Monday, August 08, 2005

You know you signed on that dotted line

I've got myself a bit of an ethical quandary, and since I know this blog is read by people with interests in the scholarly publishing domain, I thought I'd air it out here.

Months ago, I submitted an abstract for a conference this November. (It's about the history of network security at Small Liberal Arts College. The paper, not the whole conference. I mean, I'm in a navel-gazing profession, but let's not get silly here.)

I'm not surprised they accepted it. I'm very surprised that they told me my first draft for peer review was due (ahem) some weeks ago. I finished and submitted the paper Friday. Oops. Anyway, done now, reasonably to my standards, and reviewed by a good number of my colleagues at SLAC.

Here's the problem. The Association which will be publishing my paper wants me to transfer my copyright to them. They say this is far easier, because they might have other legitimate ways to publish it, and it's going to be a lot easier if they're the contact point than if I am. They are, of course, correct about that. Further, I wrote this to be public, and if they want to publish it online, print, CD-ROM, skywriting, or as text for a Philip Glass concerto, I have little problem with that.

(Private note to Philip Glass: Let's do lunch. Can you invite David Bowie?)

But first of all, I wrote this damn thing on my time and the College's. This took a good number of late nights, and as near as I can see, either I own it or the College does, and I don't like giving up control.

Second, it's true that the association in question has pretty reasonable copyright policies in place for non-profit use. I can put it on a web page; so can the College. Teachers can use it in class and on reserve and on electronic reserve. These are good things... but I don't see any promise that they won't change their policy in a few years.

Third, well, my paper was almost a month late and I really don't want to mess anything up by making a stink.

I'm the guy arguing that faculty members don't know what they're giving away. That they don't think about their contracts. That they don't fight for the things which will really make scholarship work again. And here I am, saying "I guess I can hold my nose for this one time."

When I figure out how to get karmically right, I'll let you know.


Blogger tommyspoon said...

Joe, chill. Just sign the dotted line and forget about it. Unless you're Steven Fucking King, you're gonna have to give up some measure of control over your work. Are you getting paid some princely sum for this work or is this just a notch on your gunbelt? Perhaps you could consult an attorney if you have financial concerns.

2:12 PM, August 08, 2005  
Blogger lemming said...

Sign. You do papers for your career and your name and occasionally for fun. It's part of the profession. If you want to get rich, you won't get there by writing conference papers.

3:27 PM, August 08, 2005  
Blogger Joe said...


You're missing the point, or I'm not making it right. This is not about me getting the money. Ideally, I want this thing to be absolutely free to anyone who wants it.

It's about somebody else getting to decide how much it costs. Be good Lefties, folks: it's about controlling the products of your labor.

Again, this association does have good policies. For now. But if they own the copyright, they can change their mind whenever they like. Whereas if I own the copyright, I know if I change my mind, and I know why.

I dispute that we have to accept what The Bosses hand us. I dispute that the publishers have the upper hand in the scholarly publishing system.

They have it because we freaking gave it to them.

And we gave it to them because we don't do this do get rich. So what's the difference?

The difference is that serial prices have been increasing around 20% a year for about 10 years now. Your libraries are going bankrupt. The second and third world can't even get a seat at the table.

All that money's coming out of our budgets, and somebody's paying for nice corporate offices with it. I'm not dealing with one of the piratical publishers here, but the principle is still at stake.

On the up side, I feel a lot less like a mercenary than I did 2 posts ago. ;-)

5:32 PM, August 08, 2005  
Blogger Swankette said...

Can you add a clause that says, in effect, "I agree to you holding the copyright, as long as you maintain, in effect, the same copyright standards as you have today."

I'm sure there's a much more legal way to write it, but that's just my former life as "contract bitch" coming out.

1:52 AM, August 09, 2005  
Blogger Swankette said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:52 AM, August 09, 2005  
Blogger tommyspoon said...

Joe, chill. ;-)

Look, I'm not a "contract bitch" or a labor expert. And I agree with most of your arguments.

However, I'm a capitalist at heart. So, putting on my capitalistic/publisher hat, lemme ask you somethin': What's in it for me? What's the economic upside of my granting you control over your work?

In other words, what's your solution? I agree that the current copyright laws in this country suck big time, but I have no idea how to make the situation better. And I'm a writer who has little control over his published work!

7:15 AM, August 09, 2005  
Blogger Joe said...

Swankette: That's a terrific suggestion. If I had time to work it out, which, um, I don't. See, while I was supposed to be writing this paper, I was instead jet-setting off to this amazingly swanky wedding on the coast...

Spoon: The answer is complex enough to suggest another post. The short answer, just as in a labor negotiation, is "you get to work with me and I don't take my brilliant self to your competitor."

The longer answer, boiled down, is that the ACM is supposed to be a scholarly society supporting open discussion, not a commercial publishing house out for the last buck. More thoughts on that later.

Rest assured that I've decided to sign the damn thing and move on with my life. I'm not losing sleep over it. But if librarians don't lead by example, how the hell can we lead at all?

9:28 AM, August 09, 2005  
Blogger lemming said...

(hopes that selling Joe's paper will make the journal so rich that they canlower prices)

Having visited three academic journal offices I can asure you that none of them have nice facilities. Adequate, perhaps, but far from luxurious - my pet theory behind the rising prices is that more editing is needed, but I have no proof for this.

1:25 PM, August 09, 2005  
Blogger tommyspoon said...

I'm looking forward to your longer answer, but I have a followup to your short answer:

The short answer, just as in a labor negotiation, is "you get to work with me and I don't take my brilliant self to your competitor."

Um, this answer doesn't really work in the current model of the publishing industry. I would commend some wonderful posts by author and blogger John Scalzi ( for more details.

Suffice it to say that working as a writer is not the same as working as an auto mechanic. Publishers receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts a year, whereas an auto repair shop may only receive a few applicants for any vacancy they may advertise. If you were to give your answer to a publisher, their reply to you would be something in the neighborhood of "don't let the door hit you in the behind on the way out."

Unless you happen to be Stephen Fucking King. Then your answer is the best one ever.

To be clear, I'm in favor of some sort of change. Collective bargaining, perhaps?

1:57 PM, August 09, 2005  

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