IP and OA: price and access in academic publishing

Having just signed a copyright agreement with Taylor & Francis (one of the Anglophone world’s biggest academic publishers), I was pleased to see some provisions for noncommercial and educational sharing. I wouldn’t call them optimal provisions, but better than some — so they’re good to see in such a big publishing conglomerate.

It’s always critically important to read an academic publishing copyright agreement, even in cases where there’s zero remuneration (which is, for articles, quite a lot of them, in my experience). What’s especially important to scrutinize is the agreement’s provision for open access. Fugitive philosopher Tobias van Veen found out the hard way that one publisher’s failure to hold up its end of a contractual agreement to perpetual accessibility didn’t prevent it from sending a cease & desist on discovering he’d taken it upon himself to ensure access, afer the journal in which his work was published had been unaccountably disappeared. (Undaunted, he has since counter-filed against the publisher.)

If the agreement doesn’t seem clear enough, refer to the publisher’s listing in the SHERPA/RoMEO database, which describes the open access (OA) policies of most academic publishers today, big or small. This is a very useful database: it uses a colour-coding system to clearly indicate how free an academic author may or may not be to make one’s research publicly accessible in an institutional repository like AU Space. The open access to research that such repositories afford is, itself, important as academic culture increasingly prioritizes public outreach, accountability, and “knowledge mobilization.” For individual researchers, open access represents an opportunity to reach a potentially much wider audience than individual or institutional subscribers. It occurs to me that greater awareness of OA and IP among academic authors could eventually affect how journals are ranked — not just according to a traditional ideal of specialist prestige, but perhaps also according to an emerging ideal of public service.

Open access is far from being evenly or widely adopted among publishers, to be sure. Many academic publishers not only charge subscription fees for institutions to catalogue journals, but also charge purchase fees for individual articles. And now, as open access gains momentum, some publishers are now “offering” to provide open access for an article — if the author pays them a premium to do so.

What’s with scholarly journal economics: most pay $0 to publish article; charge $30 to buy it; & now, with Open Access, want authors to pay?

To take stock of my own publication record in the context of IP and OA. Counting the article for which I’ve just assigned copyright, I’m looking at thirteen refereed articles. Three are in OA journals (of otherwise uncertain rank): Socialist Studies, Borrowers & Lenders, and Post-Identity. Two for Canadian Theatre Review paid actual money — and both are publicly accessible (one via an individual arrangement; the other, as I’ve just discovered, via the publisher, as promotional content).

As for the accessibility of publishers I’ve printed works with: Cambridge UP and Rodopi rank with SHERPA/RoMEO as “green” publishers (most accommodating of OA); U of Toronto P and Taylor & Francis as “yellow” (somewhat accommodating); and Liverpool UP as “white” (less accommodating). Of the publishers not listed in SHERPA/RoMEO: two (U of Texas P and West Chester U) offer institutionally subscribed electronic full-text access and print article purchase ($15 USD for a single article from Texas; $20 for a journal issue from West Chester); and, lastly, one independent publisher (at the U of San Diego) offers only institutionally or individually subscribed print access, which seems positively medieval (I should write to them to request OA release for that essay).

Some of the bigger publishers also offer purchase “options” for non-subscribers or readers without access to university libraries: my U of Toronto Quarterly article sells for $13 USD from U of Toronto P; my Popular Music article, for $30 USD from Cambridge; and my Science Fiction Film & TV article, for $35 USD from Liverpool.

Don’t mistake this post for solicitation or advertisement. I’m not expecting any royalties on these — and actually, I wonder who would spring for them? (I also wonder where the money goes.) I should also say that I’m not especially concerned to get paid by publishers for research articles. It’s a nice bonus when it happens, but writing research is part of my full-time job description already. And the terms on which many publishers provide personal and educational exemptions for contributors and repositories are adequate and fair. I certainly don’t intend to stop publishing with academic presses (if they’ll have me, after this post). I’m mostly concerned, here, about these variable costs and means of public access to refereed research. And the initiative by some publishers to charge authors a premium for rendering their own work openly accessible is a highly questionable practice (it smacks ever so slightly of vanity publishing). So when you read the fine print of a copyright agreement, do so as though it’s under a microscope, or facing a hot bright interrogation lamp.

Cross-blogged from the AU Landing

2 responses to “IP and OA: price and access in academic publishing

  1. The way in which some academic publishers treat Open Access is reminiscent of the way in which monasteries treated the printing press.

    It’s worth nothing that what is at stake here is really Journal publishing. Academic authors get paid something for their books, even if not much, and we all accept that books must be purchased. (A side tangent here: how the book industry fought Amazon’s $9.99 ebook price, and is now setting their own, often far and above the print prices—so as to kill off the digital book market! That the book market has learned nothing from the futile battles the music and film industry industries fought in trying to suppress digital distribution, including, in a similar scenario, the fight against 99 cent downloads on iTunes, etc., blows the mind. iTunes won: we now have 256kpbs Mp4 without DRM for 99 cents. Eventually that will be Apple Lossless / FLAC.)

    As for Journals, the entire idea of an academic Journal is to disseminate cutting edge research in a timely fashion. However, for most purposes books have long since bested most Journals in this goal. Books are more widely accessible for all and can be produced faster. It would appear that academics who are at all decent writers go direct to book publishing; it takes less time; the book is far more accessible; it brings in some revenue; there’s less browbeating in the peer-review department; and it’s worth more on the CV.

    That Journals charge hefty fees for articles and subscriptions ensures that they are read only by those with University library access. This is a small percentage of a potentially much larger market. I still don’t understand Journals that delay digital publication by 12 months to their University subscribers. The idea that one Journal copy is sufficient for an entire University is downright laughable. The idea that students are going to go to the Library to hunt down that one elusive Journal article is also a relic of the 20th century. Researchers everywhere are defaulting to whatever is downloadable. Just look at the Works Cited in most essays in the various Humanities. Why Journals don’t offer articles for a $2.00 download fee, even, blows the mind.

    Quantity is the name of the game with digital distribution. A mix of Open Access and cheap pricing. Many presses that own Journals are sitting on a wealth of archives that are rarely accessed.

    Journals are, in short, pricing themselves to the grave in their current format.

    Likewise, charging authors for open access to their work is extortion. No author should agree to this. Such practices should be outright refused. Open Access is the default state of all knowledge. If Journals head in this direction, the answer is simple: start your own Journal, use OJS or equivalent Open Access Journal software and practices, and establish better and newer conventions for the 21st century and beyond.

    Thus, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture

  2. academicalism

    Just yesterday, The Guardian ran a fierce op-ed on this issue:

    Academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose.

    Monbiot, George. “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist.” The Guardian 29 Aug. 2011.

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