Response to STM statement on author addenda
March 14th, 2008 by Thinh
The International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers (STM) recently released a statement this March called “Statement on journal publishing agreements and copyright agreement ‘addenda.’” It dismisses concerns of scholars, scientists, and universities that publisher copyright agreements leave authors without sufficient rights to share or re-use their own articles as “rhetorical.” The statement suggested that “standard journal agreements” already allow authors to retain rights that various copyright addenda, like the ones offered by Science Commons, SPARC, MIT, and others, were designed to address. Thus, they seem to suggest, the addenda are superfluous at best.
However, despite their insistence that “most” journal publication agreements “typically” allow authors to retain some combination of rights, the reality is that there is no “standard” publication agreement. Publications agreements vary widely in what rights they allow scholars to keep, ranging from full rights of re-use and sharing to sometimes exotic format restrictions (you can distribute the doc or html version but not the pdf) to no rights at all, so that scholars have to purchase copies of their articles if they want to distribute to colleagues. The Sherpa project has a large database showing the variations among journal policies. Unfortunately, even Sherpa’s summaries of these policies do not always reflect the most accurate or up-to-date information, because the journals can change their publication agreements or policies from time to time. Some of these policies are buried in fine print, some are only found on obscure journal web pages, and some are not published anywhere and are only communicated to a scholar when they bother to call the publisher. And of course these policies are subject to change at any time.
Copyright addenda are needed because most authors don’t have a lawyer, much less a whole legal department or law firm (as most publishers have) to parse the legal language of publication agreements for them. They also don’t have the time to search through journal Web sites for hard-to-find policies and to stay up to date with journal policy changes. By attaching a standard addendum, scholars can ensure that they retain those rights that they expect to have without having to be a lawyer themselves. With more private and public funders mandating open access, scholars need now more than ever greater clarity and transparency. Overly general statements about what “typical” or “most” publications agreements allow should hardly be of comfort.
It is, nonetheless, a step in the right direction for journals to acknowledge that authors should be able to retain more rights to their own articles. Authors receive no compensation for their articles, and are often called upon to provide peer review for others without compensation. Journals, of course, provide valuable services, including the coordination of peer review, for which they ought to receive fair compensation. However, this statement by these publishers implicitly acknowledges that the balance has rested too far in favor of restrictive journal policies intended to protect revenue streams, and that this balance has been shifting, and needs to shift further, in favor of authors’ freedom and the public interest.