Author's rights and the community

Tue 20 Mar 2007 08:23 PM

Last week, I attended a session on 'Copyright for Scholarly Authors.' Listening to the spiel, it occurred to me that there was an unresolved tension in the rhetoric.

Academic journals typically require an author to sign over rights to an article before they'll publish it. In addition to squeezing university libraries for subscription fees, the press can profit from reprint and archival rights. Many publishers have become more flexible on this point, but others (primarily corporate presses) are milking the system for everything they can get.

The situation is becoming untenable. University libraries are cutting back on subscriptions because they simply cannot afford them all. Once a journal becomes expensive enough, it can make sense to ask for specific articles by inter-library loan rather than subscribe to the journal; but that strategy only works if there is still a lending library somewhere that subscribes to the journal. Something has to give.

OK, but looming disaster is neither a principled reason nor does it point to the solution. There are two principled rationales for changing the system. Both are appealed to by various revolutionary parties, but they are fundamentally incompatible.

First: An academic author owns the copyright on an an article after he writes it, as recognized by law. Since academic journals rely on the free labor of scholars as authors and referees, there is no reason for authors to sign over those rights to the journal. The publisher does add some value, but the scholar gets more from the kudos associated with having a peer-reviewed article accepted than from the other services of the publisher. (Having someone copy edit my prose is good, but not every journal bothers. Appearing in print is nice, but most articles are not widely read. Professionally, the line on my CV is the biggest incentive.)

Second: Academic work is supported by public and educational funds. This is especially true in the sciences, where work is often funded by government or philanthropic grants. Even my work is supported by the state, insofar as it is part of my job to do some research or other. As such, academics are ethically obligated to disseminate the results of their work as widely as possible.

Both these rationales motivate rejecting the traditional model of academic publishing. If published journals are not Open Access, then authors ought to be able to put preprints in Open Access repositories.

I think it is obvious that authors ought to be able to make articles available in some Open Access way. But must they? Here the two rationales disagree. The first insists on authors' rights over their own work, and so must allow that authors may legitimately refuse to allow their work to be deposited in Open Access repositories. The second would find this anathema.

Regardless of how we settle that score, reprint rights are even trickier. If we say that the results of research must be disseminated as widely as possible, then what do we say when a commercial publisher wants to include an article in a collection or textbook? Should the article be free? Should the publisher be required to make a small payment to support Open Access repositories? Should the author or journal be able to set the price or conditions?

Unresolved tension aside, the session gave me something else to think about: I have tried to submit papers to journals with relatively permissive publication agreements. Nevertheless, I have ended up with some papers in more restrictive journals. In those cases, I have gritted my teeth and signed the journals' publication agreements. I now realize that I could have amended or rewritten the agreement. Journals may want unlimited, exclusive rights, but they can publish with something short of that. Now I know that journals may be willing to dicker on the details, so I'll try it next time.

UPDATE: Peter Suber links to a paper which I think deals with the issue that vexes me. I cannot say for certain, however, because the final sentences of the abstract are linguannihilated doublespeak and the article itself is available to paid subscribers only.