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Scholarly publishing giants like Elsevier own much of the knowledge that academics produce, in the form of the copyright to our articles. In the last few weeks, they’ve stepped up enforcement of their property rights, issuing "take-down notices" to Academia.edu, where some authors have posted PDFs of their articles. These articles were published in Elsevier-owned journals and are legally available only by subscription, often at exorbitant prices.

After journal staff sent the submitted manuscripts to academics to review and created PDFs in the style of the journals, the authors signed away their copyright to Elsevier. So Elsevier is certainly within their legal rights to not allow posting of the final article PDF to third-party sites, whether Academia.edu or an author’s personal webpage.

Some have suggested that we scholars should be actively rebelling against this situation by illegally posting the final article PDF to our websites.

I don’t think encouraging this is a good idea. I say that in spite of my disgust with the current system of signing away our rights to publishers, which I believe stifles scholarship and hinders innovation. I have a partial boycott policy with regards to Elsevier and am exercised enough to contribute to several open access related initiatives, as well as lectures, blog posts, and a sarcastic video .

But I don't think we should be encouraging this illegal practice of posting final PDFs. Even from a purely pragmatic perspective, it is a piecemeal action that distracts people from comprehensive solutions. It increases the availability only of the specific articles that are posted. We will not see university administrators and grant funders encouraging people to do something illegal, and as long as the administrators and funders do not encourage something, many academics will not do it, so it is not a large-scale solution. We have to look for solutions that official policymakers can get behind.

Illegal action can be useful in another way: attracting attention and exposing injustice, but in this domain we may be past that stage. Over the last five years, the open access movement has been highly effective in increasing awareness of the unnecessary restrictions on dissemination of scholarly knowledge.

An initiative that all levels of the research sector can support is the posting of preprints to websites such as institutional digital repositories. A preprint is the author-formatted manuscript that a publishers normally cannot claim copyright of, before it is turned into the PDF that appears in the journal.

If posting preprints is linked by universities and funders to their promotions and research evaluation processes, the majority of researchers will begin posting their preprints rather quickly! This has already happened in Belgium at the University of Liege, and in Australia at the Queensland University of Technology.

Wherever such a policy spreads, it brings increased citations for researchers, because preprint repositories are fully indexed by sites such as Google Scholar. It also moves scholarship towards a preprint-sharing culture, accelerating progress (because we don't have to wait for the publishers for research to become available), facilitating innovation (such as open peer review, since many manuscripts will already be available openly on websites), and leading to library savings (through cancellation of journal subscriptions).

Unfortunately, other universities adopting open access “mandates” have not linked these to research assessment and promotion processes. Without that link, such measures largely fail to induce researchers to change their habits.

Several of my colleagues have objected to the preprint-posting solution. They tell me they simply don’t like looking at preprints, as preprints are sometimes laid out with ugly double-spaced text and relegate the all-important figures to the end of the document. The publisher-created PDF is a more aesthetic experience, with the figures embedded nicely into two-column pages of text.

But are these niceties worth the price of denying the knowledge in these papers to all the researchers, policymakers, and citizens around the world who don’t have access to the journals? And do we really need this service when areas of physics have gone without it for decades, communicating mainly by preprints posted on arXiv.org? In any case, it's not that hard to create an attractive layout oneself, using any modern word processor.

It is true, however, that in certain fields we can have our figure-formatted flan and let everybody eat it too. In some of the sciences, in some countries, enough money is around to pay for gold open-access publication, where the publishers are paid per article to produce an attractive PDF that anyone can immediately read and use without restriction. But in many humanities and arts-related areas, funding is too scarce to support paying a fee to publish each article.

Fortunately, many hundreds of open-access journals are published entirely by academics and libraries who have set aside the resources and time to make it happen, such as one edited by my friend Mark Wilson and this at the University of Sydney. As the open-source software tools that support such efforts improve, this solution will become more widespread. But starting such journals, and making them viable, takes time. As Steven Harnad is fond of pointing out, posting preprints can be done today.

Almost a year ago, many people were inspired to act by the tragic death of a "hacktivist" who worked for open access to research publications, among other things. That activist was Aaron Swartz, and soon after his suicide, some called for researchers to post final article PDFs to the web. This “#PDFtribute”, as it was known on twitter, spread widely and captured the well-meaning efforts of many scholars. But being illegal, such actions cannot be scaled up by institutions. Let’s get behind solutions that the whole community – individual scholars, university leadership, and governments – can turn into everyday practice.


What I haven't seen mentioned is that this might chiefly be about trying to take down a rival academic social network more than anything else:


Thanks for continuing the discussion Alex. I completely agree, if one cannot post the actual pdf, posting a pre-print is very useful (although the better formatted, and more readable it is, the better). I made the more provocative post, because I know of many scientists who share final pdfs, and many who advocate it, but less openly. In some sense I just want to point out the elephant in the room. We, morally and pragmatically, own the publication process, if we decide to end our support for a needlessly expensive publication processes we can. I’m glad you also highlight many of the innovative publication alternatives, that cost almost nothing compared to traditional (subscription and open access publishers). I think these alternatives represent just the tip of the ice-berg of what we could achieve if our universities stop paying for subscriptions (and stop paying excessive open access charges, and stop paying for university repositories which replicate rather than replace journals) and use the money to fund better models of publishing. Either way, we need to share our research, to ensure that change can happen.

Well said, Alex!
Best, Michael

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