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Elsevier and other book and journal publishers -- Exploitation of academics

(4/15/07 -- 4/13)

It is not unusual for me to write chapters about dizziness and related things -- about 35 or so chapters in my career so far, and about 85 papers. Most people may not know how this is done.

This is a amazing system where one is asked by a colleague (the editor) to volunteer many many hours of ones time (usually several days of work), in return for -- what ? Usually, a free copy of the book. Why do we do this ? I am not sure. Why are we academics anyway -- another good question -- not enough time to do this one today. The editor gets royalties for their difficult job, but I don't think that they come out ahead on the deal.

Anyway, to make it even more interesting, generally once one's chapter is sent in, i.e. the work has been done, the publisher sends you a letter asking you to:

What this amounts to is journal publishers, are attempting to make money from other people's work, and in the process restraining information flow. This is clearly not in the interest of the community at large (i.e it is unethical in some sense), and not in the interests of the people who write papers either (i.e. it is inconsistent with our academic mission to extend the limits of our knowledge).

I have recently gotten letters like this from Elsevier, Saunders, F.A. Davis, Lippincott, Plural publishing, and many others. In fact, I can't remember ever NOT getting a letter like this -- it seems to be the norm.

I suppose the publishers must have a template exploitation letter.

If you refuse to sign over copyrights, I have had publishers (not Elsevier -- I don't want to get too specific here) have their own artists "redraw" my own copyrighted figures, so that they can own the figures. This is simply plagiarism of intellectual property.

In other words, publishers ask for you to give them 2 or more days of work, your intellectual property, as well as media that you may have accumulated, for a copy of a textbook -- usually that sells for about $100. What a steal !

My suggestion how to handle exploitive publishers

What I generally do, and what I suggest that other producers of intellectual property do to, is to refuse to sign -- just say no. Generally it is too late for the publisher to find another chapter author, so they are in a bind here. I suppose this indicates that they are not really serious about this -- as if they were, they would get their permissions in order before proceeding with the editing process. All it takes is one author to refuse to sign the papers and the whole project is stopped (if one is serious). I suspect that publishers have a group of attorneys telling them that they might as well ask for the farm and that most authors are not attorneys and don't notice that they are giving it away. A fine print situation.

Anyway, when they send me a letter threatening to not publish my chapter (publishers please spare me this ridiculous nonsense), I write them back a letter saying that they can have non-exclusive use of my intellectual property. I tell them that I am willing to share, but I am not willing to "give away the farm". I sometimes remind them of intellectual property law concerning plagiarism. An example of a letter of this nature is here (pdf).

I have rarely encountered publishers who just won't back down -- in this case they they generally just give up -- no permission is given, the book is published without copyright being assigned. I am generally happy with this solution as it preserves my intellectual rights although it presents an immense risk to the publishers. This means I could sue them should I choose at any time in the future -- for using my work without my permission -- a good option I suppose if they should ever sue me for use of my own property.

Open access -- a competing methodology ?

5/10/08 -- another way to approach the problem is to eliminate the print publishers, and go entirely electronic. There are many "open access" journals that allow this to happen. For example - -http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/572656.

The NIH (national institutes of health)has recently mandated that all papers funded by NIH must be available to the public ! See here for details. We are very happy to see governmental support for the concept that knowledge should be public - -especially that paid for by the public.

5/18/2014 -- The PLOS journals, which are open access, and financed by publication fees, now account for the majority of academic publishing. Although one might question whether paid publication is not just "vanity" publishing, it does seem that the journal problem is going away. The book problem remains.

Other's take on this problem --  the contract addendum.

6/29/07: Just recently, the Universities have become concerned about this behavior too -- my own institution -- Northwestern and others, has put together a "contract addendum" to modify publisher's contracts. A link to this legal approach is hereThe contract addendum is here.

5/2008: I have had a single journal refuse to accept this "contract addendum". After some negotiation we worked out an agreement that was acceptable.

7/10/08 The NIH (national institutes of health)has recently mandated that all papers funded by NIH must be available to the public ! See here for details. We are very happy to see governmental support for the concept that knowledge should be public - -especially that paid for by the public.

4/14/2012:  I recently got a request to update my chapter in Susan Herdman's book on vestibular rehabilitation. I told them that I would not sign unless the contract addendum is included.  They did not reply to me -- so I presume that Elsevier has decided to find a more contributor to Dr. Herdman's book, who is willing to "give away the farm". 

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