The Ridiculous Copyright Situation Faced By Academics Who Want To Promote Their Own Research

from the don't-ask,-don't-tell dept

Ed Kohler points us to a long, but fascinating blog post, by Stuart Shieber, a CS professor at Harvard, discussing the somewhat ridiculous copyright situation that many academics deal with in trying to promote their own works. I’ve heard similar stories from other professors I know, but this one is worth reading. Shieber points out the importance of academics getting their research published in journals, but how annoying it is that most journals require those academics to give up all sorts of rights — including the right to distribute their own research on their websites. However, he notes that most published academics simply ignore this rule, and you end up with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Even though they’re legally prevented from putting up a PDF of their work on their website, they do so anyway, and journals just look the other way.

Shieber, however, finds this situation to be a bad thing, and instead adds an amendment that at least grants him the right to publish his own research on his own website. It seems pretty ridiculous that this should even be an issue at all. He notes that most journals haven’t had a problem with this — which is surprising, but good to hear. He did run into one publisher, however, who fought him on it, and after lots of back and forth, his paper was pulled. The reasoning that the journal gave didn’t make much sense, and Shieber shows how wrong they are (for example, they claim that if professors published the works on their website, demand for journal subscriptions would go down — but Shieber did a quick look, and found that about 80% of those who published in the same journal had posted the content anyway, and it hadn’t killed off the journal, so arguing against him seemed pointless). Eventually, he was able to convince the journal to change its policies and got his paper published, but it delayed publication for a while.

It’s really unfortunate that journals still think that locking up such content makes sense. The idea that researchers shouldn’t be allowed to share their own research with the world because some journal needs artificial scarcity for its business model is something that needs to be put to rest.

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Comments on “The Ridiculous Copyright Situation Faced By Academics Who Want To Promote Their Own Research”

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Kenton Hutcherson (profile) says:

The Other Side...

I would agree with you that professors should be able to publish their own articles on their own websites, but I can completely understand the journals’ position.

Most of these journals are run on a shoestring budget by other academics who volunteer a ton of time. Any revenue from the reproduction of their content (including revenue from online subscription services like LexisNexis) is critical to their ongoing existence.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: The Other Side...

Most of these journals are run on a shoestring budget by other academics who volunteer a ton of time. Any revenue from the reproduction of their content (including revenue from online subscription services like LexisNexis) is critical to their ongoing existence.

Wait, what? Unlike any other publication, these journals don’t have to pay reporters or editors… they get academics to PAY them to get published, and they get peer review FOR FREE and then they charge tons of money for subscriptions.

I’m not sure how you can talk about their shoestring budget when their whole setup is so much better than pretty much any traditional publication.

Besides, if you read the actual article, you’ll realize that their position doesn’t make any sense anyway. They claim they can’t allow professors to put their work on their website since it will harm subscription rates, but a huge percentage of academics put it up anyway, and it hasn’t harmed subscription rates.

So… how is the journals’ position defensible?

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Shouldn’t the title of this post be “The Ridiculous Contract Situation Faced by Academics…”?

I don’t think so. It’s copyright that is allowing this situation to occur. It’s copyright that is giving the journals cover to tried to control the rights to content way beyond what is reasonable.

It’s because the journals are so focused on the copyright crutch that they think they need such “ownership.” So, I would argue that it’s very much copyright that is the problem.

Overworked Grad Student says:

Publish or perish isn’t just some cute phrase used in academia. If you want to make tenure you either publish prolifically or bring in tons of money (preferably both). Patents are of course icing on the cake.

Where you publish is also of importance. Most professors don’t think twice about giving up their rights to get into a respected journal.

I’m not sure what’s more annoying, loosing the rights to anything I produce and having to put my professor’s name on anything I publish or having to pay 2-3x market value for just about anything.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Why is it that every post on this website follows the same formula?

1. Opinion (generally negative) about actions taken by a company/individual/what have you

2. Commenters pointing out that the company/individual is within their legal rights and thus the negative opinion is meaningless.

Did the original article say “write your local congressperson and demand regulation to stop this heinous practice by academic publications?” No, it didn’t. Of course what the publication is doing is legal. That doesn’t forbid discussion on whether or not it is a wise course of action.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Additionally, if you had read the article you would have noticed that the mechanism publications use to obtain exclusivity is assignment of copyright to the material. This obviously is more powerful than a simple contract stipulation as it allows the publication to prevent anyone from republishing the material, rather than simply the submitter.

Anonymous Coward says:

Actually, huge publishers run journals on the backs of academics who are not compensated by the publishers for their work. Don’t mistake this operation for “run on a shoestring budget by academics.” This would be like saying that Nike is run on a shoestring (pun intended) budget by sweatshop workers. The highest-quality journals, aka, peer-reviewed, require review by academics in the field. They don’t (typically) get paid to do this. So, on top of giving up your right to disseminate your OWN WORK for no remuneration, academics are also doing the labor of reviewing the articles for no remuneration. A double-whammy.

Michael L. Slonecker says:

This is a matter in no way unique to academia. It pertains as well in numerous other settings such as, for example, researchers within corporations seeking to have their work published in nationally/internationally recognized journals.

The solution does not involve “rocket science”. All it requires is that those desiring to publish papers make it clear to the journals that what the journals will receive is a non-exclusive license of appropriate dimensions…and nothing else. Of course, journals faced with this approach squawk and squeal, try to bluster with the veiled threat that the article may not be published because of the approach, etc., etc. Without naming names, I can identify several engineering journals who balked testily at the mere suggestion they would not “own” the associated copyrights.

Not once has an article not been published because such an approach was undertaken by me on behalf of the author(s)/corporation(s). A brief explanation of the approach and why the approach did not negatively impact the journal in any meaningful way was invariably sufficient to make the “problem” go away…never to return.

Steve R. (profile) says:

More than Silly

Since I am not in Academia, I don’t know how all the minutia works, especially with “publish or perish”. But to follow-up on David T. and Overworked Grad Student; I fail to see why academia needs these journals. Technology makes them superfluous.

The school library or the MIS department could have a website devoted to online scholarly journals. The research papers can be “published” on CDs and mailed out to who ever. Peer review can be accomplished electronically. So what is the point of publishing (on paper) works that can be stored, searched, researched, and exposed to the entire world population more efficiently on/by computers?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: More than Silly

“… I fail to see why academia needs these journals. Technology makes them superfluous.”

Answer: P+T (promotion and tenure) committees. They are packed with people who do not, and cannot, accurately determine the value of a given candidate’s research papers. So they count the number of papers in “good” journals. Hence the name “bean counter”.

Overworked Grad Student says:

Re: More than Silly

Anonymous is correct. Furthermore, most people old enough to be on a review committee–for which they must hold a tenured faculty position–barely know how to use a computer outside of the program or two they use to run models or analyze data, and if they do this internet business is still somewhat foreign to them.

For example:
When I started doing research the computer I was given was that of the person who had been doing work most similar to mine since all of his data was still on it, and this is not a rare occurrence. I don’t understand why. Data is easily transferred and copied. Sadly, the computer I’m working on is 7 years old now and getting a new one is proving very difficult.

I still find it hard to comprehend just how backwards some policies and practices are.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: More than Silly

Steve R. said, “I fail to see why academia needs these journals. Technology makes them superfluous.”

If it was simply about disseminating information, then you are right. But the issue is really about developing a consensus within the community on a given topic using the strength of peer review. It keeps the charlatans (most of them) at bay.

And you are right, like I mentioned, the information is not nearly as locked up as some seem to suggest. Many university libraries will get you any journal article you want for the cost of paper.

Steve R. (profile) says:

Re: Re: More than Silly

Anonymous wrote: “But the issue is really about developing a consensus within the community on a given topic using the strength of peer review.”

I agree, peer review is a must, I had written: “The research papers can be “published” on CDs and mailed out to who ever. Peer review can be accomplished electronically.”

Anonymous wrote: “Many university libraries will get you any journal article you want for the cost of paper.” These should all be available for download, no need for paper. Also saves on staff time by eliminating the need to find the hard-copy of the document, photocopying it, and putting it back.

See this link to Copyfraud by Jason Mazzone as a model to implement for “publishing” papers.

Even the US Federal Government is now making draft documents available on the web for public review and comment. Saves a lot of paper and postage!!!!! Here is a sample link to the Draft Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Richard says:


Journals are still needed at present because they provide a quality filter via peer review.

It has always been possible for fellow academics to get a copy of the paper. In the old days one created a “preprint” of the paper. Copies of the preprint were sent to about 50 major institutions – several of which then circulated regular lists of everything they received to a rather larger group. You could then get a copy of anything on the list by sending a “preprint request” to the originating institution. Post publication you could still get a reprint of the paper for free directly from the author – in fact the journals facilitated this by giving the author about 50 free reprints of his paper. (Many still do this actually!)

The web has taken over from the preprint/reprint system – and doesn’t harm the journals any more than the old system did. What the journals were trying to do with the copyright assignment is to prevent the same article being published in another journal – which is fair enough.
Going after authors who put material on their own websites is pointless anyway as the authors only signed away copyright in the actual text of the articles – not in the content of the work. All the author has to do to get around this is to create a different document for the website – many do this anyway – with the web document (unconstrained by journal page limits) being more complete and more up to date than the version in the journal.

Tom says:

It's not "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

The “Don’t Ask” part is right, but it’s not “Don’t Tell” because the papers are made publicly available to everyone on the internet and the search engines conveniently index the papers for easy access. It’s more like “Don’t ask and we’ll look the other way.” Also, any publisher trying to enforce copyright would be ostracised.

Amanda says:

A Reasonable Compromise

Government and academic institutions will subscribe to certain journals regardless of whether or not scientists post their individual published works online. I can’t think of single scientist who says, “Hot dog! Chad Mirkin’s posting his JACS article on his website, so I’m totally going to cancel my subscription!”

NIH has an open-access policy that mandates all peer-reviewed (NIH funded) research be available to the public. One proposed compromise has been to have an expiration date for the copyright, allowing everybody to view journals after a certain time, such as a month, a year, etc. It makes sense, which is probably why publishers hate it. 😉

copycense (profile) says:

Why don't professors actually negotiate?

One aspect of this issue that seems to have been missing is what responsibility authors have to preserve at least enough rights in their work so they legally can post a pre-print to their Web site, SSRN, or some other venue besides the print publication. The fact is that published work in traditional print journals does matter for promotion and tenure, and the publishers thus far have a lock on citation (i.e. their citation scheme is the “official” site, and therefore the work that corresponds to that cite is the “official” version). We have no problem with that.

But we think professors need to be more responsible and proactive about this matter. It’s not enough for professors to say “Oh, the publisher won’t let me publish a preprint online,” or “the contract says I can’t do it.” (The publishers will say they won’t allow it because an online version competes with the final version. That’s totally bogus, especially since the professor can’t get credit for the online, preprint version for promotion and tenure purposes: only the “official,” citable, final version counts.)

Professors will raise holy hell if they can’t get a specific type of notepad for a meeting, but they’ll cower to academic editors who say they can’t publish an unofficial, online preprint of an accepted article when (a) there’s no competition between the two, and (b) it may take as much as a year *from acceptance for publication* for a journal to publish the final version? It’s true this is a problem; it’s also true that too many professors have punked out and not stood up for their work or the rights associated with it.

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