Academic publishers and access to articles

This was posted to the crit-geog-forum list earlier today, in response to a suggestion that all list members refuse to sign standard journal copyright forms, retaining the rights to put their work online as open access immediately. The Science Commons website – – was mentioned as making this ‘simple’. Basically that site allows you to decide a few issues, input name, title, journal, etc. and gives you an addendum to add to your signing of the form. The message below is as I sent it to the list, although I’ve added in links in a few places. 

In response to Rebecca Kenniston, it would be interesting to see how publishers of journals reacted to somebody appending this to their copyright forms.

The Environment and Planning journals are published by Pion, who are a small, independent, publisher. Several people work for Pion – copyeditors, production people, etc. They pay for the journal managers that work with academic editors on each journal (and give editors a small honorarium). The costs of putting together these journals are, therefore, real. Publishers recoup those costs by charging subscriptions for the material, in print or online. We can argue that subscription costs are too high (they are), or that they don’t provide adequate recompense to editors, support the administrative work adequately etc. But publishers do incur costs.

Now some journals – ACME or Surveillance and Society, for instance – don’t work on that basis. They might get funding from other sources or rely on a great deal of unpaid labour. I co-edited the first four issues of Foucault Studies, which worked on a similar basis. As well as the academic editing I did copy-editing, and pdf layout. Colleagues did this too, and designed the website. It was a huge amount of work. Free to the authors and readers, yes, but certainly not without cost.

Now if everyone insists on adding exceptions to their publishing contracts, and putting things up online as free access immediately, why would publishers continue to do this work? If there is no incentive to pay for the subscription, then why would anyone do that? If publishers don’t make money, then I expect that they will not publish. But this is not to say they will not publish at all; rather they would be likely to refuse to publish that author’s piece. Note that the ‘addendum’ generated by that website requires the publisher to sign too. And given that most of the journals that your departments and universities want you to publish in, and, I suspect, that most people want to publish in, are run by commercial publishers, there would be a stand off.

Lest people think this is a simple defence of the status quo, let me suggest another way. There can be a compromise between locking a paper away behind a paywall and making it completely free access. The addendum in most of its forms is actually close to most, though not quite all, of the things that the Environment and Planning journals do already. Basically they allow some flexibility. They don’t have simple copyright forms for authors, but have a ‘licence to publish’. This gives some rights to Pion, and allows authors to retain some rights. Some excerpts:

Copyright remains yours but by signing this form, you (the author(s)) agree to grant Pion Ltd the exclusive right both to reproduce and/or to distribute your article (including the abstract) ourselves throughout the world in printed, electronic, or other medium…

You assert your Moral Right to be identified as the author(s), and we promise that we shall respect that right. Thus we will ensure that your name(s) is/are always clearly associated with the article, and, while you do allow us to make necessary editorial changes, we shall not make any substantial alteration to your article without consulting you.

You also retain the right to use the version of your article (provided you give full acknowledgement of the published original) as follows, as long as this does not conflict with our reasonable commercial interests:

4.1 For the internal educational or other purposes of your own institution or company; mounted on your personal or university web page; in whole or in part as the basis for your own further publications or spoken presentations.

4.2 In addition you may post a copy of the originally submitted article (a ‘preprint’) or a copy of the version of your article incorporating changes made during peer review (a ‘postprint’) to a free public institutional or subject repository, not sooner than one year after publication in the journal; any such copy must include the following notice:

“[Name of author(s), year]. The definitive, peer-reviewed and edited version of this article is published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, volume, issue, pages, year, [DOI] “.

4.2 might be more carefully worded, but it means – and have checked this with Pion and asked that it is clarified – that it provides the author the right to immediately post the paper open access, in the form it was originally submitted to the journal – i.e. without the editorial work, peer review and the copy-editing. This can be to a personal or institutional website, but not a repository. And one year later, an author can post the final version of the text, but not in the pdf form that was the result of the publisher’s production work.

That’s about as generous as any commercial publisher is likely to be, I suspect. Other than allowing the full article – in the journal’s own style – to be posted it provides the key elements of what seems to be wanted.

In addition, I’ve been using the journal’s blog to make some papers open access, at times. So if someone writes something for the blog – an interview, a reflection, etc. – we generally make the paper it links to open access. And then there is the recent virtual theme issue on ‘urban disorder on policing’ or the highlight papers, etc.

And many people make use of their own institutional on-line libraries – whose staff are usually very good at working out what can, and can’t, be put online, and when. In addition I have a page on my personal site that links to all the pieces of mine that are available either legitimately open access or that someone else has posted up. It’s also worth noting that authors are generally allowed to give copies of pdfs to their contacts, and I don’t think I’ve ever been refused when I’ve contacted an author to ask for a piece I’m finding it hard to access in another way. I’ve certainly never refused myself when an article has been requested

Anything more radical would really require something more fundamental to change. It would basically be saying that we don’t want the best journals to be ones published by commercial publishers. That may well be an aspiration to support. But to change that would require more than simply appending something to copyright forms.

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1 Response to Academic publishers and access to articles

  1. Pingback: George Monbiot on academic publishing | Progressive Geographies

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