April 23, 2024

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.

Since our fair century has apparently decided that everything should be treated like property, we can apply an economic analysis to the transaction. You did the research and you wrote the scholarly article (um, excuse me, the “content”). Someone paid your salary or your graduate-student stipend, but that someone was not your scholarly journal! In this economic analysis, consider your own economic interests and also consider that you act as the agent of your university or grant-funder who helped pay for the work, presumably for the moral and mutual instruction of man.

The consulting-contract model

The typical journal article may represent 1 person-year of work (by a professor and some graduate students) valued in the range of $100,000 or more. Similarly, when a professor is asked to referee a paper, which takes hours of work, that refereeing work has substantial value. This value is not necessarily realizable in cash in the open market. The scholar submits to the journal not to receive a big check (none of these journals, whether nonprofit or for profit, pay anything at all). Instead, the scholar engaged in the work in order to benefit humanity (see Jefferson 1813) and (also) to gain peer recognition.

Therefore, if the journal intends to lock away the work behind a high pay wall–thus depriving you and humanity of the respective benefits described above–then don’t give them the “content,” sell your “content” to the publisher. Next time an Elsevier journal solicits a paper from you, just tell ’em the price is $10,000, or $100,000, or whatever.

When Elsevier sends you a paper to referee, send them your standard consulting contract at however many dollars per hour. (Make sure to get a retainer up front!)

Thus, we do not exactly boycott Elsevier, we just do business with them.

The charitable donations model

Suppose your publisher is a nonprofit organization (such as ACM, IEEE, Usenix) that benefits your field–by organizing the editing and dissemination of knowledge, by running conferences that bring scholars together. Suppose you notice that its subscription prices are reasonable, the author contract does not take overly exclusive rights, and so on.

You could decide that you will make a charitable donation of several thousand dollars in kind by submitting your paper for publication. That is, sign their standard author contract! You lose (and they gain) some of the economic benefit, but not all: most of it will “leak away” to humanity (see Jefferson 1813) and to you (eternal fame, promotion, salary increase).

This is the model I use with ACM and IEEE, and I think it is a reasonable compromise.

But I know people who believe that ACM and IEEE have fallen behind the curve, that their copyright contracts are too grabby. Those scholars may prefer one of the solutions that I’ll describe in my next article.


  1. You say you’ll donate to IEEE, even in light of their newer policies (exclusive 18 month right and then exclusive right to archive the paper?!): https://freedom-to-tinker.com/blog/dwallach/ieee-blows-it-security-privacy-copyright-agreement/

  2. Steve Loughran says

    1. Charitable donations could be tax deductible

    2. The Elsevier model is already in a bit of a business transaction -academics give away their work in exchange for possible future earnings (grants, etc). Similary, people pay for their publishings in the belief that it will benefit their work. The less people who submit work to Elsevier, the less value those publications have, the less future benefits you will get from publishing in it, etc.

    3. As an author of technical computing books, can I observe another business model: eBooks. Author gets a percentage of sales, the publisher does too, and the publishers fixed costs include the paid-for reviewer services. Wildly popular papers will benefit the author as well as the publishers, whereas today the financial benefits only go to the publishers.