why do we sign away our copyrights, again?

This isn’t the first time we’ve puzzled over the wacky world of academic journals, but was reading this  discussion of signing away copyright vs. licensing a journal to publish your article, the gist of which is that for this particular journal these are equally poor choices:

If I have signed away all rights as a condition of publication, the copyright becomes meaningless.

And, as much as I appreciate the tip about how to get a better deal from this one publisher, I began to wonder why we are stuck here at all. We are the editors, the editorial board, the authors of the articles, the book reviewers (and book authors), and we are also the consumers who buy the journals. Why on earth are we complicit with a system that requires us to sign away our copyright?

I am particularly miffed with myself, having just signed my own copyright away for my most recent publication. And I even more miffed at the Canadian Sociological Association, who owns the journal and presumably signed some contract that allows Wiley to hold all the copyrights of all of our work. When are we going to put a stop to this nonsense? And where do we begin?

15 thoughts on “why do we sign away our copyrights, again?”

  1. Since my impressions is that non-profit and open access publishers tend to be better with their copyright policies, here are a few things I do to promote legitimate open access:

    – Post our publications online on our webpages. Often technically illegal, but I’ve only gotten one take down notice for one of my articles so far (a letter with typos in it). This allows people to get easier access to pubs–especially since they are often automatically indexed by google scholar.

    – Consider doing less reviewer service for closed access and for-profit journals and more for legitimate open access and non-profit presses. As a reviewer, when asked to write reviews for for-profit or closed access journals, if I accept, I often put them on notice. I write a brief note at the beginning of my review telling the editor and authors that I will be less likely to review for this journal in the future and encourage the editor to convert their journal to open access and authors to submit to open access journals in the future.

    – Submit less of your own work to for-profit or closed access journals. See http://octavia.zoology.washington.edu/publications/BergstromAndBergstrom06.pdf for an explanation of why non-profit journals are a better bet. Also see http://www.eigenfactor.org/costeffectiveness.php for likely impact factor (technically eigenfactor) for dollars library has to spend for the article.

    – Try to cite open access and non-profit journals more in your own work. If there are two references you could give that basically get at the same point, and you are only planning to use one, try to pick the more socially responsible journal.

    – Be mindful of these journal choices when (and if) you ask your library to purchase access to a certain journal.

    When I become more established, I’ll probably become more strident in how much I take these actions. I’ve been watching the open access movement for at least 6 years now, and I think we might be reaching a ‘tipping point’. Common scientists and scholars seem to be increasingly aware and angry about these issues. The press and wide-acknowledgement and debate of these issues really seems qualitatively increased in a non-linear fashion in this past few months or a year.


  2. I don’t have much to say on this that’s terribly informed. Other than to say that I share your frustrations, Tina, and think it’s important to think about how to move forward. I just don’t know the direction. But I’m glad you brought it up.


  3. The Journal of World-Systems Research, the section journal for the PEWS section, is completely free and open-access, last I checked. I don’t know if it would count as a “real publishing utopia” but it’s a nice disciplinary model. I think the journal might be lacking a bit for copyediting and graphic design, but neither of those things is especially relevant in an era where more and more of our reading happens outside of the context of print or print-like pdfs on large screens (i.e. kindles, cellphones, whatever). Being able to produce file formats friendly to these multiple venues is perhaps more important. Also, I don’t know where they get support to host their content (the servers, website, etc.).

    More on point, perhaps, university libraries are starting to push these alternative models as well, as they realize that authors and readers are not getting an especially good deal. For example, at Michigan, the scholarly publishing office has started doing the back-end work to host a variety of open-access journals. Hopefully, this means that academics interested in starting new journals (e.g. the economic sociology section) might have more open-access options available than in the past.

    As for the pre-publishing working papers online, it’s worth noting that many other disciplines (economics for one) follow this model: through SSRN, NBER, Arxiv, or simply having a disciplinary norm of posting the papers to your personal website (or all of the above). Sociologists could begin doing the same, as the previous commenter suggests.

    Universities can get in the act in other ways besides publishing new journals, as with the Harvard Open Access Policy (about which I don’t know very much). Let’s hope more schools get on board!


  4. I’ve got to believe that there are solutions somewhere between “sign away your copyright” and “invent your own open-access journal.” I guess I’m not radically utopian enough to dive into the latter. (Uh oh, will I be dis-invited to the Utopian Reel Dance Party now?)

    It seems ridiculous to me that we cannot pressure the journals that already exist, which have great reputations, strong editorial boards, ties to professional associations, and so on, to publish our articles while allowing us to retain the copyright of the material we author.

    Let’s do that, at least in addition to the open-access revolution that I’m sure is right around the corner.


    1. Yes–sorry if I hijacked your post with my open access enthusiasm when you were addressing a different issue. However, I think (in addition to your suggestions) that one could simply replace the words ‘open access’ and ‘for-profit’ with ‘journals with poor-copyright policies’ and my strategies might still be productive (e.g. review less for these journals, publish less for these journals, avoid citing them, put the editors and authors on notice in your reviews). I am under no allusions that these actions will single-handedly fix the problem–but it does seem to me that they will help.


  5. What are the copyright policies at ASA journals? And at AJS, owned by the University of Chicago? And Social Forces, published out of the University of North Carolina. We can start close to home.

    Answering my own question for ASR, here is the link: http://www.asanet.org/images/journals/docs/pdf/asr/ASR-TOC2010.pdf A short summary: Author must transfer the copyright to “the Association.” The author retains the right to circulate photocopies or PDFs of the published version to students for teaching or to colleagues on an individual basis. The author retains the right to publicly post the version sent to the journal for peer review any time, but the version accepted for publication only after 12 months, but never the PDF of the publication. Authors may include their own work in works authored or edited by themselves only after 12 months and only if the work is not just a republication. All commercial rights are with “the Association.”


  6. SF was recently sold/transferred to OUP.

    I think an interesting point is that many of the big names are currently starting their own open journals, OUP links to a list of “optional open access” and also lists 10 fully open journals.

    Social Forces is in this partial category, and that means:

    “The following journals are all part of the optional open access model. This means that authors may chose to pay for open access publication in order to make their article freely available. However, open access publication is not a requirement for publication in these journals.”

    I assume that the fee is similar to that for publication in PLoS One (~$1300), but I don’t see a price listed anywhere yet – probably buried in the submission process. PLoS One will let you waive the fee for cause (I assume/hope that being a grad student is cause), unsure about OUP journals or their mimics at other large publishers.

    Not to threadjack, but something I have wondered is how useful (or useless) publishing in a fully open access journal like PLoS One is for young scholars? I am much more in favor of that model of publishing, but I want a job, too.


    1. The thought of paying $1300 for the privilege of letting other people read what I wrote is not exactly appealing to me. And I’m living on a full professor salary.In fact, it sounds like extortion to me.

      Even under the ASR copyright, I can put my own text on my own web site in the version I produced.


      1. I agree that the prices seem high which sets up a bit of a tragedy of the commons sort of situation. I think part of the reason for it is that lots of people are getting fee-waivers (although obviously this is not something which the journal would want to advertise). Also, the cost of publication only applies to accepted articles, but there are some administrative costs to all submitted articles. I’d like to see a better accounting of costs of doing business for open access publications (and publications more generally). I think grant funders are increasingly friendly to including publication fees in budgets–some even requiring it in various ways.


      2. The costs of publication are real and that’s why academics have agreed not to be paid for our articles. BUT it is not a solution to give authors two choices: (1) pay nothing and have your publication be behind a pay wall or (2) pay $1300 an article to have it open to the world. How can this possibly be preferable to giving your copyright to Sage or Elsevier for free in the first place? Why should a single individual author be expected to fork over that kind of money?

        The only reason people can fantasize this is a solution is that they do not imagine the authors are actually paying these fees. They think some deep-pockets funder is paying them. I have news. Those days are over.


      3. I don’t disagree with you, but funding situations vary quite a bit across fields (I’m not making a statement about how warranted these differences are). I agree that this sort of solution would be far less tenable if the world of journal publishing was sociology, but is it the same more broadly? Might the larger academic publishing world drive things forward in different ways than if the academic publishing world were more like sociology?


  7. Agreed. We need to accept that there is going to be some fee for consuming this work (like paying for newspapers, tv, and music) but it’s unacceptable that publishers make money off of academics’ free labor. Surely in our system they should be compensated in some way for running the journal, but the current system is ridiculous. Problem is, as a early career scientist, there isn’t anything that I can do but try to publish in them, because our reputation is based on getting into these closed systems.


    1. Yes, but remember that your participation (and complicity) in this system is not limited to publishing–you no doubt have an important role in other ways (acting as a reviewing, choosing what papers you cite..and lobbying senior people to draw harder lines in the sand).


  8. It has to be a collective action solution, not individual. In the world of ordinary non-academic publishing, publishers get exclusive rights to a writer’s work by paying for them in the form of an advance. If you read advice to writers, the first rule is “publishers pay you, you don’t pay them. Few books ever earn enough in royalties to exceed the advance. In the ordinary world of book publishing, most books lose money for the publisher and the few lucrative books subsidize the losers.

    Academics don’t get paid, the theory goes, because our journals don’t make profits and cannot afford to pay us. But in fact private publishers have captured the top journals and turned them into “cash cows” that live off library purchases. So we’re back to the private sector, in which you pay for what you get. That is what capitalism is all about, right? So why aren’t for-profit publishers paying us if they want our copyrights?


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