This week, psychologists are the newest group of scholars to learn that their “publishers” are dedicated to preventing their work from being made public. The American Psychological Association launched a pilot to monitor and seek removal of unauthorized online postings of APA journal articles. What this meant in practice was sending DMCA takedown notices to researchers, telling them to take copies of their own papers off their departmental web-pages. This has raised predictable and justified anger in the community.

Was this legal on APA’s part? Unquestionably, yes. They own the copyright in the articles, and determine how they can be used. But that does not make it acceptable. As Rik Smith-Unna‏ put it this very morning:

Absolutely, academic publishers requiring copyright transfer is always predatory. They don’t say it before submission or explain it clearly. Once the paper is accepted, to say “We’re not publishing unless you assign copyright”, is highly unethical. Months of your time and energy held to ransom.

The APA has since backed down — or “refocused”, as they put it — which is to be welcomed. But it may be too late. They may already have made an important contribution towards radicalising a new segment of the scholarly community. Psychologists are now more aware of how much control they give up to the APA when they publish in their journals.

The thing is, there is simply no need for us authors to put ourselves in this position. As copyright specialist Charles Oppenheim explains:

Journals do not need copyright in articles to publish them. They never have. It’s only tradition that means they keep asking for it. In other areas — novels, for example — it’s completely routine for the author to remain the copyright holder, and for the publisher merely to be given a licence to publish. And this is how it should be for scholarly articles as well.

None of this a new insight, of course. Just last month, Times Higher Education urged its readers that academics ‘should not sign over research copyright to publishers’, citing a report that discusses the matter in detail. And of course we’ve discussed such matter many times here on SV-POW!. Here are a few:

There is absolutely no legitimate reason for journals to take authors’ copyright away, and a journal that exists to serve scholarship will not do so. Which leads me to …

Fair OA Principle 2. Authors of articles in the journal retain copyright.

This is an important question, and one that is all too easy to overlook. No doubt the editorial board of Lingua assumed that they owned and controlled their journal, right up to the moment they decided to find a different publisher who would help them transition to reasonably priced open access. Only then did Elsevier flex their muscles and tell them “no”. Which is why the board left the journal en masse and started a new journal, Glossa, which is the continuation of the old one in everything but name.

An editorial board can influence a journal’s direction; but really, the board, or other representatives of the scholarly community, need to own a journal in order to be free to take it in the direction that best benefits that community.

This is the reason that I can’t quite be completely satisfied by what is unquestionably my favourite journal, PeerJ: it’s privately owned by its two founders, one personal investor and one corporate investor. Everything they have done so far indicates that they are genuinely running the journal in the best interests of the scholarly community: but what happens if Elsevier decides that PeerJ is a threat, and offers the founders $20M each to sell up? We can’t really tell.

This is one area where the older and more pedestrian PLOS ONE still scores over PeerJ, despite its antiquated numbered references and inflated APC: it’s owned by PLOS, which states on its very front page that “PLOS is a nonprofit publisher, innovator and advocacy organization.” The footer of every page on their site says “PLOS is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation, #C2354500, and is based in San Francisco, California, US”.

(In the US, all 501(c)(3) entities — or charities, as we call them in Britain — must disclose their tax-exemption applications on demand, and the IRS can provide copies directly. Though PLOS could get some bonus openness points by putting the relevant documents right there on the site.)

As a palaeontologist, even though I no longer submit to non-open-access journals, I am concerned about ownership of the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology and of Palaeontology. I know these journals were started by, and are run by, their Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Palaeontological Association respectively — but do these organisations own the journals, or do their publishers (Taylor & Francis and Wiley respectively)? It may turn out that it never matters — but it may turn out that it matters enormously. That’s the point, really: we can’t tell.

That’s why a whole section of the Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructure — a third of the substance of that document — is dedicated to governance. It’s crucial for real, reliable and sustainable open access. Which leads me to …

Fair OA Principle 1. The journal has a transparent ownership structure, and is controlled by and responsive to the scholarly community.