I’ve just signed another one of Sage Publications’ ridiculous publishing agreements, prompting Aard’s first re-run of an entry from my old blog. Here’s something from 29 September 2006.
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.
Update same evening: Very timely, a bill is being voted upon in the US Senate to require anyone who receives research funding from the National Institutes of Health to publish their results openly on the net.