earnest, a home-made print run of 20 copies for the larger Scandy research libraries will be all the paper trail we’ll need. This would drastically lower the cost of producing the journal.

    Finally: you mention rose-tinted arguments for OA. But I think an important reason for OA’s attraction is not its own qualities, but the deficiencies of commercial paper publishing. If all scholarly paper journals cost $31 a year and put their stuff on-line for free, then there would be no OA movement.


  12. hey. I find this a pretty interesting discussion. Some years ago when a geologist friend told me that they had to pay by the page to publish I was appalled. In the Southeast US most peer-review state and regional archaeology journals go begging for articles to print. As you say at the outset, the most the writer can hope for is a free book for a review. The editors are generally in agency or academic positions and get little or nothing extra for editing the journals. The journals are quarterly, or more often, biannual. Some of the journals have a big lag–Arkansas in particular has been notorious for this, but it’s not the only one–because they can’t get enough material up to justify a printing. They cost as you mention $25-35, the association membership fee, but are sometimes (rarely) subsidized a little by contractors or agencies as well. Because of these issues, as well as limited print runs, I have gone to putting a lot of my research on my webpage, which costs me $30 a month in webhosting fees. I think my material is reaching more people, in the area of the article’s focus as well as (potentially) worldwide, than just my collegues this way. Finally, I have never had anybody shove a contract at me to publish an article or book review in a journal. None of our journals can afford a lawyer unless it is absolutely neccesary, and even then it is often an amateur archaeologist doing pro bono work!


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