Last week the academic publisher Elsevier issued several thousand takedown notices to the academia.edu website, requesting that they remove PDFs of academic articles that authors had uploaded to the site. While this may have turned out to be another PR disaster for Elsevier after the Twitter backlash, it’s worth remembering that they are acting within their legal rights and are exhibiting perfectly rational behaviour from the perspective of the system they operate within. (Elsevier have issued a response.)
Academia.edu is a platform which acts as a social network for academics who can share articles by uploading PDFs to add to their profile. Whether this practice is legal or not depends on a case by case basis on the policy of the journal and/or publisher of the original article, and whether the author signed a copyright transfer agreement with the publisher.
If authors want to retain control of their copyright in order to allow their work to be more widely shared there are several options, including:
1) publish in an open access journal;
2) if publishing in a subscription access journal, make sure you have permission to archive a copy (if not the final publishers’ version then at least a pre-print) in an open access repository;1
3) negotiate terms with the publishers.
This third point is something which I’d like to see more authors take advantage of – authors all too often don’t negotiate the details of their contract but simply sign the agreement they are presented with. Authors may not necessarily get exactly what they ask for if they negotiate, but it’s certainly worth asking. Traditional academic publishers typically ask authors to sign a copyright transfer agreement which legally transfers the copyright of the work to the publisher. These agreements often include clauses which allow authors to deposit their work in an institutional repository and also host them on a personal website. Academia.edu does not fall into either of these categories.
An alternative to a copyright transfer agreement is a ‘license to publish’, in which authors retain copyright while allowing a publisher to make their work available.2 This flips the power dynamic back in favour of the researcher. Not all publishers will allow it, but it’s another option for authors to be aware of.
So while I agree with those affected by Elsevier’s take down notices that they should be allowed to share their work freely, it’s important to note that there are steps they could have taken to prevent Elsevier having this control over their work in the first place. Of course, it might be argued that some of the options outlined above are not possible for authors due to pressure to publish in ‘high impact’ journals. However, for many disciplines there are now open access journals with high impact factors, and even if authors decide to go with a non-open publisher, there is still an opportunity to negotiate.
In conclusion: yes, Elsevier’s actions were against authors’ interests and detrimental to the furtherance of knowledge, but they are merely the inevitable symptoms of a broken system. Hopefully their actions will have some positive effect by bringing this issue to the attention of more academics, who will re-think how they deal with publishers and consider alternative routes to publication.
By Stuart Lawson
1. Journal self-archiving policies can be checked at SHERPA/RoMEO.
2. Morris et al., 2013. The handbook of journal publishing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.331.