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IP and OA: price and access in academic publishing

UPDATE: For a different comment thread on the same content posted here, see its mirror at Academicalism.

Read the fine print

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

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 San DiegoState U) offers only institutionally or individually subscribed print access, which seems positively medieval (I should write to them to request OA release for that essay).

UPDATE: U of Texas P has posted guidelines (yellowish, i'd say) for open access that aren't listed in SHERPA.

Follow the money

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.



  • Greed creeps in from everywhere, and academic institutions are becoming more and more business-like. A match made in hell, since knowledge should not have a price-tag and should rather be an open door through which anyone - regardless of economic status - can attain a higher quality of life.

    $30 is expensive for someone from North America, but most students outside the 'rich countries' would never have the money to pay that kind of money for an article. What does that imply for the 'free' flow of information and knowledge around the globe?



    Eben Van Renen November 11, 2013 - 10:01am

  • I agree that universities are becoming more corporation-like, and have been doing so since the '90s at least, under the political pressures of neoliberalism (a.k.a. free-market fundamentalism). However, let's be sure to distinguish between universities, whose teachers and researchers write and submit articles and books as part of their job description (i.e. for no additional pay beyond salary), and academic publishers, which produce and publish the journals and books. As demonstrated by the blog post above - and by the academic boycott of the publisher Elsevier - academic institutions have found themselves increasingly in tension and conflict with academic publishers. Many academics have joined that boycott, or otherwise embraced Open Access publishing, in opposition to the demonstrated greed of certain large and established academic publishers, whose policies and fees are increasingly seen by many academics to be obstructing rather than enabling the distribution and sharing of knowledge. The publishers, not the universities, are setting those exorbitant per-article costs.

    (Not that universities aren't guilty of raising fees and tuition all the time, when free-tuition models of university education have historically provided education of just as good if not better quality ... but that's another story.)

    Mark A. McCutcheon November 11, 2013 - 1:46pm

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