A shout to the world’s technical journals

So, after my post on ground-truth documents, one of my commenters argued eloquently that I ought to clean it up and submit it to a journal read by people who manage programming projects. He suggested Software Practice and Experience.

This seemed like a pretty good idea, until I read SP&E’s submission procedures and was reminded that (like most journals) they want me to assign the copyright of my submission to the publisher.

My instant reaction was this: Fuck. That. Noise. I’m certainly willing to cede publication rights when I want to be published, but copyright assignment ain’t going to happen. Ever. Nobody gets to own my work but me. (Yes, I insist on this with my book publishers too.)

I have a message to all you technical journal publishers out there…

There is probably still a place for journal publishers in today’s Internetted world. The peer-review networks you maintain and the impact score of your journal still have value to authors. But the explosion in alternate channels for reaching an audience of technical peers means your value proposition has seriously eroded. You don’t have enough to offer me, any more, to buy my compliance to a copyright assignment.

In fact, the balance of power has shifted so much that I cannot but consider that requirement offensively stupid. Insulting. And that’s not my problem, it’s yours. I have a blog with a readership that probably exceeds the subscriber base of most technical journals; achieving that isn’t even difficult, these days, for any competent writer. So who in the bleeding hell are you to think you can still treat me (or any other author) like some sort of peon dependent on your good graces to reach an audience?

These are my terms. My writing goes out under my copyright, with a Creative Commons or equivalent license. You can have any additional quitclaim you want to reassure your lawyers that I’m not going to sue you for publishing me. You get to use my content as an inducement to people to buy your journal, but I still own it.

That’s what you get, and that’s all you get. If that isn’t enough, take your pretensions to power that you no longer possess and ram them up the bodily orifice of your choice.

38 thoughts on “A shout to the world’s technical journals

  1. You are not alone Eric. In science, there are many initiatives to open up publications Creative Commons style (eg, PLoS). Even with calls for boycotting Reed Elsevier (one of the worst publishers in this respect).

    The “usual” argument was always that not having the copyrights assigned complicates publishing. There are always doubts whether the use of the publication by the publisher is completely within any license given by the authors. A publisher can go bankrupt if it is found out that the copyright license given to them by the authors does not allow some aspect of their publishing.

    But with modern Creative Common licenses, and the examples of the likes of PLoS, this has all become just a sorry excuse for behavior fitting the RIAA/MPAA.

  2. >You are not alone Eric.

    Oh, I’m well aware of the open-publications movement – they name-check me often enough that I could hardly avoid it. I support them, of course.

    This is just me venting my spleen at SP&E and others who haven’t gotten the message.

  3. The Journal of Machine Learning Research (http://jmlr.csail.mit.edu/) is another good example of this movement away from closed journals. Several editors of the closed “Machine Learning” journal resigned to form JMLR, with the resignation letter at http://www.sigir.org/forum/F2001/sigirFall01Letters.html. The specific agreement for authors to publish in JMLR is at http://jmlr.csail.mit.edu/forms/jmlr-microtome.txt, and it explicitly leaves copyright to the authors. JMLR even “publishes” (i.e. peer review of a sort of short paper manual that can be included on applications for tenure) open-source software packages to encourage reproducible results and reduce duplicated effort.

  4. Here are some links, note that Elsevier is a heavy lobbyist against any open access publishing. It tries to make it illegal for many scientists and university institutions:

    Boycott Elsevier
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2012/01/30/boycott-elsevier/

    The Cost of Knowledge
    http://thecostofknowledge.com/

    What is up with Elsevier?
    http://economiclogic.blogspot.nl/2012/06/what-is-up-with-elsevier.html

    Some universities have gone as far as prohibiting their employees from assigning copyrights to the publishers. As have some grant agencies. Often they had to retract these measures.

    The argument of universities and grant agencies is that they pay for the research, the writing, and the peer review, and very often the editor too is paid by them (journal editors often are “volunteers”). So after they have paid for essentially the whole process up to the printing and distribution, the universities have to pay very high prices for the journals and for any copies used in class and research.

    And if you then find out that Open Access journals have higher impact factors than very (very) expensive journals, you start to think.

  5. Dear ESR,

    What about the case of a work for hire? If they are paying you for a work, should copyright be joint? Keep in mind here I am talking here about how you would handle it, not about publishing best practices…

    Regards,

    Flint

  6. >What about the case of a work for hire?

    Negotiate that beforehand. If retaining copyright is important to you, offer a substantial discount and a delay in publishing (1 or 2 years is common). If it is more important to them to own the copyright, then bow out, or make them pay through the nose.

  7. >What about the case of a work for hire? If they are paying you for a work, should copyright be joint?

    Maybe. It would increase my fee substantially, though.

  8. I wonder if the internet is missing an opportunity here. The real value prop of these journals is the filtering the perform — supposedly anyway, you can assume that anything you read in a decent journal is not a bunch of hokum because it has been reviewed by well qualified peers, and the dross has been filtered out.

    Setting aside for a moment the question as to whether that is true or not, it seems to me that that is something that could readily be done online too.

    I often thought about this in regards to wikipedia. Google gave it a bit of a whirl with knol, but the idea of a wikipedia type system where the articles were peer reviewed, and the qualifications of the author were well known, so that you could have more confidence in the contents of the article, is quite appealing.

    There are a lot of additional things that could be said about that, but add a little advertising and revenue share with the authors and you might have something that is beneficial to everyone.

    Of course if Google can’t get the necessary bulk done that little ole me can either. But a concept worth thinking about nonetheless.

    Which is to say you can bitch about the journal’s stupid ways, or you can kick them in the ass by doing it right.

  9. I often wonder why more technical fields have not either added themselves to http://arxiv.org or started their own equivalent. (Actually, based on the look I just took at arxiv, it looks like more fields *are* doing that.)

  10. @Jessica Boxer: Have you heard of Citizendium? They’ve been basically trying to do what you suggest. Unfortunately, they’ve been running out of donations recently…

  11. I am a relative Johnny Come Lately to all of this copyfightin’ business. For about ten years, I signed all sorts of copyright agreements without really thinking about it. More recently, I have wised up a bit. Nowadays I take journals’ publishing policies into account (among other factors) in deciding where to publish, among other factors. If a publisher asks me to sign a copyright agreement nowadays, I counter with the SPARC Authors’ Addendum (http://www.arl.org/sparc/author/addendum.shtml).

    Having done this a few times, I am surprised how open journals often are to my counter-offers. I have even been thanked by editors for bringing to attention the fact that their policies are out of step with what authors are willing to cede.

    If you want to take offence at demands for copyright assignation, you are probably within your rights. But you might be a more effective advocate for positive change if you assume (at least to start with) but such policies are not down to malice, or even necessarily to stupidity, but are more the result of journal editors being too busy to keep under review policies of long standing.

  12. Incidentally, I know that every one loves to hate Reed Elsevier, and I am sure this is not without foundation, but…

    I have recently approached various publishers of work I published (and assigned copyright in) years ago, asking for permission to post the final published .pdf on my own page. The reaction has varied, but I found Elsevier one of the most accommodating of the bunch.

  13. @Jessica
    Both the editor of the journal and the reviewers are scientists paid by universities, not the journal.

    PLoS and Arxiv show the business model of Elsevier et al is scam.

  14. @Winter

    I think “scam” is too strong a word. Both Eric and the former editors of “Machine Learning” (referred to by John Pate above) pointed out that, historically, centralized publication and distribution was necessary. With the Internet, not so much. Possibly these journals still provide value in curation and peer review.

    When electric lighting became widely and inexpensively available, making and selling candles didn’t become a scam, merely unprofitable. What is a scam is attempting to extort authors into surrendering their rights, or cajoling readers into paying too much for that which could be gotten elsewhere, possibly for free.

  15. I wrote a comment at the end of the “Ground-truth documents” blog (where this subject first came up). I should have read this latest post before I did that. My bad.

    Here, I will only make two points…

    (1) Giving a publisher “First Serial Rights” is fine as long as you keep the copyright.

    (2) If you write something and want feedback, Don’t publish it on your blog or website. You will have just screwed yourself in relation to any publisher that wants First Serial Rights. Instead, publish the fact that you have written something and ask folks to ask you for a copy.

  16. John D. Bell,

    What is a scam is attempting to extort authors into surrendering their rights, or cajoling readers into paying too much for that which could be gotten elsewhere, possibly for free.

    Sounds like Elseiver’s business model, and then some. Elsevier is a company that’s been involved in some shady practices: backing laws that would give them exclusive rights to taxpayer-funded research they publish; the Mohamed El Naschle thing; setting up vanity publications for Merck so they could publish ad copy for the dangerous drug Vioxx with a veneer of academic credibility; etc.

  17. @billswift: “What about the case of a work for hire? If they are paying you for a work, should copyright be joint?”

    Why *should* it be?

    In the usual cases where work-for-hire applies, you are playing in someone else’s sandbox. A good example is the Star Trek tie-in novels published by Simon and Schuster. Paramount owns the rights to the universe and the characters. If you write a Star Trek tie-in novel for S&S, you do so under a work-for-hire contract. You are being paid a fee to write a book set in someone else’s universe featuring someone else’s characters. You do *not* have a copyright on what you did. The rights are owned by someone else. You get the fee, as an advance against royalties on the book, and if the book does well enough to earn out, you may get additional royalties. If that’s not acceptable to you, you don’t write ST books for S&S.

    Joint copyright would be a can of worms in work-for-hire contracts. Just what rights are included? In the case of ST novels, would joint copyright with S&S of an ST novel give the author of the novel any claim to the universe in which it was set of the characters used in the story? I don’t think so…

    Ultimately, it’s about the money. If you are a freelance writer trying to make a living at it, you may well be interested in a work-for-hire job because it *is* a job. Your question will be “How long will it take me to write the book, and is the fee adequate compensation for my time?”

  18. @DMcCunney wrote:
    “Ultimately, it’s about the money. If you are a freelance writer trying to make a living at it, you may well be interested in a work-for-hire job because it *is* a job. Your question will be ‘How long will it take me to write the book, and is the fee adequate compensation for my time?’”

    And it’s not just true in science fiction. Louis L’Amour, who later became the dean of Westerns, published some Hopalong Cassidy books for hire early in his career when he needed the money. He was later embarrassed about doing so and basically disowned them as his work.

  19. @Cathy: “And it’s not just true in science fiction.”

    No, it isn’t. I just used that example as one I have familiarity with – I know people who *write* Trek books (as well as the former Executive Editor of the line.)

    And as with anything else, the landscape changes over time. At one point, Trek books regularly made the bestseller lists because they *were* Trek books, and there was no discernible correlation between the quality of the book and the sales. Since the authors got high advances and royalties, there was interest in writing them, even as work for hire.

    Those salad days are over. I know one chap who was basically full time freelance writing work-for-hire tie-ins for years, and doing nicely thank you, who has watched the market dry up. Opportunities are far fewer, and pay rates are things he would have laughed out the door 5 years ago. These days he’s doing free lance editing and working on his own stuff to help make ends meet.

    So I rolled my eyes a bit at “If it is more important to them to own the copyright, then bow out, or make them pay through the nose.” If you are trying to make a *living* writing , bowing out may not be an option because you need the money, and you are highly unlikely to have the leverage to *make* them pay through the nose. Chances are about 99% that they can find someone who will work cheaper if you push the issue. There won’t be anything special about you that will make you the only choice for the job. (If there *is*, you are unlikely to be doing work-for-hire in the first place.)

  20. Agreed. While I know some other fields have some more in-depth interaction with their editors/publishers, my experience with CS academia has been that the steering/program committees of the major conferences/journals could effectively just ditch their publishers and publish everything electronically and nothing would really change. It’s the peer review that counts, and the program committees already do that for free.

  21. @Tom
    “It’s the peer review that counts, and the program committees already do that for free.”

    In most academic journals (excluding the likes of Nature and Science), all the content matters are handled by academics who are not paid by the publisher. The publisher only handled formatting, communications, printing, and distribution.

    In modern times, most of the formatting is handled by the authors themselves. Conferences even demand camera ready copy. And if printing and distribution is done electronically, you end up without a need of a top heavy publisher. You simply hire the services from some specialized publisher that supplies a few editors and consultants. That is a very competitive market, with low prices.

  22. This is exactly the reason I stopped writing for ACM publications many years ago. When they changed the terms to demand copyright, I took my (unpaid) writing elsewhere.

  23. Just what rights are included? In the case of ST novels, would joint copyright with S&S of an ST novel give the author of the novel any claim to the universe in which it was set of the characters used in the story? I don’t think so…

    #include <ianal.h>

    No one holds a copyright on a character.

    They can have a trademark on a character's name or image, or a copyright on descriptions of actions taken by that character, including words spoken, but I'm not too sure that a court would hold that, for instance, the phrases "Beam me up, Scotty", "He's Dead, Jim", or "Make it so, Number One." are copyrightable. The last of those examples, as well as a name like "James Tiberius Kirk" or "Jean-Luc Picard" might be just original enough to be trademarked.

    If someone has a contract that allows the use of a trademarked name or phrase to write a book, and holds a copyright on that book, they can reproduce that book or portions thereof without any fear of being charged with a copyright violation. Whether doing so would infringe upon the trademark is another matter entirely.

  24. Generally speaking, journals owned by commercial publishers and universities demand either copyright assignment or exclusive rights, while those assocaited with scholarly societies embrace some form of open access. It’s seemed that the publishers have been fighting a losing battle for some time, but before Timothy Gowers’ protest against Elsevier, it looked like it was going to be a very long battle. Now, in discipline after discipline, closed publications are beginning to have real difficulties getting people to work for them for free anymore.

    Are you aware of Peter Seibel’s Code Quarterly?

    http://www.codequarterly.com/

    It has very little momentum, but Peter has high standards and some visibility, and the idea is excellent. I think it would suit your piece.

  25. >Are you aware of Peter Seibel’s Code Quarterly?

    Apparently Seibel terminated it last year.

  26. @Winter,
    The program committees are the academics, so that’s what I meant. But, I know this varies by field — I have a friend who is a grad student in Biology and when submitting to things that are even a few tiers down from Nature, they still submit text and all formatting is done by an editor.

    In CS, as you mentioned, I have to produce a camera-ready version of every paper I make. Furthermore, let’s be honest, who really reads the printed versions. A few hundred of the books are made and they sit on professors’ shelves and hit the garbage bin when they retire. We could simply nix the whole physical copy and I doubt anyone would notice.

  27. @ The Monster

    Your post reminds me of the ’80s and ’90s, when a very common password for programmers was: NCC-1701

    Hopefully, with the Internet, people have smartened up about that.

  28. No one holds a copyright on a character.

    They can have a trademark on a character’s name or image, or a copyright on descriptions of actions taken by that character, including words spoken

    Horseshit.

    (IANAL, but the author of the linked article is.)

    In fact, the rights to the likenesses of characters can get rather hairy when you’re dealing with characters who existed originally in live-action TV or movies, because of player-likeness issues: to wit, the actors who played the characters in their original appearance have the rights to their own likenesses. So, for example, the cartoon show The Real Ghostbusters featured characters named Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, and Egon Spengler; yet they looked nothing like their 1984 movie appearances.

  29. >Ultimately, it’s about the money. If you are a freelance writer trying to make a living at it,
    > you may well be interested in a work-for-hire job because it *is* a job. Your question
    > will be “How long will it take me to write the book, and is the fee adequate compensation
    > for my time?”

    Sure. I’ve been there myself, writing filler for periodicals. It paid the bills, but I’d be astonished if I ever saw any of it reprinted.

    But what if you’re a researcher with an ongoing program, releasing what amounts to the same paper in different versions as things progress? For that matter, I’ve seen the same paper with a different slant and title depending on the publisher or intended audience; for example, robotics, electronics, or machine control symposia. Though some authors probably do it to pad their publication count, it’s a legitimate means of spreading the information to the people who might have use for it.

    So, somewhere along the way, a publisher’s boilerplate asserts copyright to your work. Without permission from the copyright holder you can’t issue new revisions or updates, and you’re even limited to how much you can use to write a “new” paper. If your paper is mostly data or experimental results, even rewriting the rest might not meet the fair use test if things got ugly.

  30. A few years ago, the online edition of Baseline (Ziff-Davis) ask me to do a column on IT project practices for them. When I got the agreement, it assigned all rights and ownership “across the universe” (yes, that exact phrase was in there) to ZD. My basic response was, “You’re not paying me enough for that.” So we agreed that I kept the copyright and they had a perpetual unlimited license.

    Likewise, for two books I wrote in the 90s, I not only required that I keep the copyright, I required that all publishing rights revert back to me if the books were out of print for a certain period of time. They were, and they did. ..bruce..

  31. Pingback: The Naked Gatekeepers | Daily Pundit

  32. Being in control of when you assign copyright vs when you license use is something we wish more writers knew how to navigate better. We’re on a mission to make the world safe for creativity. Bringing more transparency to the process benefits both creators and those who receive assigned copyrights.

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