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19 April: Academic Rights

Published onJul 09, 2019
19 April: Academic Rights

About ten years ago a letter dropped through my letterbox from the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS). It said they were holding royalties for me and on becoming a member the payment would be transferred. My first reaction was that this was just another junk mail con trick. I am sure you’ve all received letters that start with ‘Congratulations – you’ve just won £50,000.’ It was only after speaking to a friend who had received royalties from ALCS that I dug the letter out of the recycling bin and made further inquiries.

ALCS is a non-profit-making company that distributes payments to authors for the reproduction of their work. With over 80,000 members it is one of the largest writers’ organizations in the world. In 2013/14 ALCS announced a record with £33,755,233 of incomes to be distributed to its members. In large part the revenue is generated by licences given to photocopy an already published work but it also covers digitization of printed texts and broadcasting and cable re-transmission.

This year I received payments from sources as obscure as a Scandinavian anthropology department that photocopied a chapter I’d written for an edited book and the re-broadcast in Russia of a radio interview I’d done for the BBC. The scale of the uncollected royalties held by ALCS is quite staggering. The Copyright Licensing Agency, the body that issues licences to photocopy material, transfers the author’s share automatically to ALCS. The society is entrusted to seek out the authors and pass on the payments.

ALCS holds literally millions of pounds in unpaid royalties and this is just the figure for writers that ALCS has tracked down but who haven’t returned their registration forms. Usually authors of books automatically keep the copyright for their work and publishers insist on exclusive publication rights. This means that while publishers can protect their interests, authors have ownership of their work and get paid for further reproduction. It is quite another matter when it comes to academic journals. Publishers often insist that authors transfer copyright for their journal articles to the publisher.

Under pressure to publish in a climate dominated by the research assessments and an increasingly competitive job market, academic writers – particularly young ones – simply publish at any cost, even if it means signing away the rights to their work. In truth, academic writers are often in too weak a position to bargain. We simply sacrifice the rights to our work as the price to be paid for making it into the pages of a prestigious journal. Taylor & Francis, which publishes more than 700 journals, requests that authors transfer their rights because it is ‘standard practice in serial and journals publishing’. Its rationale, posted on its website, is that publisher ownership of copyright gives ‘protection against infringement, libel and plagiarism’.

Additionally, it suggests that publisher control enables an efficient response to ‘requests from third parties to reproduce, reprint, or translate an article’ in accordance with international copyright law, so ‘encouraging the dissemination of knowledge’. Every academic would welcome the ‘dissemination of knowledge’ but such platitudes mask other interests. The result is that the publisher benefits from any extra revenue produced from reproduction or re-use; the author is entitled to nothing.

Unlike commercial publishing, the scientific, technical and medical market (STM) is low risk and stable. The Anglo-Dutch publishing giant Reed Elsevier is the global market leader for STM publications with 1,700 primary research and review journals. Its best known textbook is Gray’s Anatomy and the company specializes in medicine, nursing and education journals and reference texts. The company’s annual turnover is over £5 billion. At first glance the academic sector seems like a financial graveyard. Yet, on closer inspection there are considerable financial benefits. The Huffington Postcommented in 2014 that academic journals were ‘the most profitable obsolete technology in history’. They quoted a study that pointed out that in 2013 Elsevier posted higher profits (39%) than technology giant Apple (37%). The prices for academic journals can remain relatively high because university libraries are willing to pay for essential journals in perpetuity.

Similarly, key professional textbooks in the fields of medicine and law can hold a high price because they contain ‘must-have information’ and students simply have to buy them. This is why publishers are increasingly pressing academic authors to write textbooks. Meanwhile, we are all clamouring to publish original work in journals with high ‘impact factors’ because of the Research Excellence Framework and this fits well with the publishing status quo. Editorial boards are swamped with submissions and publishers not only get the copy for free but they may also benefit from owning its copyright.

The truth is, academics don’t expect to get paid for their writing. Indeed, I am not sure that we even see ourselves as writers in the broader sense of the term. We are expected to pore over the keyboard for love, enlightenment or something less profane than cold cash. Yet academic publishing is inherently unfair. Academic authors are not just expected to write for nothing, we are also subsidizing the profits of publishers by doing so. We have to find ways of placing pressure on publishers to change. Perhaps this can only start when we try harder to hold onto the copyright for our work. Otherwise we will be condemned to mine away with little pay or recompense at the frontiers of knowledge.

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