Friday, September 29, 2006

Greed and Buffoonery in Academic Publishing

I agreed to a really crappy business deal today.

For a long time, academic journals from commercial publishers have grown in number and become more and more expensive. Individual scholars can no longer afford subscribing to them at all, and most research libraries have to prioritise strictly when choosing which ones to take. There is a successful resistance movement against these tendencies, Open Access publishing on the net. But culture changes slowly, and commercial journals are still indispensable reading in many fields of inquiry.

Last spring, Cornelius Holtorf at the European Journal of Archaeology kindly offered me a review copy of Martin Carver's massive publication on the excavations at Sutton Hoo in the 80s and 90s. I accepted gladly, I got the book, and recently I read enough of it that I could write a review. Great book on heroic fieldwork, I'm glad to have it. So far, so good.

You never get paid for writing in academic journals. Scholars and journals have a symbiotic relationship where one could not survive without the other. We feed the journals material, and they feed our CVs. A review copy of an expensive book is all the tangible remuneration you can hope for as a contributor. But in this case I had to pay to get my review published.

"Author pays" is a common funding model for Open Access journals. The idea there is that instead of paying exorbitant prices for journal subscriptions, university departments will pay a sum to the OA journal when it accepts a piece of work by one of the department's staff for publication, and the work will then be disseminated for free. But the European Journal of Archaeology isn't OA. It's a commercial product put out by Sage Publications.

After I had written and submitted the review, Sage informed me that in order to print the piece they need me to cede my copyright to them. They try to sweeten the deal by allowing me to use the text in certain ways (including putting it on-line at my web site) once a year has passed after the publication of the piece. But still, what they're saying is that they don't just want to borrow my stuff and print it once for free, like a civilised journal: they want me to give them my stuff for free and then they will lend it back to me under certain controlled circumstances.

This is really silly. Because the piece of intellectual property we're discussing here is not the new Beyoncé record or Harry Potter novel. It's 1400 words of scholarly prose about a book with an estimated readership of maybe 200 people in the whole world. There's no way for Sage to make any money out of owning the copyright. But they will own it once I mail the contract. And I will mail it, because I mildly want to publish in the EJA, and I don't want to cause the unhappy reviews editors trouble. And finally, I understand how little the copyright on this thing is worth. But I find it aggravating that Sage are willing to alienate contributors over such a small value.

I wonder what Sage would do if I broke the contract and, say, put the review on-line the minute the journal was published. It would almost be worth the hassle if they sent lawyers after me over such a pittance, just to see them make fools out of themselves. But I guess all that would happen would in fact be that no more review copies be sent my way from that particular journal. And I guess I could probably live with that too.

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Blogger cornelius.holtorf said...

Martin, your point is very valid. All the power to Open Access journals! I am a strong supporter of non-commercial publication myself.

Why do I work (for free) for a SAGE journal? Because I like to support the European Association of Archaeologists which controls the content of that journal. And I like the fact that I can get usually overpriced books for free and pass them on to people like yourself who like to read them and write about them. By the way, we are very happy to give special attention in the review section to open access or other non-commercial publications (as long as they are any good).

Having said that, copyright restrictions are increasingly tight in the academic publishing business (since it is an increasingly competitive market) and SAGE's conditions are actually not all that bad, compared with others. It is not true of course that you are asked to actually pay any money to publish in the EJA (as you wrongly imply). But for SAGE there is money even in one little review, since taken together all these small contributions together make entire (overpriced) journal issues and even each one individually is already (or will soon be) available for purchase on a webpage near you.

But because of that increasing competitiveness in academic publishing I am quite sure that you could often get free review copies even for a discussion of the book on an established webpage like your blog. Do try! I guess it may not look as "impressive" on your CV but you will probably agree with me that it is wrong to invest too much in (academic) appearance anyway.

Just for the record: you will not "cause the unhappy reviews editors trouble" by not submitting your contract. Our loyalty lies with our authors not with some multinational publishing companies. Commercial publishers need us more than we need them, I am quite sure of that.

In my experience, the worst that can happen if you publish online simultaneously is that they ask you to remove it. Precisely that happened to me once (not SAGE related) but only because somebody else (who did not like my paper) pointed the publisher directly to it. So it's entirely up to you!

Cornelius Holtorf, Reviews Editor, European Journal of Archaeology

29 September, 2006 23:27  
Blogger Martin said...

It is curious that the increasing competition on the academic journals market is not leading to lowered prices. But maybe it is, actually, if we look on OA as part of that market. And if so, then commercial publishers represent a species that's finding it hard to compete. Survival of the fittest.

I believe that investing in one's academic appearance (and visibility) is absolutely crucial if you want to survive as an academic. You, Cornelius, being successful, are a good example. But in later years I have come to realise that although necessary, academic appearance is not sufficient in itself to secure anyone an academic livelihood. It's actually equally important to have contacts , old mentors and co-students, or you will never get a job. It used to be "publish or perish", and now it's more like "publish and perish anyway".

(I'm starting a new job on Monday. I got it through my old mentors...)

As for causing trouble for the editors, I believe that it would at least temporarily be a problem if all the EJA's contributors made a stink about Sage's demands. But it would sort itself out once Sage realised that there was no material available for the journal.

30 September, 2006 09:14  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Online free journal in theoretical computer science:

Very interesting story on how this came to be and the ideas of Donald Knuth who literally provided the publishers with their typesetting tools for mathematically oriented texts.

/Douglas Wikström

30 September, 2006 10:51  
Blogger Hans said...

I really dislike the new trends of intellectual property being more and more tightly guarded and hoarded, whether it's in situations like this, the flat-out lies told about filesharing or the insidous DRM popping up increasingly often.

30 September, 2006 17:35  

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