Princeton: our scholars must own their copyrights

The 1709 Blog writes about Princeton University’s new Open Access policy:

[L]ibrarians and academics have long known that journal publishers monopolise the market; even as much as ten years ago the larger publishers were busy buying out the smaller ones who weren’t strong enough to compete with them. But outside of academia people are largely unaware of the struggles every electronic resources librarian faces each year as budgets shrink and journal bundle prices steadily increase. Tough decisions often have to be made, and naturally the impact is felt by researchers, academics and students.

Which is why today’s announcement that Princeton University is enforcing an Open Access policy forbidding academics from transferring the copyright in their articles to journal publishers is so significant. Academics are required to licence their work instead, so that they retain the copyright and are therefore able to reproduce it elsewhere without having to seek the permission of the publisher. This could spark a welcome trend which would allow academics and universities to maximise their outputs and revolutionise knowledge sharing. [emphasis added]

In many disciplines–particularly the sciences–scholars already pay journals to publish them.  In other words, the scholars’ universities foot some or all of the bill for peer review and editing (in addition, of course, to “subsidizing” scholars by way of salaries).  Especially in these circumstances, it seems that the scholar/university have a lot of leverage to do what Princeton is doing here since academic publishers’ leverage to push back is directly tied to their value-add.  Since, under these particular circumstances, the publishers are adding almost no value, their leverage is near zero.

A more interesting question arises where the academic publishers add more value–i.e., where the publisher directly incurs the editing and peer reviewing costs.  There, the scholar/university may well get more push back.

If other colleges and universities follow Princeton’s lead, traditional academic publishers could find themselves effectively cut out of the market very quickly.

The $100k scholarly article

The National Law Journal reports that, according to Hofstra University School of Law professor Richard Neumann, “a law review article written by a tenured professor at a top-flight law school” is “in the neighborhood of $100,000”:

His estimate factors in the salary and benefits for a tenured professor at a high-paying school who spends between 30% and 50% of his or her time on scholarship and publishes one article per year.

It also takes into account possible research grants, which many schools offer professors to help fund their scholarly work, and the costs for research assistants.

ABA Journal has additional coverage here.

It would be interesting to see cost estimates of academic writing in other disciplines to see how the law compares.  I’m guessing that law may be on the high end insofar as law professor salaries are generally higher than most other academics.

Issues with the world’s largest digital library

While Google seems cleared to become an important scholarly destination due to its efforts to create the world’s largest digital library, Geoffrey Nunberg argues the system has some critical problems:

But to pose those [scholarly] questions, you need reliable metadata about dates and categories, which is why it’s so disappointing that the book search’s metadata are a train wreck: a mishmash wrapped in a muddle wrapped in a mess…

But I have the sense that a lot of the initial problems are due to Google’s slightly clueless fumbling as it tried master a domain that turned out to be a lot more complex than the company first realized. It’s clear that Google designed the system without giving much thought to the need for reliable metadata. In fact, Google’s great achievement as a Web search engine was to demonstrate how easy it could be to locate useful information without attending to metadata or resorting to Yahoo-like schemes of classification. But books aren’t simply vehicles for communicating information, and managing a vast library collection requires different skills, approaches, and data than those that enabled Google to dominate Web searching.

I’m sure Google is interested in correcting some of these issues – even their famous search algorithm is under constant scrutiny as they search for more optimal ways to present information.

Even as these problems are ironed out, it does seem like having this kind of digital library could transform scholarly research. Just as I can’t imagine a world where all sociology articles are online (and I can access many of them), years from now we may look back and wonder how people operated without a vast online library of digital books.