Copyleft and Academic Publishing

Curator's Note

In December, commercial academic publisher Reed Elsevier, a press that specializes in science, health, and math scholarship, issued a series of take-down requests to social media site, and complied by removing Elsevier-published articles posted to individual users’ pages. As you can see from the screen grab of’s correspondence with the scholars whose work was removed, framed itself as an advocate of the open access and expressed regret at its compliance.

When academics sign contracts with publishers, the terms of the publication arrangement may issue an embargo period or outright prohibition of the author posting the final, published version of the essay on a personal blog or a site like Some scholars may argue that the exchange of knowledge is the point of academic publishing and these contract stipulations inhibit that goal. Meanwhile, many of the largest academic publishers are for-profit companies that benefit from the unpaid labor of academic writers and volunteer peer reviewers. Moreover, these companies also enjoy virtual subsidies provided by universities that pay researchers’ salaries and that fund the libraries that purchase expensive journal subscriptions. All of these layers of seeming exploitation may seem to justify the efforts of academics to create alternative distribution methods to share their own research. 

My interest in the Elsevier takedown orders, however, was heightened by a rich debate about Elsevier’s actions and’s response that broke out on the listserv for the Association of Internet Researchers (AIR).* The conversation shifted to the ethics of’s business model, one that depends upon the sale of the data freely provided by scholars. For academics, then, the stakes of the Copyleft movement in terms of our own work has become increasingly complicated, for even when we try to share freely through a mechanism like (a for-profit business), we are nevertheless imbricating our work within a consistently exploitative process. 

The questions are difficult to answer. Do we stop supporting top journals that are not open access? Have open-access journals earned the credibility to build our case for tenure? Should we refrain from using sites like (and Facebook) that base their business models yet again on the exploitation of work we give freely? Where is the space online to (truly) freely spread knowledge and spark intellectual debate?

*Many academics participated in the Air-L discussion, and I highly recommend you read more in the AIR-L archive.



Thanks for raising these important points about academic publishing--they're near and dear to my heart! I currently work for an open access journal, and we have conversations like this with our authors all the time. Even among open access journals, for example, the author agreement may vary drastically. (PLOS, the Public Library of Science, has a really useful chart about degrees of open access and author rights here: We've just recently amended our author agreement to allow for author reuse rights; that is, authors can opt to license their work under a Creative Commons license. (Authors may still choose to retain copyright.) Thanks again for bringing these important issues to light!

Thanks for emphasizing that social media sites like facebook and are often near exploiting the people that use it. What seems to escape many users of these platforms is that by in large, these are frontier spaces where people are prospecting on our desires to feel heard (on facebook) and to feel "impactful" ( A.E sells their site as a way for academics to sell make the case to hiring committees that their work is valuable, because... numbers. The latest roll-out I've encountered with A.E is that I can elect to make public the analytics. They seem to be suggesting that I can present to an audience a trajectory or heat map of my significance. For a young scholar such as myself, I have to be very deliberate and thoughtful about how I am branding myself given the marketing potential these platforms offer. But before these web 2.0 businesses so enamored so many of us, if someone bothered to read something (like an abstract) someone wrote (and to be fair, that someone edited), the solution was to contact that author and request a copy from them. Folks still do this and it's, I think, a more robust way to network and develop one's thinking. There are some interesting commentaries in the last issue of tripleC debating the merits of the many varieties of Open Access being experimented with today( [FULL DISCLOSURE/SELF-AGGRANDIZING DISCLOSURE: I wrote a commentary there about Open Access and para-academic publishing] @Sarah: what you're describing sounds similar to the "Diamond Model" of Open Access publishing by Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval argue for in that issue linked above.

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