A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that Elsevier, the Dutch academic publishing giant, has started issuing takedown orders to Academia.edu, a social-networking website for academics where many members post .pdf versions of their work for sharing. In fact, I received a notification from Academia.edu yesterday that one of my posted articles had received a takedown notice from Elsevier – it is a piece I am the fourth author on, but I still like the piece and find myself greatly annoyed this happened. On the other hand, it was sort of inevitable – I’ve published a good bit, and a lot of my stuff is available in various forms in various locations, so sooner or later one of those repositories was going to receive a takedown notice.

The Chronicle article is fine – basically, a rehash of the ongoing debate about academic publishing, profit models, and the rights of researchers to disseminate their research findings. But the comments section of the piece is a microcosm of why this debate persists – basically, the commenters sit on two sides: “information should be free and accessible” versus “if you don’t like it, stop signing contracts/publishing with journals that restrict your rights as an author.” This is not helpful – most academics want their work to be free, and we are not idiots when it comes to the contracts we sign when we publish. We sign them BECAUSE WE HAVE TO.

For those who are not academics, let me walk you through the problem. For academics in research-focused universities (and increasingly in teaching-focused institutions) a record of publication is our legitimacy, our standing in our discipline, our leverage for higher salaries or new jobs. And while the pervasiveness of electronic resources and networks have started to change the publishing landscape, as of now there still exists a hierarchy of journals in each discipline. And for most of us, that hierarchy matters – you simply must publish at least some pieces in the top tier of journals if you are to be tenured and promoted, and if you are to be taken seriously within your discipline. This is institutional reality. And guess who controls nearly all of those journals? For-profit academic publishers like Elsevier.

Let me lay this out in a simple scenario: You are a tenure-track assistant professor, and after a few years of research, data analysis, and writing, you’ve finally gotten a manuscript accepted by one of the very top journals in your field. You NEED this publication to ensure that your tenure file, which will go into review in the coming year, will be reviewed positively. Soon after your notification of the article’s acceptance, you receive the publishing contract from Elsevier/Springer/whoever and it says the usual restrictive things about not posting your own work. You hate this, as it means that those without access to academic libraries and interlibrary loan will likely have to pay $30 or more to access your article – in other words, nobody outside of academia will access or read your work. But if you refuse to sign, the publisher will not publish your manuscript. Here is your dilemma: at this point, do you withdraw the manuscript and send it to a new journal with more liberal author rights? If you do, you are certainly sending it to a lower-ranked journal, and you will have to go through peer review all over again, ensuring that the manuscript will not be accepted or published by the time your tenure file is submitted…which will really hurt your tenure case. Or do you sign the stupid contract because you absolutely must have this publication?

I think everyone reading this knows which way this decision is going to go. So do the publishers. This is why the model persists, people – not because academics are stupid, but because we are trapped in an institutional model that gives us very few degrees of freedom on this issue. It’s also not because academics are greedy. Note that I never talked about money, because academics DO NOT GET PAID FOR THESE ARTICLES. At all.

This is why I argued that a real change in this model will require disciplinary reorientations/reorganizations that recognize a whole new set of publishers/journals as legitimate/important outlets. It is the only way academia can really undermine the for-profit academic publishers and end the practice of restrictive publishing and dissemination contracts, as it would make the boycott/avoidance of such publishers a real possibility within the institutional realities of academia today.

Until disciplines, or at the very least particular institutions that are seen as academic leaders, start to recognize alternative journals or means of publication as legitimate outputs that will facilitate a path to tenure and promotion, we will be having the same conversations about academic publishing. Of course, there is one other possible lever that I have raised before – the White House could issue an executive directive reorganizing federally-funded research such that copyright does not attach. Federal employees currently publish in academic journals without transferring copyright (in these situations, there is no copyright to transfer to a journal), so there is a model in place for this. In the end, this makes a great deal of sense no matter how you feel about academic publishing, as these publications represent findings that were obtained via the expenditure of public money, so allowing private profit from such “public goods” is pretty perverse.

The White House appears to have considered this, but there has been little recent noise on this front – perhaps because of major exertions by the publishers to neuter this effort. My guess is that the decision-makers in the White House don’t really understand academic publishing and the institutional structures that maintain it (as opposed to OSTP, which is staffed with people who do, but serve in a mostly advisory capacity to the decision-makers). If they did, they would realize that most arguments for the persistence of exclusive publishing rights with for-profit academic publishers in the era of the Internet make no sense at all. It’s harder for an industry lobby to win an argument when those they are lobbying actually understand the rules of the game…