There has been a lot of talk around the Internet recently about Elsevier taking down PDFs of articles on academia.edu and what it says about scholarly publishing (my favorite analysis is here). As an open access advocate my sympathies in this case are, actually, with Elsevier. Here’s why:
When you publish with Elsevier, you sign an agreement with them called a ‘copyright transfer agreement’. Guess what it does? That’s right: It transfers control of your creative work to them. In many important ways, your work no longer belongs to you. You may be the author, but you are no longer the owner. In saying this I am condensing a lot of complex argumentation about what constitutes ownership, authorship, and so forth. But you get the picture. When Elsevier tells you you can’t post your own work on Academia.edu or anywhere else, they are only exercising the rights that you gave them.
So far, Elsevier and other publishers have quietly tolerated the tremendous traffic of PDFs that happens both in public and private on the Internet. Doing so is in their own best interest — if most people realized the way they had signed away their rights to publishers, the open access movement would double or triple in size overnight. At the moment, exercising these rights seems a bonehead play because it wakes academics from their dogmatic slumbers and gets them pissed off. But is it really a dumb play? Perhaps this is the first step in a gradual process of acclimatization in which publishers slowly send more and more take down notices, getting us used to the idea that we can’t control our own work. Perhaps Elsevier did the numbers and decided it was better to increase sales, even if it comes at the expense of their public reputation. Who knows? Maybe they’ve decided we can’t hate them anymore and just said ‘to hell with it’.
But you can’t blame them for seeing clearly the nature of the game we play with them. When was the last time you watched Jaws and thought to yourself: “It’s not fair! That shark isn’t supposed to eat people!” The crazy guy with the stitched up face and the chainsaw? What did you think he was doing here in the same creepy mansion with you? And are you really surprised your cell phone doesn’t work in here?
The world of scholarly communication is a deeply screwed up. Most people don’t notice, most of the time. But there are a lot of ways to make it less screwed up. You can publish in fully open access journals. You can publish in green OA journals that allow you to post preprints of your work. You can alter the terms of your author’s agreement (many authors do this successfully) to make your work more accessible. Or if you are on the road to tenure or a job, you can just say “grub first, then ethics” and publish away, knowing that you’ve made a deal with the devil. I understand that sometimes these deals have to be made.
But there’s one thing I don’t think it is fair for us to do: complain about the way the world is because we lived under the impression that it was something else. Especially if we are actively engaged in reproducing it. So if you are pissed off about the Elsevier takedowns, then please join our rebel alliance now — because guess what? Darth Vader actually is out to get you.