Making Elsevier look good

For many years, Dutch publishing giant Elsevier has been a kind of bête noir for academic librarians, serving as principal whipping-post for the exorbitant price increases that have been strangling off the scholarly communications system for over 20 years. But the ground has shifted somewhat, and we have recently observed some academic press and scholarly societies – agencies whose mission is, putatively, to serve research and scholarship – adopt policies that make Elsevier look almost scholar-friendly.

We have recently witnessed the unseemly spectacle of two at least nominally university-related presses suing a university to try to narrow the scope of fair use for academics, calling out by name some of the very authors upon whom they depend for the content that fills the pages of their publications. Now another organization that is supposed to represent scholars, the American Psychological Association, has turned to bite the hand that feeds it.

First there were the threats to sue a major American university library for allegedly using too many examples from the “APA Manual of Style” in the teaching materials it creates to help students learn how to use that citation format. Since continued sales of the Manual depend on students being trained to use it and faculty assigning it, and since there are other nearly identical and completely substitutable style formats available, it is hard to see what these threats could hope to accomplish. Shutting down one’s principal market is a radical and unproductive way to protect one’s copyright.

Now comes the news that the APA is announcing that authors publishing articles in its journals that are based on NIH-funded research “should NOT” deposit their own works in PubMed Central as is now required by law. Rather, they will be required to pay APA $2500 so that the articles can be deposited by the publisher. Since there is virtually no cost associated with the mechanics of deposit itself, and the NIH policy allows an embargo on public availability of articles of up to one year in order to protect the traditional subscription market, it is hard to see what this policy is intended to accomplish other than to force an additional income stream out of the faculty authors who already provide the APA with free content. And there is heavy irony in the APA’s assertion that they can do this “as the copyright holder.”

APA is trying to put its own authors between the proverbial rock and a hard place, and it is behaving as if theirs is a non-competitive market. This is not, in fact, the case – only two of the top ten psychology journals in 2007, based on impact factor, were published by the APA, and one non-APA journal editor expressed pleased surprise at the new policy because it was sure to benefit those other journals. But for years our faculties have behaved as if they were, indeed, captive to specific journals. As scholarly societies are driven, apparently by fear and anger more than a realistic business strategy, to treat the authors on whom they depend with such contempt, one can only hope that this misperception will begin to change.

Two simple and specific messages need to be delivered over and over to our faculty authors if this dysfunctional and abusive system is to change.

First, they need to be reminded that they do have choices about where they publish their work; there is no logic in remaining loyal to a particular journal when the publisher of that title has clearly decide to place profit and self-interest above the well-being of the academy, the discipline, or its scholarly authors.

Second, regardless of where they publish their research, scholars should resist transferring copyright to journal publishers. APA can only tell scholarly authors what that can and cannot do with their work after they have received a transfer of copyright; up to that point they must negotiate, not dictate. Academic presses can only sue universities over e-reserves because they have been given the copyright in those scholarly works in the first place. To cut the Gordian knot that is plaguing our scholarly communications system, we need to make an exclusive right to publish for a limited time (with reservation of some negotiable authors’ rights within that period) the standard for scholarly publishing agreements. As the original owners of copyright, forcing that change is within the power of faculty authors.

NOTE — Half an hour after this post was published, the APA web page referenced above no longer carries the policy announcement and says simply that the page is under review. We shall have to wait and see what APA comes up with, but the two cardinal points mentioned herein remain valid and urgent.

2 thoughts on “Making Elsevier look good”

  1. Just seconding Kevin’s last two points — authors need to take control of their own rights instead of transferring them to the publishers. The last couple of “copyright agreements” that publishers have sent me, I’ve rewritten (so as to not transfer copyright or exclusive licensing rights) and then signed. It’s been working so far; I know of others who do likewise. SPARC has lots of suggestions for authors if one isn’t sure how to start. The publishers’ line that they have to have the copyright and exclusive licensing rights in order to publish and “protect” the work is nonsense; they primarily want those rights in order to protect their ability to profit from your work.

Comments are closed.