Extending the conversation: Academic publishing in the digital era

Yesterday, I shared a takedown notice I received from WordPress (who had been contacted by Elsevier) for a paper I posted on the Papers section of my website. The pdf was the final version of the paper, violating the publishing contract I had signed with Elsevier before publishing the paper. I removed the pdf and replaced it with a pre-press version. My reason for complying with the takedown notice was largely motivated by the fact that (1) I did sign a contract and (2) I am still able to share my research as long as I do not post the final, paginated versions.

Since yesterday, the post has been viewed over 400 times. It was a brief, quickly written post, mainly intended to share the takedown notice. But it appears that my experience, in combination with the Academia.edu takedown notices, is causing an uptick in conversation about academic publishing and open access, and I would encourage readers to continue the conversation here. While I am not an expert in open access, copyright law, or related issues, here are some of my initial thoughts (which I will update as the conversation evolves):

  1. A number of people have told me (primarily through tweets) that they disagree with my stance of “caving” to Elsevier. I understand the righteous anger people feel toward Elsevier and other publishing giants–Elsevier’s 2012 profits exceeded  £2.063 billion (see page 12 of their annual report). The products on which they largely generate revenue are “free”–the researchers who submit and publish their manuscripts are not compensated, nor are the reviewers who spend an often significant amount of time working to improve the quality of the research.
    That said, if I have signed a contract, I believe I should honor it. Going forward, I may change my behaviors (and I will discuss this below), but I cannot change my past behavior or alter the contracts I have already signed. One person who I interacted with through Twitter yesterday (@Protohedgehog) shared this article with me, and I generally agree with the sentiments shared in it: signing a contract with a publisher clearly transfers ownership to the publisher and most contracts clearly outline what versions you can use and share for your personal use. In most instances, you are allowed to post pre-print versions on your personal websites (see Elsevier’s policy), which is what I have done on my site. While there have been instances in which I or my coauthors have been inconvenienced in having to reformat a paper for posting online, there have generally been few issues with ensuring we are able to share our research with as wide an audience as possible.
  2. One of my colleagues today approached me and said he disagreed with my post and that he posts the final versions of his papers as an act of “civil disobedience.” Again, while I share others’ disagreement with many of Elsevier’s policies, when I asked him how he would respond to a takedown notice (assuming he had signed a contract saying he would not publish the final version), he was less than confident. For myself, I do not want to risk a RIAA-style witch-hunt (for a refresher, see this post by the Electronic Freedom Foundation).
  3. While I use this workaround as a way to share my research, I agree with many that academic publishing is deeply flawed and the academic community must be more active in trying to reform it. In my discussions with others on Twitter yesterday, several people noted that change needs to occur at multiple levels, including both on the corporate (publisher) side, as well as within academia itself. One point I noted yesterday was that young academics–PhD students and untenured professors–are often under greater pressure to publish their research in highly ranked journals, who also are typically run by companied like Elsevier. In fact, many universities’ tenure requirements list a set of journals assistant professors must publish in to obtain tenure, so these academics are constrained by their position. Does this mean that departments should reconsider how quality of work is evaluated–in other words, as @denzil_correa said, “A paper in X indicates quality. A paper not in X doesn’t indicate bad quality. Classic logical fallacy!”
  4. Oren (@OrenTsur) noted that people in this position can still choose to not review for Elsevier journals, even if they cannot participate in a full boycott such as the Cost of Knowledge boycott (which has more than 14,000 signatures). There is a significant moral dilemma here. On one hand, young researchers who still feel compelled to publish in these venues could start to get inferior reviews; this is contrary to my belief in my role as an academic involved in academic publishing, i.e., that we must strive to improve the quality of academic work by imparting/sharing our knowledge. On the other hand, refusing to review for these companies implicitly says that we will not stand for their practices. Which stance is better?
  5. The Cost of Knowledge boycott raises several other issues with these publishers, namely the high subscription charges, which are becoming increasingly burdensome to university libraries, as well as lack of access (without paying a ridiculously high fee) to individuals who do not have institutional access. If you are not familiar with these, you may want to read up on them. Here are some examples of articles on the boycott.
  6. Someone from Elsevier responded to my tweet with a link to Elsevier’s official comment on takedown notices and their options for hosting content. They stressed their open access policies, which for final versions run from $500-$5000. These policies are pretty standard, and I have only ever heard of a one academic paying the fee. Many academics are pushing for more open access issues within journals that are generally behind paywalls. For example, Zizi Papacharissi, editor of the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Journalism, opened the final issue of 2012 for one year (I know this because I have an article published in the issue). There are also highly ranked journals that are fully open access (the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication is an example), but these are few and far between. Discovering opportunities that allow researchers to make their research available in high quality journals without placing a cost burden on them should be a priority.

These are some of the issues that make up part of the current debate. There are more that I haven’t touched on. I encourage readers to add their thoughts and comments below.


3 thoughts on “Extending the conversation: Academic publishing in the digital era

  1. Pingback: Notice to academics: Be careful what (articles) you post online | jessica vitak, phd

  2. Thanks for the mention.

    I agree with your response to Elsevier – you signed a contract, you honor it. You can’t have it both ways. IMHO, these problems of “open access” is in most part a “Frankenstein Monster” created by us – the scientific community. Science and in particular science undertaken via public funds can’t afford to be embroiled in copyright and DMCA takedown issues.

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