Here we go again. If you’re a member of the American Anthropological Association, you should have received an email this past week (10/17) about avoiding copyright infringement. The message was concise and right to the point: A bunch of members are in violation of their author agreements, and the AAA wants you to take your papers down. Here’s the message in case you missed it:
Basically, the AAA is saying that that more than 1,000 AAA copyrighted articles are in violation of copyright because they have been posted on ResearchGate and Academia.edu. This news is not super shocking, since many of us who publish aren’t particularly informed about the author agreements we sign, let alone how the publishing process works. We just sign those agreements in the rush to publish before we perish…and then sometimes post stuff on commercial sites to make our content “accessible” to the world. Awesome, right? Not so much. This is ultimately to our own detriment.
To quote the Library Loon (as I have before on this site), “The great mass of those who publish in the scholarly literature are pig-ignorant about how scholarly publishing works.” Ouch. But it’s pretty true. How many of you pay close attention to the author agreements you sign? If you did, we might not be having this conversation. Why, you ask? Because you likely signed away your rights, willingly. So when Wiley (or Elsevier, etc) demands that you take your paper down from Academia.edu, they’re just exercising the power you handed to them. As Rex once wrote here on Savage Minds, “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.”*
Well, this latest message from the AAA is a case in point. So we have all of these AAA members publishing. They’re at various stages of their careers, from stressed our graduate students and junior faculty all the way to stressed out tenured faculty. Everyone is stressed out, and trying to publish and keep their heads above water. Meanwhile, corporate publishers are making a tidy profit, we all write and do peer review for free, and our scholarly work gets closed behind paywalls. Awesome.
Understandably, many people are not happy about the current state of publishing (and access)…so they post copies of their articles on sites like ResearchGate and Academia.edu. But, as it turns out, those sites are there to make money off of the very users who think they’re somehow sticking it to “The Man” by posting it on sites like Academia.edu. Nope. You’re effectively just handing your work–and breaking an agreement you signed–right to another commercial entity that’s looking to make a profit off of you. But these commercial repositories don’t care about your work per se. They likely care much more about monetizing your data (for more, read Chris Kelty’s 2016 post “It’s the Data, Stupid“).
The moral of the story is that we’re not doing anything to change or challenge “the system” when we: 1) sign away our rights to corporate publishers; and then 2) willingly allow our ideas and data to be monetized by other corporations in the name of pseudo-open access. What a mess. Barbara Fister outlined the primary problem a few years back:
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?”
Who benefits from our collective ignorance (and inaction), you ask? As the Library Loon explains, “In general, toll-access publishers benefit most from the pig-ignorantly entitled, since such folk are easily manipulated into signing contracts they shouldn’t and vehemently defending organizations and processes out to exploit them.” There you have it. And willingly handing your work over to Academia.edu isn’t changing a thing. As Jason B. Jackson has argued, “Self-piracy is wrong and it is not helping build a better scholarly communication system.” There are other options (Hint: For some shorter-term solutions, look into the ways you can modify your author agreements). Regardless, the real long-term answer lies with developing and maintaining an effective, accessible, and reliable Open Access infrastructure.
So resorting to “self-piracy” by posting your work on Academia.edu or ResearchGate isn’t going to lead to that Open Access Revolution we’re all waiting for. Now what? Well, there are some issues we can deal with now, even while we (hopefully) starting thinking about the future of our scholarly publishing. This brings us back to that email from the AAA, which states:
The AAA author agreement specifically states that the final version (pre-copyedit and typesetting) can be posted on an author’s personal website or in an institutional or discipline-specific repository. ResearchGate and Academia.edu are neither personal websites nor institutional/discipline-speci
This statement tells us what we can do with our work according to the AAA author agreement. First of all, it’s important to know the terms being used here. The “final version” of a manuscript is the one that a journal accepts (before copy-editing and typesetting). This is different from the “pre-print,” which is the version that you first submit, before review and revision (h/t to Dan Hirschman for the concise terms). So the AAA agreement allows us to post the “final version” on a personal website or an institutional or discipline-specific repository. The first part is pretty straightforward. You can create a website and post your work there, no problem (except it may be hard to find). But the second part gets a little tricky. What’s an “institutional” or “discipline-specific” repository, and where you can find one that the AAA accepts? Do you know where to look?
One possibility, you’d think, would be something like SocArXiv (for more about SoxArXiv, check this post). In brief, SocArXiv is a green open access digital repository for social science that runs on the Open Science Framework. I sent a message to the folks at the AAA, asking if they consider SocArXiv to be “discipline-specific.” Here was their reply:
I followed up and asked what discipline-specific repositories they do recommend, but the AAA did not reply. I also sent an email. No reply yet, but I’ll keep you posted. So here’s the thing. The AAA is well-within its rights to issue this notice to members and ask them to take AAA copyrighted material down from ResearchGate and Academia dot edu. But that doesn’t really solve anything. Now might be a good time to investigate why so many people are posting their material on these sites. What is it about these sites–as compared to AnthroSource, for example–that draws so many people to them? But beyond all of that, if the AAA publishing agreement states that authors have a right to post their work in certain repositories, why not clarify which ones are acceptable? Why all the mystery?
I’d also like to know why, specifically, SocArXiv is not an acceptable repository. That appears to be the message from the AAA, but this doesn’t make much sense to me. SocArXiv is non-profit, so I’m not sure why it’s not an option. The current AAA publishing agreement does make room for Green Open Access options, but it’s pretty clear that this is not taking place (considering all that self-piracy out there). Why not? Part of me wonders if this is because some of the terms in our agreements (vague references to personal websites and various repositories) haven’t actually been clearly-defined in practice. If we can’t point specifically to acceptable resources, then how can we expect anyone to use them? A little clarity could go a long way here.
There’s one last point I’d like to make here, and it’s about this line in the message: “AAA has put the author agreement in place to protect authors, and to prevent unauthorized or inappropriate usage.” I’m not quite sure how the AAA is arguing that the agreement works to “protect authors” in any way, and I’d rather not see the message conflated in this fashion. Let’s keep things straight here: This email is about asserting and upholding the publishing agreement that the AAA has with Wiley. That’s fine. We signed away those rights, so we have to pay the proverbial piper. If the primary concern was about protecting authors, not to mention our academic commons, then we’d have a dramatically different publishing agreement…and disciplinary culture of publishing altogether. Just sayin.
*For more check this post from 2015: Forget the outrage: Stop signing away your author rights to corporations. See also Rex’s 2013 post: Don’t blame Elsevier for exercising the rights you gave them.