A Failure in Communcations
The metamorphosis of academic publishing
I really have to lean into the wind to make some headway as I come through the wind tunnel at the base of the building. Well, what do you expect? After all, it’s March, and this is Building 54. Instead of waiting for the elevators, I decide to walk up to the seventh floor. There is not going to be any time for any other exercise today. How can you work for 12 hours each day, and get further and further behind?
Trudging up the stairs, I go over my list of things to do. Actually the hike is more like 10 floors, but my list is long enough to last the entire trip. On the way past the mail room, I grab my pile of incoming. Let’s see: junk, junk, the Faculty Newsletter – put that aside to read cover to cover later – junk, junk, some papers to review, a few proposals to read, a couple of manuscripts to revise . . . Wait, what’s this? A letter from the publisher. Great, our paper was accepted! Here’s the copyright agreement. Man, who writes this stuff? Well, at least I can sign this, get it out of here, and get on with life. After all, you don’t really have a choice about these agreements, right? There isn’t anything you can do, and the media rights don’t matter, anyway. Nobody’s going to make a movie out of my research.
Well, actually, most of th ose comments are dead wrong. There is a choice, those agreements do matter, and you, the author, are not powerless. There are things you can do about it; but first, a little history.
For perhaps the last 10-15 years, academic publishing has been metamorphosing in dramatic fashion. Most of us are aware of the transition from print to electronic media. For those with the right institutional connections, access to most major research journals is now possible from our offices or, even, at home. Less apparent to end-users in academe has been the transfer of publication costs from the single subscriber to multiple-journal, multi-user access licenses by libraries, institutions, and systems. These fundamental changes in the business strategies of the commercial academic publishers have caused extraordinarily large increases of cost for colleges and universities (see graph). Additionally, globalization of the scholarly printing trade has dramatically reduced the number of publishers, even as the number of journals has increased.
Intellectual property rights are also in transition. The advent of the Internet and its promise of large amounts of freely accessible information have triggered a movement to replace copyright law with contract law. Access to scholarly publications is now rented yearly, rather than purchased.
The right to own print copies now incurs charges in addition to simple subscription costs, and many publishers are moving to eliminate traditional print versions entirely.
Thus, if a library drops a journal subscription, access to the entire electronic version may be lost, and recourse to a printed copy is much less likely. Subscription rates are now negotiated individually by institutions, rather than being based on standard values for all colleges. A small community college is likely to pay much less for a given journal than a major research institution. Of course, the research institution also has less flexibility in cutting important journals and, consequently, has less leverage in threatening to cut subscription costs. As publishers strive to protect access to journal content, the contract and copyright agreements have become much less standard and, generally, more restrictive.
In response to these trends, a grass-root, “open-access” movement has developed with the loosely defined goal of providing freely accessible repositories of intellectual material, governed by less restrictive copyright assignments, as defined by a broader portion of the academic community (for example, see sciencecommons.org). The open-access movement is driven by a wide variety of forces, amongst which are desires for fewer restrictions on the use of published material in the classroom, increased accessibility, decreased cost, and greater clarity in copyright issues. Open access journals tend to be concentrated in, but not exclusively restricted to, health, medicine, and biological sciences. Concern for public access has been most visible in these medical fields, with the argument being made that access to publicly funded research should not be overly restricted by private copyright interests. Private funding foundations, including the Wellcome Trust, and other public agencies, e.g., the UK Research councils, are also moving in this direction. In the last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have instituted a policy requesting deposit of final peer-reviewed manuscripts into a repository called PubMed Central (NLM). Although the NIH policy stops short of requiring deposits, submission is strongly encouraged.
But what, exactly, are the roles of MIT, its faculty, students, and researchers in all this? First, if the Institute can provide mechanisms to clarify copyright issues and to increase the efficiency of scholarly output of our staff and students, it should do so. Second, it is in the best interest of the Institute to retain control of its intellectual output while insuring broad dissemination, but only if it can be done in ways that are responsible to individual investigators, to the academic community, and to the general public. Finally, it is in the best interests of the entire academic community to encourage balance and cooperation amongst all members of the scholarly publishing community, whether private or public, and if MIT can provide leadership within academe, we should not shirk.
Fortunately, progress on the first item has been made. Owing to hard work on the part of Ann Wolpert and the staff of the MIT Library Systems, the Committee on Intellectual Property, Vice President for Research Alice Gast, and the Office of the Provost, there are now systems being developed to help investigators respond to the NIH policy. In part, the purpose of this article is simply to alert faculty and staff to the fact that there are some tools designed to help the individual investigator. One of the most recent developments is a standard amendment to publication agreements, drafted by the Intellectual Property Counsel, which is available online at http://web.mit.edu/faculty/research.html; http://web.mit.edu/faculty/agreement.pdf; http://libraries.mit.edu/about/scholarly/amendment.doc.
The last of these sites also has information about the open-access movement, clarification of the NIH initiative, and discussion of scholarly communications in general. The amendment to publication agreement provides a relatively easy method to standardize copyright assertions for your own work. In addition, library systems staff are available to assist NIH investigators and others in the submission of work to Dspace. Bearing in mind that Dspace is available for all MIT faculty members, such a repository could be used for a much broader spectrum of the research output of the MIT community, an option that is particularly attractive given the commitment of Dspace to providing a robust and durable Website with upward migration of data.
Progress in the broader community is also possible, I believe. With increased awareness of the issues confronting academic publishing, MIT faculty are in a position to exert responsible leadership with our colleagues at other universities. Tempting as it might be to grab pitchforks and torches and march off to man the barricades, we, as a faculty, need to be thoughtful and constructive in our approach. What we cannot do with any sense of collective responsibility is simply watch. The issues are too important for scientific and engineering research, for universities and colleges, and for the fulfillment of MIT’s core mission, to allow outside forces to decide the outcome. It is time for a broad discussion involving a large portion of the faculty and staff to formulate a constructive statement of policy. With general faculty support and awareness, we can exert force for positive change.
Sadly, though, I have been forced to realize it is probably true that no one is going to make a movie of my research. What a shame! Harrison Ford would have been perfect for the lead.