We have met the enemy, part 2: clueless authors

In recent discussions, an editor-in-chief of an Elsevier journal made the assertion that there is no point in going through the hassle of switching to an open access publishing option, because authors are allowed to post the final accepted version (“postprint”) publicly, for example at arXiv.org.

Ignoring the rather cavalier attitude to readers (what if the author doesn’t bother to do it?) and the tacit admission that journals serve no real purpose other than (possible) post-publication peer review improvements and giving a 0-1 quality stamp, let us focus on the authors.

After all the hard work involved in writing and paper and having it accepted, few authors relish the extra work involved in ensuring that the readership of the paper is maximized. But this is a very small amount of work in comparison to the total for the project. Uploading to arXiv takes only a few minutes, and there are plenty of other venues with similarly low overhead (institutional repositories, sites like ResearchGate (if ethically acceptable to the author), and other subject repositories). Even putting the postprint on a personal webpage is better than nothing.

Yet despite the ease of making their work available, a large fraction of authors simply don’t do it. In 2011 Kristine Fowler surveyed mathematicians’ views on various issues (the linked article is well worth reading) and found that only about half of authors practise self-archiving (some publish in open access journals but this is relatively rare). She lists several other barriers to self-archiving found in previous studies: lack of time, not regarding it as an important dissemination venue, concerns about copyright, publishers’ attitudes, the quality of the archive, inadvertent changes to the work, and the deposit procedure.

Fowler’s survey also discusses author rights. The results are remarkable to me, two striking quotes being:

Several open-ended comments indicate that some mathematicians do not know or do not care about author rights issues: “I don’t usually think much about this aspect of publishing” and “I have to say that I generally just ignore any associated author rights and do what I like with my paper.”


… only 16% of mathematics authors (91 respondents) report having tried to improve the terms of publication, whereas most have signed a publisher-provided author agreement, either before (27%) or after (59%) reading it (participants could report more than one action). Among those who have negotiated with publishers to retain more author rights, 92% report they are usually or always successful.

So: my working hypothesis is that a sadly large fraction of my colleagues just don’t think it is important to ensure that their work is available to read, use excuses for inaction, and are happy to live up to the stereotype of the unworldly academic. For me, this is unacceptable.

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