In the last couple of weeks, there have been several developments in the scholarly communication world that all point in the same direction – the move by the major commercial publishers to tighten their grip on access to and share of academic work, as well as a concern to capture data about how scholarship is shared. Call this last part the commodification of the professoriate.
My attention was first drawn to these developments by a tweet that pointed to Wiley’s “Article Sharing Policy” site — with its handy-dandy sharing guidelines chart — and asked if Wiley really was asserting control over the pre-peer review copy of scholarly manuscripts. Before I proceed, I think it is important to explain why the answer to that question is yes.
When copyright is transferred to a publisher, that copyright is in the content of the work, not in any particular version. Minor changes between versions, and even some changes that are more extensive, do not change the fact; the publisher gains the rights over any versions of the work that are “substantially similar” (which is the standard courts use to determine when one work infringes on another). So, after the transfer of copyright, the publisher can, and most do, tell authors what they can and cannot do even with the “pre-print” version of an article. In that regard, Wiley’s chart is not much different from many other publication contracts, which often parse the rights that are given back to authors in terms of the different versions. They can do this because they control the copyright in the content, and hence in all the different versions of that content.
Even before copyright is transferred, in fact, Wiley still has some level of control, since they could, if they wished, assert that putting an article in a pre-print repository was a prior publication. By long tradition, publishers insist that they will not publish previously published work, and authors warrant that the articles they submit have not previously appeared. So Wiley could, if they chose, use a pre-print version in a repository to decline publication; thus their assertion of control even before submission has, unfortunately, some justification under the present system.
In some ways, Wiley strikes me as the worst actor in this rush to tighten the publishing stranglehold on scholarly collaboration, but they are not alone. Their policy references these STM Publishers Association “Principles for article sharing on scholarly collaboration networks,” which show a strong movement to coordinate publisher policy on how articles can be made available to students, colleagues, and the general public. Call this the co-opting of open access.
These principles are introduced in a blog post on the Scholarly Kitchen site called “Content Sharing Made Simple.” The title is somewhat ironic to me, because scholarly sharing should be simple. It is only complicated by the various restrictions imposed on authors by publishers who are desperate to make ever-greater profits from the free labor of academics. They have created the mishmash of different and often contradictory rules about open access, classroom use, and collaboration that have plagued us for years. Now that they are beginning to discover “the burgeoning Internet” as a new source of revenue, these so-called “collaborative approach[es]” are really about tightening their grip over every possible purpose an author could have for her work, and making sure that they serve that revenue stream. After years of simply denying the role of the Internet, publishers now desperately want to control it.
The news that Elsevier has acquired the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) is another wrinkle in this ongoing quest for control. The same five or six major publishers who dominate the market for scholarly journals are engaged in a race to capture the terms of and platforms for scholarly sharing. This is a serious threat to academic freedom, which has largely gone unnoticed by the champions of that important value. Where does the AAUP stand on these principles and acquisitions? How can we help our scholarly authors maintain freedom of inquiry in the light of this tightening grip over their rights and venues? It is interesting, I think, that there appears to have been no scholarly authors involved in the development of the STM principles, and certainly none were consulted when Elsevier was buying SSRN. These moves are threats to the foundational values of the academy and should be addressed as such by institutions and academic organizations.
With the purchase of SSRN, about which there will be more commentary on this site shortly, one other trend is noteworthy. This acquisition offers Elsevier access to a commodity even more valuable, perhaps, than scholarly articles – data about the behavior of scholars. There is an old saying about Google that users are not their customers, they are Google’s product. The data that Google gathers about search patterns and interests is the real value of the company. Now Elsevier seems to be planning to cash in on that same type of data about how academics behave. Many of us have been concerned about the commodification of higher education in the so-called neoliberal university. It is also time to raise the alarm about the commodification of our faculty in this potential dystopia where publishing giants control every aspect of research, collaboration, and sharing.