Rights, copyright and exploitation: Five things academics can do to improve the experience of publishing

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This is written from a UK arts and humanities perspective, and may not be entirely applicable outside of that context

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This week, I was presented with yet another shitty contract by an academic publisher, and it was the final straw. The breaking point as I snapped under the weight of resentments that I’ve been harbouring towards academic publishing culture for the past eight years. I am 34. I have been writing and publishing academic papers since I was 26. I have, to date, published well over a dozen articles, chapters and book reviews, have edited journal special issues and have just submitted my first book. Some of my stuff is very good. I say all this not to brag, but to point to the fact that even with this relatively wide experience and despite my dedication to my work and eagerness to please (maybe that’s part of the problem), my publishing experiences are still unsatisfactory. Indeed, once it comes down to the contract, publishing has almost always left me feeling exploited, cynical and played.

Having been handed yet another contract where I’m expected to sign my worldwide copyright and all other rights, save the ability to actually share my work, over to a very profitable company, for no remuneration whatsoever, at massive personal cost in terms of effort and energy, I’m feeling extremely cross. Not only, and not even primarily, at the publishing houses — who after all are only following the ‘profit no matter what’ business model that has now become the prevailing morality in our culture — but at myself (for not challenging the culture sooner) and at my colleagues and mentors. Literally none of whom have ever discussed copyright, subsidiary rights, contract terminology and negotiation, meaning I have willingly signed rights to my work over to publishers on almost every academic paper I’ve ever written.

Perhaps my feeling annoyed at colleagues is unfair. So far as I can tell the conspiracy of silence (try asking someone about the terms of their publishing contract) is not so much because people don’t want early career researchers to know their rights, but because even many senior academics are unclear about those rights, how to protect them, how to enforce them, or what a standard academic publishing contract actually means in practical terms. After all, very few of us will ever directly make money from our academic writing. (For those of us signed up to ALCS, we should be aware that signing over copyright (and other subsidary rights) means we are not entitled to collect to royalties from secondary uses). Added to which the fact that we feel so relieved after years and years of painstaking research, more months or years of working through drafts, responses to reviews, edits and so on, to have finally completed the article, chapter or book, that we just want our work out there as soon as possible. We don’t want to delay the process, risk our relationship with editors, have someone else publish similar work, have our work pulled at the last minute, or (and I think this is especially the case for women) be perceived as difficult. So we shut up. (Perhaps we are also embarrassed that, as people whose job is ‘being clever’, we have absolutely no idea what we’re doing in this regard). (Perhaps there are also those of us who cling jealously to our ability to negotiate fairer contracts, figuring that it’s a skill that’s basically a finite resource we’d like to keep for ourselves).

However, I’m not willing to continue participating in a system where virtually nobody openly discusses our writing and its monetary value, or talks about how to protect it. So I am writing this blog for two reasons. The first is to raise the issue in a public forum in the hope it generates conversation and sharing of stories. I am especially interested to hear about how academics have protected their work, and about any initiatives colleagues are involved in around training postgraduates and ECRs to better understand their rights and how to negotiate with academic publishers. The second is to relay a series of simple strategies that I suggest we take up to start pushing back against unfair publishing conditions.

For anyone confused about what publishing rights are please click here for more details (this is a North American perspective, and much of it deals with trade/fiction publishing but it’s a good overview). On UK copyright law specifically, see here and here.

We have to ask for better terms when we are handed a contract that is blatantly exploitative.

The terms we are willing to settle for will obviously differ from person to person, but I’d say at the bare minimum giving up copyright and all subsidiary rights is an immediate no. Instead, ask whether the publisher is willing to publish with a licence to publish agreement. Also check book contracts for unhelpful clauses such as those where the publisher has first right to first refusal on your next monograph. Because ECRs and those with precarious contracts arguably need publications more than established and senior researchers, the onus is on permanent staff to push for better contracts every time we publish. We have to do this so that we start to make it against a publisher’s interests to offer the most exploitative contract as standard. (Advice on how to negotiate here, and here).

It is worth remembering that many of the big publishers, such as Taylor & Francis, will present you with a copyright assignment request as standard, but have a policy of allowing writers to switch to licence to publish when asked. So ask.

If the publisher can’t give you satisfactory terms, go elsewhere.

We have to be willing to do this. Maybe it means you don’t get to place your monograph with a prestigious University Press. Perhaps it means that publication will be delayed while you look for another journal, or submit that book chapter as an article. Remember the quality of your work is in the work and not the publisher (this should also be how REF panels approach it). Going elsewhere simply means you get to publish without feeling compromised and perhaps even see some money if your work is a surprising commercial success.

Lobby from positions of power.

Editorial boards, series editors and others in positions of influence with academic publishing houses should lobby in the strongest possible terms to have contracts presented to their writers meet a minimum standard of fairness. No copyright assignment and access to percentage of subsidiary rights, for example. Where appropriate, editorial boards should take advice on this from e.g. Society of Authors, UCU or similar.

We have to educate ourselves and our communities.

This means we have to start getting a grip on understanding rights, permissions, etc. and we have to share and disseminate strategies we have used to negotiate better contract terms with our colleagues. We should also create opportunities for training in contract negotiation for ECRs and postgraduate researchers (and others who might need it).

Use and share available resources. 

Those of us with agents, membership to the Society of Authors, or with other means of having contracts vetted and scrutinised by experts should routinely do so and should, as above, share insights from the process with colleagues, students and postgraduate students.

On a final note: is it an absolute madness for me to think about setting up my own publishing imprint, with a central aim of establishing an ethical contract model for academia? Would anyone else be interested in thinking about the feasibility of this, or gathering to discuss academic publishing rights issues? If so please email me at k.beswick@exeter.ac.uk and I will try to arrange a meeting or gathering where interested parties can discuss.

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