Terry O'Connor

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Whose lines are these anyway?


Every once in a while, events and ideas converge to show that long-established ways of doing things are no longer fit for purpose and should be scrapped. Faced with the opportunity for a thorough overhaul, what usually happens is that a few of the more obvious issues are tinkered with, leaving the great mass of the problem untouched. It is rather as if the elephant in the room had a small lace doily thrown over it in the hope of rendering it invisible.

These cynical thoughts have been prompted by the convergence of issues around copyright and academic publishing. On the latter, I write as someone who has been both author and journal editor, and on the former as someone who has borrowed images from friends, colleagues and casual acquaintances for use in lectures and in published work, and who has donated images to colleagues for the same purposes. It has been clear for some time that the current model of academic publishing is sufficiently broken to justify fixing it. We academics, if I may still lay claim to that label, write the copy for free, then do the quality control, the editing and the proof-reading for free or very little recompense. Publishers get the thing printed then sell access back to us at an escalating price. To add insult to financial injury, many of them also put constraints on what we may do with our published work in terms of placing copies on websites for others to read. It is an asymmetric system and we are collectively bonkers to have gone along with it.

Once upon a time, when mutton-chop whiskers were all the rage, academic journals were wholly owned and published by learned societies. Members of the society used the journal as a means of circulating their ideas and discoveries, and the sordid matter of money only changed hands to offset the cost of printing. As academia expanded and lost its more leisured aspects that model became unsupportable for all but the most niche and small-circulation of journals (and I write as a regular reader of Mollusc World). The big publishing houses took over, and the whole raison d’être changed. In defence of those publishers, my experience of dealing with a couple of them has been that the staff who deal with journal production and who liaise with their journal editors and authors are mostly seriously interested in the subject matter and concerned to get the best academic result out in print. They are caught in the commercial structure just as much as those editors and authors.

Open-Access publication shifts the financial burden from pay-to-read to pay-to-publish. That at least enables well-funded projects to cover publication costs, though it acts against the interests of researchers who, for whatever reason, are not working within such a project team. The professionalization of academic research over the last 30 years was necessary and productive, though I fear that a latter-day Alfred Russel Wallace, self-funding and working on the thinnest of shoe-strings, would be unable to publish in an open-access journal. Open-Access is an improvement, perhaps more a tablecloth than a lace doily, but the elephant is still there.

There is another issue, not entirely unrelated, that arises quite often. An academic is invited to give a talk at a university or at a conference. They put together a well-illustrated talk, using images which they have originated plus a few others borrowed off the interweb or begged from friends. On arriving in the lecture hall, they find that the talk is going to be videoed or even live-streamed. Problem 1: Mrs Trellis, of North Wales, gave me permission to use her photo of Lloyd George in drag for teaching purposes. If I allow this university to video my talk, and therefore her photo, I am in breach of her permission. Problem 2: even if I swallow hard and assume that Mrs Trellis would not mind, how do I know what further use this university will make of the video? Will this lecture series or conference become part of the body of material that the university uses to promote itself and its activities? I might not want my talk and Mrs Trellis’s photograph to be used in that way, but once the lecture is recorded, I have relinquished my control of its contents.

The issue of recording lectures is related to the problems of academic publishing in that both involve academics handing over the results of their work for others to use and, potentially, to sell. If I am a salaried academic employed by University A, it is my employer who should have first claim to profit from my work, not University B, whose website now shows the happy audience enjoying my discourse on Derrida and the Semiotics of Birdwatching. How do universities and other academic institutions feel about publishing houses profiting from all the content and editing services that their staff provide? On that point, we are caught in a trap of our own making. Because publication in the ‘top journals’ has become the gold standard of academic achievement, the publishers of those journals have their authors and their authors’ employers over a barrel. Worse, we made the barrel.

What is to be done? There is a pressing need to overhaul the entire structure relating to intellectual copyright and publication, and it will be a brave academic, institution or learned society that takes the first big steps. In the meantime, we need greater equity of esteem for all forms of publication, to take the stranglehold away from the ‘top journals’ and their publishers, and maybe we need more academics to be prepared to say that their lectures may not be recorded or streamed. That will be difficult: nobody wants to appear uncooperative, and a desire to share information and ideas is what motivates many academics. Sharing is easier than it has ever been: I can ping off a pdf in a small fraction of the time that it used to take to put a printed offprint in an envelope, address said envelope, stamp it and take it to the postbox. Yes, young readers, that is what we used to do, and nobody wants to return to that. However, the present situation relating to publication and intellectual copyright is a mess, an elephant in need of attention.


This elephant is not a metaphor. (Photo: author, 2010)

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