May 24, 2017

Modest Proposals for Academic Authors

In the scuffles over copyright policies on scholarly articles, what is the academic author to do? First, inform yourself. Find and read the copyright policy of the journals (or refereed conferences) to which you submit the articles describing research results. Find out the subscription price (dead-tree-edition or online) that the publisher charges individuals and institutions, and compare with the norms in your fields and others. Decide for yourself whether your publisher is unduly limiting the spread of ideas, or charging such prices that the effect is the same.

Remember what Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1813:

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

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Copyright in Scholarly Publishing, 2012 Edition

I’ve heard a lot recently about copyright policies of scholarly journals. Over 9000 researchers signed a pledge to boycott Elsevier, on three grounds: (1) high prices for journal subscriptions, (2) bundling practices for institutional subscriptions; (3) lobbying regarding SOPA, PIPA, and the Research Works Act.

Meanwhile, other organizations such as the ACM (scholarly/professional society for computer science and the computing industry) and IEEE (scholarly/professional society for electrical engineering and computing) once were leaders in open-access; they had relatively low journal prices and relatively liberal policies permitting authors to display preprints on the authors’ web pages. Now the ACM’s and IEEE’s policies have not changed, but they are no longer at the forefront: while ACM and IEEE require an assignment of copyright and leave the author with a few rights, organizations such as Usenix (another professional society in computing) take only a nonexclusive license to reprint a scholarly article.

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IEEE blows it on the Security & Privacy copyright agreement

Last June, I wrote about the decision at the business meeting of IEEE Security & Privacy to adopt the USENIX copyright policy, wherein authors grant a right for the conference to publish the paper and warrant that they actually wrote it, but otherwise the work in question is unquestionably the property of the authors. As I recall, there were only two dissenting votes in a room that was otherwise unanimously in favor of the motion.

Fast forward to the present. The IEEE Security & Privacy program committee, on which I served, has notified the authors of which papers have been accepted or rejected. Final camera-ready copies will be due soon, but we’ve got a twist. They’ve published the new license that authors will be expected to sign. Go read it.

The IEEE’s new “experimental delayed-open-access” licensing agreement for IEEE Security & Privacy goes very much against the vote last year of the S&P business meeting, bearing only a superficial resemblance to the USENIX policy we voted to adopt. While both policies give a period of exclusive distribution rights to the conference (12 months for USENIX, 18 months for IEEE), the devil is in the details.

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