I hope I will be forgiven some self-promotion if I point out that my first book (that’s a little like saying my “first” marriage – so far it is the only one, and no other is anticipated, but one should never say never) has just been published. It is a handbook of intellectual property designed specifically to address the needs and concerns of researchers and teachers, and it was published on December 10 by the Association of College and Research Libraries. It is available for purchase on the ALA Store site here. There is also a PDF made available under a Creative Commons Attribution/Non-commercial license on the ACRL site. I also expect to have a PDF in the DukeSpace institutional repository soon.
As a last piece of book promotion, I will note the blog post about the book on the Author’s Alliance web site, which was largely written by me.
All that aside, the real purpose of this post is to tell the story of publishing this book, because I think it is instructive for thinking about scholarly communication today. If I had to start with a moral for the whole story, it is that I should have started with the librarians, because they are a group — the ACRL was wonderful to work with — that can publish in the way most consistent with academic values and needs.
The story begins when I was contacted in 2009 by an editor for the University of Chicago Press, who suggested that I should write a handbook on IP for scholars. I was immediately interested, and, at the editor’s request, wrote first a proposal and then drafts of the first two chapters. Those chapters were sent out for review and we received both helpful suggestions and a recommendation to continue to develop the book from three reviewers. With that step complete, the U of C Press and I signed a contract in late 2010, and I set out on a long and difficult journey to finish and publish the book.
The writing process took me considerably longer than I expected; no surprise there, of course. When I apologized to my editor I was assured that it was OK; they would be interested in the project, they said, whenever it was complete. During this time, however, I got the first indications that this would not be a smooth relationship. I sent in chapters as I finished them, as the editor encouraged me to do, but did not get any of the promised feedback as I progressed. For a couple of years I was essentially writing in a vacuum.
I finished writing in March 2013 and, in May of that year, finally sent the Press the completed draft of the manuscript, which they sent out for review. The Press’ policy is that they must have two reviews of the full manuscript that recommend publication before they refer the book to their board for a final thumbs up. So I began to wait. After six months I checked in and was told that the Press had sent the manuscript to three reviewers. One had sent in a report with a recommendation to publish. One had reviewed just two chapters of the book, asserting that they were only qualified to comment on a portion of the subject matter. The editor had not yet heard from the third reviewer, and without two full review that recommended publication, they could not move ahead. The editor told me that the third reviewer would be reminded and that the Press would also look for an alternate reader.
Five months after this, having still heard nothing, I inquired again. My e-mail went unanswered. A second e-mail did elicit a response, which was that they were still waiting for that third reviewer. There was no sign they had ever sought that additional reader.
At this point I was pretty frustrated. Five people had read at least part of the manuscript, and all had recommended publication. All of them had also made really helpful suggestions for improving the text which I tried to adopt. But the U. of C. Press was still passively waiting for that one final reader so they could comply to the letter with their self-created rules. What bothered me most was the apparent lack of effort and commitment I was getting from the Press. After talking with several academic authors about my situation, I decided to withdraw the book from the U of C Press.
When I told my editor about this decision, the first reaction was to try to talk me out of it and ask me to have patience. The second reaction was to remind me of our contract and to suggest that I had no alternative but to wait it out with the U. of C. In response, I suggested two concessions from them that would make the waiting easier. First, I asked (for the first time, I am embarrassed to admit) for some form of open access to a version or a part of the book. Second, I asked to be paid half of the advance we had agreed on as a sign of the Press’ commitment to the project. I was told, however, that the first request was impossible because they needed to protect potential sales for the book, and that the second was contrary to their policy. In regard to the latter issue, I was pointed to specific language in my contract about when the advance would be paid. So I looked. It turns out that the contract language was actually different from what the editor told me it was. It stated pretty clearly that I would be paid the advance when I sent in the manuscript, not, as I had been told, only when and if the board approved final publication. I have no idea why the contract language was what it was, or if it was really different from what the editor thought it should be. I had not changed or negotiated that part of the agreement back when it was signed. Maybe the Press just figured that no one will read their contracts, so they could claim whatever they wanted about them.
Anyway, I brought this discrepancy to the attention of my editor. That was the last contact I ever had with that person. A few days later I got an e-mail from the Director of the Press, apologizing to me for the treatment I had received and confirming that the Press had breached our contract by not paying the advance in a timely fashion. I was told that I would be released from the contract AND that the Press would still pay the advance I was owed. Over the next few weeks, we signed a formal letter releasing me to publish the book elsewhere and I received a check for the long-delayed advance.
On the plus side of this relationship, I did get quite a lot of very helpful feedback for my manuscript from the readers (although, of course, I am solely responsible for whatever errors remain). Also, when faced with the clear evidence that they had not lived up to their side of the bargain, the Press did the right thing (maybe just to get rid of me!). But on the negative side, I got almost no help from the editor in actually developing the manuscript, the “management” of peer-review was lackadaisical, and I wasted over a year after the book was finished waiting for the Press to get its act together before I asserted my freedom to start looking for another publisher.
After this experience, I spoke to one other commercial publisher, and this time made the expectation of an open access copy a condition from the beginning. That led to a very short conversation. So finally I did what I should have done from the start — work with the ACRL. That experience was smooth, collaborative, and focused on the best way to make my work serve the needs of the audience it was intended for. The ACRL arranged for excellent and expeditious copy-editing and indexing. They agreed to immediate open access for the entire book. When there was a problem with the first print run of the book, the ACRL took immediate responsibility and re-printed the whole run. The process took less than six months from signing a contract to publication.
From this experience I take away three lessons, which I think are worth sharing. First, the claims about how much effort publishers put into a new book, and the help they provide to authors, are at least sometimes exaggerated. I was working with a prestigious university press on a book they had solicited in the first place, and yet did not get nearly the kind of assistance or interest that I sometimes hear promised. Second, it is extremely important to read, negotiate and save a copy of the publication contract. That my book is now in print is largely due, I believe, to the fact that I could go back to the actual language of our agreement in order to convince the U. of C. to release me to find another publisher. And finally, as I said at the beginning, libraries and library organizations, in my experience, understand the needs and goals of scholarly authors better than commercial presses. As the future of academic publishing unfolds, I strongly hope that more and more of it will be in the hands, or under the oversight, of libraries.
Because they were spaced almost a full year apart, I really did not connect the dots when two Canadian universities announced that they were cancelling their “Big Deals” with John Wiley & Sons publisher. The Times Higher Education reported on the decision at the University of Montreal back in January 2014, while the announcement made by Brock University came only a few weeks ago. I would not have considered this a trend worth commenting on had it not been for conversations I had last week at the Fall CNI Membership meeting. During that meeting, two different deans of large university libraries told me, unbidden and in separate conversations, they they were also considering ending their deal with Wiley. I was struck by the coincidence, which caused me to remember these two announcements from Canada and to begin to ponder the situation.
Two different questions occurred to me when I thought about these four significant cancellations or potential cancellations, all directed at a single publisher. First, why was Wiley the focus of this dissatisfaction? Second, what is the next step?
As for what the complaints are about Wiley, the answer is pretty much what it always is — money. The THE article and the Brock University report both tell us that exchange rates have made the annual “higher than the inflation rate” price increases for these packages even harder to bear than usual. They also point to another problem. Pricing is based on the large number of titles included in these package deals, but many of those titles are not very useful. The Brock post notes that the Wiley package has a significantly higher cost per use than does their Elsevier package, which presumably reflects the fact that many of the titles the University is paying for in the package simply do not get used. The same reality is probably behind the fact noted by THE that Montreal would subscribe to less than 25% of the titles that had been included in the package it was cancelling. It would be interesting to find out, a year on, how much those other titles have been missed.
In my conversations with the two library deans, much the same thing was said about Wiley — demanding a large price increase, being inflexible in negotiation, and selling “a lot of junk that I don’t need” in the package. Libraries are beginning to discover that they do not need to put up with those tactics. Publishers often tell us that they are publishing so many more articles, which justifies their price increases, and they tell us how selective their flagship journals are. But when we look at these big deals, it is clear that selectivity is not an across-the-board approach; many articles that are not very useful just slide down the hierarchy to get published in journals whose main purpose is to pad out a “big” deal.
To me the more important question is “what now?” Unfortunately, many times when a library makes this kind of decision there is actually little money saved, since the funds simply go into re-subscribing to a smaller, selected list of titles from the same publisher. But presumably some of these cancellations result in dollars saved. And when they don’t, I propose that libraries ought to reexamine their approach. When you have cancelled a dross-laden package, think twice before reinvesting all of that money in as many individual subscriptions from the same publisher as possible; make a careful decision about where the division between useful titles and unnecessary ones really lies. Because here is the thing — money that can be saved and reinvested in open access projects will give us a higher return on our investment, because those projects will provide greater access.
It seems clear that, over time, libraries will need to move more and more of their spending away from the consumption side of scholarly production and do much more to support the creation and dissemination of knowledge directly. Commercial publishers hope to capture those dollars as well, but one of the real benefits of supporting open access can and should be more freedom from businesses addicted to 30% profits. I would like to challenge libraries to consider, when they have to cancel, using the money to support non-profit or lower profit open access projects. Work with a society to provide subvention for a scholarly journal to become OA. Work with your university press to support OA monographs. Finally, even if not compelled by immediate budget realities, think about making some strategic cancellations in order to take these kinds of steps. We know that open access is our future, and it is vital that we take control of that future before others take it from us.
I don’t know if Wiley is the worst offender amongst the large commercial publishers, or whether there is a real trend toward cancelling Wiley packages. But I know the future of scholarship lies elsewhere than with these large legacy corporations. The process of weaning ourselves from them will be slow and drawn-out. But especially when the cancellations are going to happen anyway, we should have the idea of using the funds to advance the transition to open access foremost in our minds.
For a similar, but likely better informed, perspective on the idea of cutting subscriptions to support open access, please read Cameron Neylon’s post on “Letting it go — Cancelling subscriptions, funding transitions,”which ties the idea in his title to the discussion going on in the Netherlands about Elsevier’s big deal.
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