Forget the outrage: Stop signing away your author rights to corporations

Earlier this summer here at the Savage Minds editorial offices, we had a temporary informational mishap that led some of our staff to believe that the mega-publisher Elsevier had purchased and, possibly, the rights to all of our first born children. This insider intelligence had us all on the edges of our figurative seats for about 11 tension-ridden minutes.*

In the end, the intel turned out to be incorrect and we all let out a collective sigh of status-quo-preserving relief. For a minute there we thought we might have to get all up in arms and start checking the oil in our X-Wing fighters and such to fight the big Open Access battle of the century. No need. Stand down folks, stand down.

But the false alarm got me thinking of the time that Elsevier issued more than 2,000 take-down notices to authors who had illegally posted articles on This was back in 2013. Remember that? You might not. But. It. happened. That was the time that a bunch of scholars get all bent out of shape at the Big Evil Publisher that had committed the dastardly act of exercising its legal rights! The nerve! The gall! What right does that Big Evil Publisher have over work that authors freely and willingly gave away via signed author agreements? I mean, seriously, what those publishers are doing is an outrage. Right? Who has the time to read the author agreements? Is there even any text on those agreements? Who reads any fine print these days?

Here’s what Barbara Fister had to say about the whole Elsevier fiasco:

HAHAHAHAHahahahahah . . . whew, that was funny. (Wipes away tears of laughter and frustration.) Those chickens finally came home to roost. All these years librarians have been saying to scholars, “uh, you realize what happens when you sign away your rights, don’t you? You just gave your copyright to a corporation. We have pay them to get access to that content, and anyone who can’t pay can’t read it. Is this really what you had in mind when you wrote up that research?

As Fister explains in her post, the usual response she gets when she tries to bring up these issues is something along the lines of: “ZZZZZZzzzzzzzzz snort, snuffle. Huh? Did you say something? Oh, yeah, tenure. Promotion. Don’t be silly. I’m working on a review article, can you get these articles for me?” But when people get take-down notices, suddenly they wake up and get outraged about their articles and their rights. Here’s her response:

While in a way I find this outrage a little funny, I can’t indulge in “I told you so.” This episode once again shows that librarians are not the change agents we want to see. We can’t get scholarly authors attention quite the way a publisher can when it actually uses the all-rights-reserved copyright that authors have willingly given them.

Fister’s post ends with some suggestions: read some Peter Suber. Take some time to learn a bit more about the rights journals are asking for, and the kinds of waivers you can request that help you retain more of your rights. Browse the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). She lists a few more suggestions as well. The main problem persists though. Despite the options that exist, many scholars keep doing the same old thing and signing away the rights to their work. Sure, the Elsevier take-down created a stir…but it was short-lived. Now most of us are back to the grind–publishing and signing away our rights faster than you can say “Hey what the hell are those folks at Cultural Anthropology talking about with all of this ‘publishing otherwise’ business?

Rex here at Savage Minds also wrote about the big Elsevier shocker:

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.

Rex wrote that “Elsevier and other publishers have quietly tolerated the tremendous traffic of PDFs that happens both in public and private on the Internet.” They do this because it’s in their best interest, as Rex explained: “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.”

Did you see that? Let’s recap: 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.

This mass realization obviously hasn’t happened yet. And so the screwed up world of corporate academic publishing keeps grinding forward. The worst part, as Rex points out, is that so many of us are surprised–if not shocked–when publishers actually do what they told us they were going to do in the first place. This, he says, is like being upset at Jaws for eating people in questionably accurate 1970s films. Of course the shark is eating people! It’s the 1970s! And, duh, look at the poster for the film! Likewise, of course the massive corporate publisher is gobbling up and controlling all of our academic output! We went swimming in their ocean, after all.

Like Fister, Rex has some advice to help soothe our wounded souls. There are ways to make the world of scholarly communication a better place. Publish in gold OA journals. Publish in green OA journals. Alter the terms of your author’s agreement. He ends with this:

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.

Jason B Jackson made a similar argument at the time:

While I am a Elsevier boycott participant and cannot ever imagine publishing with them, I 100% support the rights of Elsevier and other publishers to fully and legally exercise the copyright that they legally hold and to protect their property from illegal misuse by third party firms and from their author agreement-disregarding authors who mistakenly believe that because their name is on the byline of an article that they can do whatever they wish with value-added property that, despite their authorship, they do not own.

Self-piracy is wrong and it is not helping build a better scholarly communication system. Instead, it further confuses the already confused into believing that [pseudo] open access is easy and it leads to painful ironies such as scholarly society leaders setting publishing policies that they do not understand and that they, even as they make them, are out of compliance with.

Jackson’s final argument is that breaking contracts we signed by essentially stealing articles and posting them on for-profit sites “is not the way to do it.” There are other options. Plenty, he reminds us. He also says that it is our obligation as scholars to know how to modify author agreements. This is one step in moving things forward (and something that has been suggested by all three authors I have cited so far–probably good reason to pay attention).

Gavia Libraria also chimed in on the matter right around the same time. For her, much of it comes down to mass ignorance of the issues:

The great mass of those who publish in the scholarly literature are pig-ignorant about how scholarly publishing works. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have to worry about scam open-access journals or journal impact factor, just to offer up two obvious examples, because they would be laughed out of existence.

This mass of people, she says, has an unwarranted sense of entitlement to the scholarly literature and a warped understanding of their own contributions to it. This entitlement, combined with ignorance, works to the benefit of toll-access publishers. How? Because, she argues, people who feel this sense of entitlement yet know almost nothing about the workings of the publishing world are”are easily manipulated into signing contracts they shouldn’t and vehemently defending organizations and processes out to exploit them.”

These are some harsh words. They might hurt–but that’s probably because they’re right on the mark. I’m definitely someone who has been guilty of complaining about Big Evil Publishers in the past–without looking deeper into the issues. This kind of populism is fun and all, but there’s no actual end game. If the goal is to do something about the current publishing regime, then the first thing we’re going to have to do is wise up. Read up. Learn more and listen more when it comes to publishing.

And here I’m not just talking about the usual conversations about publishing–you know, the ones where people tell you to either get yourself published in the usual toll-access journals or watch your career slowly wither away. I’m talking about the kind of “publishing otherwise” that Marcel LaFlamme writes about (not one, but two nods there folks). The kind of rowdy, alternative publishing that Eileen Joy writes about. And after we educate ourselves, well, it’s time to actively take part in building the alternative publishing platforms that will make the current world of pay-walled publishing seem ridiculous, laughable, and, probably most important, completely inept.

Maybe now is actually the time for the big Open Access battle of the century. If not now, when?

*We don’t actually have an editorial office.



Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

2 thoughts on “Forget the outrage: Stop signing away your author rights to corporations

  1. Copyright is actually a bundle of rights to promote, produce, distribute, and sell a work. When you assign “copyright,” you are assigning any number of those rights to a publisher. While big commercial publishers tend to exert powerful control over the distribution of the works they publish, nonprofit university presses are much more flexible (and their subscription rates are totally reasonable). Most nonprofit presses enable authors to post PDFs on their sites as long as they are not charging for access. Please consider the nuance of the publishing landscape. This is not a black/white, closed/open debate, and Savage Minds has not been attentive to important details for a long time.

  2. Hi Anon, thanks for the comment.

    You write: “While big commercial publishers tend to exert powerful control over the distribution of the works they publish, nonprofit university presses are much more flexible (and their subscription rates are totally reasonable).”

    Yes, this is a good point and part of the reason for reading up about publishing, OA, etc. Jason Jackson, who I interviewed on Savage Minds a while back, is a big champion of these University Presses.

    “Please consider the nuance of the publishing landscape. This is not a black/white, closed/open debate…”

    It is a nuanced landscape and yes, it’s not a black and white, simple issue. All the more reason for us to push more conversation about how we publish. I still think this conversation should start happening in grad school, particularly because of all the pressure to publish sooner than later. If we’re going to publish, we should take the time to know a little more about how it all works, why we’re publishing, etc.

    Thanks again for your comment.

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