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


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.


Ten things about working in academia that no one told me and I wish someone had

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Academia. What a weird job. At least in the humanities. There you are, reading dense, impenetrable books and thinking very very hard about a subject so specific others will wrinkle their brow, raise their eyebrows and go ‘Plays about council estates? You can get a PhD in that?’, when all of a sudden you realise you are building a career and you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing. Weirdest of all, there’s almost no training, yet, nonetheless, the moment you start your first job everyone presumes you are already familiar with basic aspects of the academic system that nobody bothered to tell you about.

Here are ten things I had to work out for myself, which I pass on in the hope that they might help you (please note this is a UK arts/humanities context and the below points may not apply to STEM, or to all international contexts, so take them with a pinch of salt):

  • You have to pay to attend conferences, even when you are giving a paper

This is the first thing that really surprised me about academia. I seriously struggled to accept the premise that I would give my labour to realise someone else’s event and pay for the privilege. No thank you, I thought. My paper can stay in my head and I will save £250 and the price of a train ticket to Lincoln. But then I attended and organised some conferences and understood that they are expensive to run, funding is scarce and the price of a conference fee usually just about covers running costs. (Having said that, conference organisers: please, I paid to be here. Give me lunch, and a pen).

The exception is if you are an invited speaker, or the keynote. Then you can usually expect some form of remuneration – at least a fee waiver and the cost of travel. If they invite you and can’t be arsed to pay for you to be there, they don’t really want you. As I learned recently when I paid to attend a conference at which I was an invited panel speaker (I agreed, against my better judgement, because otherwise every invited speaker would have been a (white) man), and the organisers left it to me to buy drinks for everyone in the pub afterwards. If the organisers of that conference are reading this, I will not be contributing to your special issue, please stop sending me emails.

  • You call the shots

You do not have to wait for someone (a supervisor, your line manager) to give you permission to write a journal article or present at a conference (if you are part of a large project or research team or discipline where your supervisor is default co-author ignore this advice and ask whoever is in charge before you use shared data). You can just do it as soon as you think you are ready. Do it before you’re ready, no one will mind.

  • People don’t remember bad conference papers (unless they are given by the keynote)

Honestly, I promise, if your paper is boring or poorly written, riddled with errors or unconvincingly argued, 90% of the audience, at the very minimum, will switch off and doodle on their conference programme, or check to see how long it is until the free wine is served. The exception to this is if you are offensive towards a minority group, or if you are a famous scholar. People remember and engage with good papers. It will not ruin your career if you give a presentation that is forgettable. What I am saying is, speak at the conference. Now is the time (once you have some findings and some ideas about them, or one of the two).

  • There are ways to earn money from academic writing

Not a lot of money, but a bit. Despite what people will tell you, some unknown scholars get advances for their first academic book, so you should at least ask if an advance is a possibility. I would advise not agreeing to publish with any publishing house that expects you to pay for the privilege.

ALSO: As soon as you publish anything sign up with the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS, click here), who will collect money for secondary rights due for your work and pay you any funds collected twice annually (you’ll likely receive more than you expect). Do this for everything you publish, however niche, in a book, journal or magazine. If and when you publish a book register with the British Library’s Public Lending Rights service (click here), who will pay you when your book is borrowed from public libraries.


  • Protect your copyright

I am so cross that I have happily signed copyright over to academic publishers when I didn’t need to. I find it unbelievable that I had to work out for myself that I didn’t always need to, and that none of my colleagues have ever thought to mention to me that this is often optional. If you are presented with an agreement where you are asked to assign copyright to the publisher, you should write to whoever sent you the agreement and ask instead to publish with a licence to publish agreement. You are not being difficult. This is an option that many academic publishers offer, but most of them won’t tell you about (although some will charge for). Check the publisher website before you submit and choose only to publish, where you can, with those who let you keep the rights to your work for free.

Join the Society of Authors and actively campaign for better conditions for academic writers.

  • No one cares if you aren’t an amazing teacher

Except you and your students, obviously.

It takes lots of us a while to find our teaching stride. Don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t come naturally, if you get mediocre (or even bad) evaluations or if students seem hostile or indifferent to your charms. Teaching is hard, we all know this. Students can be unreasonable and teaching evaluations are heavily biased. You aren’t going to lose your job because you gave a boring lecture. I swear.

  • Feedback is a gift

It won’t always feel that way. Often, even the most benign of criticisms about our scholarship will feel deeply wounding. Even praise will sometimes feel deeply wounding (this evening I have had to text four friends to cope with an email I received from a colleague calling my latest chapter ‘very interesting’). Peer reviewers can be snarky and pompous and deliberately cruel. But feedback is a gift. Those offering thoughts on your work are doing so because they want you to make it the best it can be. Feedback is a gift. Feedback is a gift. Receive it with grace.

  • No one cares if you skip a meeting

It took me a long time, having worked in ‘industry’ (scare quotes because I hate that word, but it is nearly midnight and I can’t think of another), to wrap my head around the fact that you can just give apologies, not attend a meeting and no one will care. I think this is an unspoken secret, because I’ve never heard anyone actually say it out loud. But almost always, at any academic meeting, half to one-third of the invited participants won’t be there, because they have other things to do. And that’s fine.

  • Everything takes, on average, three times as long as you think it will

This applies both to things you do yourself (organising events, writing articles and books, preparing teaching, marking etc.) and to things you are waiting for others to do (such as peer review, reply to an email, send you the article they promised for your edited collection, answer the phone). The latter is infintely more maddening.

  • You can ask what the acronym means

Universities are riddled with acronyms. Some of these (REF, TEF, HEFCE) etc. are national, some (SCUDD, ACLA, RGS) discipline specific, some are institution or even department specific. You will spend a lot of your working life sitting in the meetings you do attend, struggling to understand what everyone is on about and surreptitiously googling acronyms under the table. Save yourself the bother, ask.


On Refugees, Lisa McKenzie and the Problem with Writing

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The problem with writing, like the problem with speaking, is that words are limited. However articulate we are; however learned, there are only so many words, and only so many ways they can be strung together. As academics, we spend torturous hours agonising over our prose. And although we are constantly subject to accusations of obfuscation, the dense and sometimes incomprehensible nature of academic writing comes from our desire for precision. Often, what we are saying is complex, controversial, nuanced and new. We want to make sure that you get it. That there’s no room for miscommunication or misunderstanding. Finding words to express thoughts nobody has had before is hard. It is physical labour and it takes endurance. During the final months of my PhD I lay my head on my desk and sobbed. It was too much – it hurt. Like a woman throwing her head onto the pillow in the late stages of labour and refusing to push, I had almost given up. Except I couldn’t. I’d come this far, failure was not an option.

The problem with academic writing – at least for the writers – is that all that labour is often in vain. If we are lucky, a few hundred people might download our latest article; perhaps a few dozen will even read it. That can be frustrating – especially when we have worked for years to discover and articulate something important and want to share it out in the world where it might make a difference. This is why many academics like to write for a public audience too. Some tweet, some keep blogs, and some academics get a platform in the popular press where they can share their ideas and enliven public debate.

On Wednesday, the sociologist Lisa McKenzie, who has carried out ethnographic research in poor working class communities for well over a decade – and who is, herself, a member of the poor working class communities she has studied – published an article about the migrant crisis in the Guardian. It was, I thought, an important, vital piece of writing. It drew on McKenzie’s ethnography and sought to begin a public debate about why people from the some of Britain’s most deprived and under-resourced wards might respond with fear and anger to the thought of refugees arriving in their communities. She wrote of the legitimate and the more troubling fears that the white working class women in the communities she had studied expressed – about access to already-stretched resources and the behaviour of the men they called ‘asylum seekers’, which they found threatening and disrespectful. McKenzie suggested that to uncritically dismiss these women’s fears as ‘racism’ was unhelpful. Indeed, such dismissal of working class experience is perhaps what has led to political apathy in many working-class communities, and the rise of parties like Ukip and the EDL in once-Labour strongholds. (McKenzie wrote a similarly illuminating piece in Discover Society last year.)

However unpleasant it might have been for some readers to hear, there is no denying that McKenzie’s article speaks to a truth about the perceptions of immigration and asylum in many working class communities. I grew up in an area of London that remains one of the poorest parts of the country and the sentiments McKenzie’s subjects articulated (and far more extreme views) are all over the Facebook statuses of my school-mates and in the discussion threads on local community forums. Reading them – especially when they veer into aggressive racism and sexism – often makes my blood boil. I don’t agree with the Britain First posts that litter my newsfeed – but I can’t deny they resonate with many of the people I grew up with. This is what people think, and we have to acknowledge it. We can’t just dismiss these views as bigoted and ‘wrong’. The cuts and austerity measures implemented by this government have overwhelmingly affected the working classes. (Of course, the ‘working class’ includes people of all races and ethnicities. Indeed, it is not only ‘white people’ who express reservations about asylum and economic immigration). And people from the communities most affected by cuts and austerity measures are likely to feel the impact of immigration most keenly. They are likely to be the people most baffled by the government’s willingness to help ‘others’, when it roundly refuses to help them.

In the area where I grew up, racial tension and anger at the politicians whose policies have made it impossible for low and average income earners to live in the city where they were born bubble dangerously through everyday exchanges – surfacing sometimes in violence and racism, sometimes in solidarity. The responses of people to the conditions of their existence are nuanced, complex and cannot be reduced to polemical right/wrong, racist/anti-racist, good/bad narratives.

We can offer up our spare bedrooms all we like, but the reality is that people arriving in this country, traumatised and fleeing war, will be housed in already struggling wards, will mostly be entering the low-wage end of the labour market, will be competing for resources with people who are already struggling to get by. It is not fair, surely, to place refugees in communities that are already struggling for access to resources, and that are likely to greet those refugees with hostility.

Mainstream politics has utterly failed to speak to huge swathes of the population. What McKenzie’s research does is begin to give a voice to those people traditionally denied any kind of public platform. The responses that McKenzie received on Twitter suggest that many people were offended. Not only by the content of her article, but by McKenzie’s refusal to condemn the views of her subjects. I was especially disappointed by the academics who tweeted criticism that she had not detailed the complexity of the intersections between race, class and gender inequality in a 1200 word article. (Surely, it would have been better to read McKenzie’s research and contextualise the article before deriding her analytical methods?)

The continued failure to address the concerns of the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society has led to widespread suspicion and mistrust. That the effects of cuts to public services and the welfare state result in division and prejudice is not a secret – it is the desired end of the ideology of austerity. It doesn’t help any group if we don’t discuss these effects and if we cannot listen to the nuances of each-others’ experience without judgement, with compassion and understanding. The more willing we (‘the liberal left’ or the ‘centre middle’, or the ‘slightly right of centre’ or whatever group you want to think yourself part of now) are to listen to alternative views, the harder it will be for the government to deny that the austerity measures are anything other than ideological. We are a wealthy nation. There is no need for any of the people who live here to go to bed hungry – to die because they are too sick to work. Or else we are in such dire straights that something drastic has to happen to the middle and upper classes too. We can’t have it all ways. It shouldn’t always be the poor who suffer.

Ultimately McKenzie’s article – and my clumsy attempt to think through it here – reminds me again of the difficulty of writing and limits of words. The seduction of polemic, in which the newspapers deal, is that it makes life easy. It lets us choose a side. We can prove that we are right thinking and right if things are straightforward. But things are not straightforward. We live in a world riddled with paradoxes. If academic research is for anything it is to help us think about old problems in new ways. It can throw light on what was once in darkness.

Naturally, the limits of ‘journalism’ meant that the complexities that characterise McKenzie’s fascinating research were somewhat lost in translation. The nuances of her argument were perhaps clearer to me because I have read much of her published research and her PhD. But it was, nonetheless, an important attempt to disseminate sociological research more widely.

I salute McKenzie’s attempts to give her research a public face, and to use sociology to enliven public debate. I hope more academics are afforded a platform in the mainstream media, so that proper research can triumph over polemic. But I also hope readers realise that writing is hard, that words are limited (especially when there’s a word limit) – and that important research should provoke debate and disagreement.