Just Another Day In Academic Publishing: Professor Posts His Own Article On His Own Website, Gets Takedown Notice Alleging Copyright Infringement

William Cunningham is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Like many academics, he posts his own articles on his own Web site to help spread knowledge and boost his standing in the academic community. You’ll never guess what happened next:

Cunningham and hundreds of his colleagues were recently irked by a takedown notice he received from the American Psychological Association [APA], telling him that the articles he had published through the organization and then posted on his website were in violation of copyright law.

As Inside Higher Ed reports, this was not merely absurd and annoying, but could have serious consequences for Cunningham:

The notice triggered a chain of responses — including a warning from his website platform, WordPress, that multiple such violations put the future of his entire website at risk. And because the APA had previously issued similar takedown notices, the threat of losing his website seemed real to Cunningham.

Fortunately, Cunningham’s colleagues rallied around him. A petition was set up on Change.org, demanding a “Right to share publications”– and warning the APA that the reviewing that scholars carry out for the organization for no fee should not be taken for granted:

We engage in practices like voluntary reviewing for APA because we feel a commitment to producing a public good that others can use to promote scientific progress. By using these profits to restrict us from sharing our own work, you have privatized a public good and made our relationship transactional. Of course, it is entirely within your rights to do so.

If you wish to make this relationship transactional, we demand that you use the profits from our work to pay us for reviewing. If we learn that you have pressured any of the signees to remove their own APA publications from their academic website, then all signees will demand that you pay us $300 per review (unless otherwise agreed upon in writing).

Faced with this threat, APA backed down and apologized to Cunningham. As the Inside Higher Ed article points out, that’s all well and good, but Cunningham still has alleged and unjustified copyright infringements against his name on the WordPress platform.

This episode highlights once more what a raw deal academics receive from publishers, which are able to disseminate papers without paying for them, and draw on reviews provided by other researchers, also for no remuneration. Despite that largesse, publishers then expect to be able to police exactly what the original authors can do with their own articles — an outrageous situation.

However, the solution is not for academics to be paid for reviewing articles — that is, making the relationship “transactional” — as a kind of quid pro quo. The real issue is not money, but power. One solution is to publish in open access titles, which encourage the sharing of the articles they publish. Another is to release articles as preprints, and to bypass journals altogether.

Whichever route they choose, researchers should never assign copyright in their article to a publisher. That effectively cedes control of their own words to a company, and places them within its power. Instead, academics should grant a limited, non-exclusive license to publish the article, while retaining for themselves the right to do with it as they wish. Publishers have for too long taken advantage of the generosity — and perhaps naivety — of academics. Time for the latter to stand up for themselves and take back control of academic publishing.

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