Advice to a student
SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #68
December 2, 2003
by Peter Suber
Last month I received a letter from Michael Long, a philosophy major at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.  I reproduce it here with his permission.

I am an undergraduate philosophy student, interested in entering a doctoral program in philosophy.  I understand that you are a serious advocate of open access to academic scholarship, and so I think you might be able to give me some advice.  I oppose almost all intellectual property rights, and to legally restrict or to allow anyone else to legally restrict access to any writings I produce would violate my ethical standards.  At the same time, I understand that it is very important for a scholar to publish in peer-reviewed journals.  Are there any philosophy journals that do not demand an exclusive copyright and yet are prestigious enough that I might establish a reputation while only publishing in them?  Can you imagine any way in which I might succeed in this field without compromising my integrity? 

I wrote Michael a reply that drew in part on our common field, philosophy.  But here let me generalize for undergraduate and graduate students from all fields who might be planning an academic career that combines open access with career advancement.  How can you have both?

(1) First, the narrow question about journals that don't demand copyright and yet have enough prestige to help your career must be answered differently in different fields.  Even for experienced scholars, the question will be difficult, since the answer depends on the copyright policies of each of the first-rate journals in the field, and most scholars don't know most of those policies.

I recommend the Project RoMEO table of journal policies on copyright and self-archiving.  There's no substitute for reading a given journal's submission requirements and publishing contract.  But this table gives the basic policies of the major journal publishers.

(2) The best way to provide open access to your work is to cooperate with the copyright system to some extent.  When you write an article, you are the copyright holder and you should use your rights intelligently to get the result you want.  You can waive all these rights and put the work into the public domain.  Or you can waive most of these rights, provide open access to the article, and retain just the rights (for example) to block the distribution of mangled and misattributed copies.  Either way, you get these results by using the power that the law gives to copyright holders.  It's true that you could get the same results if the law gave less power to copyright holders, and I want to get there as much as anyone.  But in the meantime, copyright law is only a problem when the copyright is held by someone who wants to restrict access.

(3) While most journals will ask you to transfer copyright, some will accommodate you if you refuse or if you want to negotiate.  Nobody really knows how many journals will be flexible this way, since journals don't advertise their willingness to negotiate.  Anecdotally, we know that some are willing and some are not.  So the lesson is to try.  If you try to retain copyright, you'll succeed more often than you thought, even if that's not often enough.  Moreover, if more and more authors try, then more and more journals will feel pressure to shift their policies

(4) There are still things you can do if the journal wants a substantial bundle of rights.  You can transfer most rights to the journal but retain the right to put the postprint (the version that was approved by the peer-review process) in an OA archive or web site.  Or, you can offer to transfer to the journal just the right of first print and electronic publication.  Many journals think that's enough. 

(5) If there are OA archives hosted by your institution or discipline, then you can deposit your preprints there, regardless where you publish the postprints.  A growing number of publishers will let authors deposit their postprints in these archives as well.  That gives you open access without limiting your freedom about where to publish.

(6) All the while, of course, you can work to create more OA options in your field --primarily, journals and archives.  Then they'll be there when you need them.

(7) Conference presentations are usually OA.  Make a name for yourself by presenting your work at conferences.  Over time, can you wangle invitations to increasingly prestigious conferences.  You can then either publish the results in OA journals (no matter what their degree of prestige), directly to the web, or in books.

(8) A related strategy is to make your name through books.  It's customary for book authors to retain copyright, the reverse of the situation for journal articles.  On the other hand, it's rare for book publishers to provide OA to full-text books, although it's now being done for a growing number of titles at California, Illinois, Columbia, MIT, and the Brookings Institute, and since 1994 it's been done for all the titles at the National Academy Press.  If you have important books to your name, it may matter less whether your articles are OA in less prestigious journals or even non-OA.  Note that this strategy will work better in the humanities than the sciences, and that there is a "monograph crisis" in the humanities making it increasingly difficult there as well.  As the prices of science journals rise into the stratosphere, libraries cope in part by cutting into their book budgets, which leads university presses to accept fewer book manuscripts. 

(9) Your preferences won't be the only ones that matter here.  If you become a university professor, your publishing decisions will be influenced by the criteria of the committee that decides your hiring, promotion, and tenure.  This committee may not respect the OA journals on your list and may expect a very conventional kind of publishing career with traditional journals.  However, even when this is the case, you can still deposit your preprints in OA archives, and often your postprints as well.  Beyond that, I can recommend that you push for changes now so that the situation will improve for your successors.  That means work to create high-quality OA journals, work to close the gap between an OA journal's quality and its prestige (so that the good ones are both good and prestigious), and work to make the criteria used by promotion and tenure committees more sensitive to changing circumstances.

(10) Finally, educate your peers and professors about open access --and one day, your students.  Don't let misunderstandings circulate without challenge.  Don't let another generation of scientists and scholars become publishing authors ignorant of the profound changes that have taken place in making research literature useful and accessible.  Swap tips with your friends and spread the word.  Your success in relying on OA journals and archives depends on a community of like-minded scholars who build, maintain, edit, and submit their work to these resources.  It will take more than a village.  One cause and one effect of your activism should be the community that will build the superior publishing model of the future.


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This is the SPARC Open Access Newsletter (ISSN 1546-7821), written by Peter Suber and published by SPARC.  The views I express in this newsletter are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of SPARC or other sponsors.

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