Wednesday 28 September 2011

Academics v Publishers: Revolution in the air?

Following George Monbiot's scathing article in the Guardian last month, the subject of academic publishing has been weighed and been found wanting. Of course, librarians and academics have long known that journal publishers monopolise the market; even as much as ten years ago the larger publishers were busy buying out the smaller ones who weren't strong enough to compete with them. But outside of academia people are largely unaware of the struggles every electronic resources librarian faces each year as budgets shrink and journal bundle prices steadily increase. Tough decisions often have to be made, and naturally the impact is felt by researchers, academics and students.

Which is why today's announcement that Princeton University is enforcing an Open Access policy forbidding academics from transferring the copyright in their articles to journal publishers is so significant. Academics are required to licence their work instead, so that they retain the copyright and are therefore able to reproduce it elsewhere without having to seek the permission of the publisher. This could spark a welcome trend which would allow academics and universities to maximise their outputs and revolutionise knowledge sharing.

Certainly in the UK, where most universities now have institutional repositories which host research outputs (scholarly articles written by their academics), this trend would be welcome and would resolve numerous difficulties in attempting to interpret publisher policies. Part of the problem is that academics are often unaware of the terms they agree to when they sign a Copyright Transfer Agreement (for an example see here). Yet even when they are aware, academics often don't have time to negotiate licence agreements with publishers as they are under pressure from their institution and/or funding body to publish. Most of the larger publishers either do not allow a version to be deposited in the repository or are very specific about the version which can be deposited, and attempting to contact publishers for permission is usually incredibly difficult if not impossible. And whilst organisations such as SHERPA/RoMEO provide a useful source of information on publisher policies, policies are changing all the time and it is difficult to maintain up-to-date records. Recent woes include publishers moving to automated systems which invoice funding bodies and universities directly for open access; these sorts of issues cause headaches for repository managers and copyright officers alike.

This is is not to decry the value of academic publishing, and indeed it has been interesting to read reactionary pieces and comments to the Monbiot article (including from the publishers themselves) which indicate moves afoot in the publishing world. But what is increasingly obvious is that the current mainstream system cannot continue forever; something's got to give, and one wonders whether Princeton has just thrown down the gauntlet to universities everywhere...

Photo from Flickr: Princeton University by Yakinodi (CC-BY 2.0)


Crosbie Fitch said...

By a process akin to stimulated annealing we are converging towards copyright abolition, in effect if not in legislation.

Locking up our knowledge, culture, and technology to enrich a few monopolists is inescapably counter-productive, however much we repeat the mantra that the opposite is true.

Guy said...

The present system of copyright for academic publications creaks. The author of a paper published in 1945 gave me the reference and I ordered a copy from the British Library (BL). BL was unable to supply the copy as the present owners of the journal reserved the sole right to supply copies. I wrote to the owners of the journal but they said they were unable to supply a copy of the article I needed as it was so old. Finally I ordered the bound volume at BL and quietly copied the article myself using the library's copying facilities!

Roberto Di Cosmo said...

Well done! This goes in the direction of the precise suggestions for action made in 2006 in the article " Scientific Publications: The Role of Public Administrations in The ICT Era", available freely from