Where Research Meets Profits

Recent allegations of copyright violations against a professor who shared his own work on his website spark debate about ownership and whether peer reviewers should be paid.

October 23, 2019
 
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Like many academics, William Cunningham, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, shares his own articles -- published and soon-to-be -- on his website. And like most academics, he does so in the interest of science, not personal profit.

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

In response, psychologists started a petition to the APA, saying that if it didn’t stop policing authors’ personal websites for the sharing of science, then it needed to pay peer reviewers $300 for each article review.

“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,” reads the petition. “By using these profits to restrict us from sharing our own work, you have privatized a public good and made our relationship transactional.”

Presenting “a simple choice,” the signers said that APA will either continue “accept our free labor and allow us to share the products of our labor on our academic websites or we move to a transactional relationship and you pay us for our reviewing and we use that money to pay for open access rights for our papers (or any other purpose we deem relevant).”

A spokesperson for the association said that it was looking into the takedown notices. Cunningham soon received an apology. And, generally, the association maintains that it is concerned about commercial copyright violations -- not authors’ personal sites. In 2017, for instance, in response to similar concerns about takedown notices, the APA said in a statement that it was “targeting online piracy websites and not individual authors in its efforts to curtail the unauthorized sharing on the internet of articles published in the association’s journals.”

At the time, the APA said it had initiated a contract with a company called Digimarc to send article takedown notices to sites that had posted its journal articles without permission. In just four months, the APA said, it had found that 72 percent of articles published over two years in five APA journals were on pirate websites.

Digimarc did not provide comment on whether it was sweeping with too wide a broom.

Cunningham said that he appreciated the APA’s recent apology. But his alleged copyright violations still accumulate with WordPress, he said, meaning that APA’s policing of personal websites, however unintentional, still has consequences.

“For many of us, after years of this, we have become very unhappy,” he said. “Historically, journals were the way to disseminate science. Now, with publishers like APA, once published, their primary function is to prevent most people from getting access to the research.”

And while journals generate revenue for the association, he said, they don’t pay authors. They don’t “pay for researchers doing the reviewing and editing of the work. For most of us, our countries have paid for the research” through taxes.

“I do understand that there is copyright involved,” Cunningham added. “And we do sign away our rights for free. But most publishers look the other way. My sense is the harm to them is next to nothing, and the benefit is huge.” The effect of policing researchers who share their work, then, is a feeling of being “taken advantage of, when they are willing to pay more money to stop us from disseminating our research than they do to the researchers creating and reviewing the research.”

Should Peer Reviewers Be Paid?

Even if Cunningham’s run-in with the APA was resolved -- this time -- the incident brings two clear questions to the fore: Can authors share their work on their own websites? And, more controversially, should peer reviewers be paid?

The first question is easier to answer than the latter. Publishers, some of whom declined to comment on the record for this article, said that authors may generally share copies of their articles on their websites. Many journals do have an embargo period, however, so, to minimize risk, authors should avoid sharing PDF files of their work until that embargo period -- typically six months to a year -- is up. Preprint versions of articles, however, are considered safe, as they haven't been formally reviewed and so don’t represent any “investment” on the part of the journal.

Philip Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park and a director of the social science preprint repository SocArXiv, said that site is noncommercial but nevertheless requires authors to affirm that they have the right to post their work there. When someone submits a published article PDF with a copyright on it, he said, SocArXiv generally suggests the author double-check that they have the right to distribute it.

Usually, Cohen said, authors learn that they have the right to distribute a less-than-final version. They may also link to the final journal version of an article so that readers may cite it. The APA has named the psychology repository PsyArXiv its preferred preprint service.

Academics only "lose" the right to post their papers if they sign it away during the publishing process, “usually a sacrifice they choose to make in order to get the career benefit and higher visibility of publishing in a peer-reviewed journal,” he added. “I strongly recommend that authors read their publishing agreements and not sign them if the terms are too restrictive.”

Of course, it's hard to say no to a potential publisher. So authors may propose a “modification” of the agreement, Cohen said. SPARC, a global group dedicated to open research and education, offers authors resources on proposing these kinds of changes.

Alternatively, Cohen said, authors can publish “in a journal that supports their values.” In the social sciences, at least, most authors publish in journals that allow close-to-final versions to be shared freely, “and that is a major function of SocArXiv -- facilitating people to work within the current system while also distributing their work more accessibly. This system is not going to change itself.”

Daniel Himmelstein, a biodata scientist and research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who has contributed to the Transpose project on publishing policies, said that situations like Cunningham's come up somewhat frequently, since professors so often transfer copyright to publishers. The solution, he said via email, “is open access, whereby an open license allows anyone, including the author, to share the article anywhere."

For that reason, Himmelstein said, takedown notices are a good thing. “Researchers need to become more aware of the detriment of publishing in toll access journals. When scholarly publishers enforce their copyright to its fullest extent, it shows the absurdity of paywalling publicly funded research.”

As for paying peer reviewers, Cohen said they already are compensated -- in the form of their college or university salaries. That just turns out to be a “large, invisible subsidy” to publishers.

While it’s unheard-of many fields, paying peer reviewers is not unheard-of altogether -- either by nonprofit publishers such as scholarly societies or for-profit publishers. The American Economic Review, a journal of the American Economic Association, for instance, pays reviewers $100 for timely reports. Indeed, most pay-per-review systems link payment to a deadline. Taylor & Francis, which publishes 2,600 journals, pays reviewers for a small group of its biomedical journals, when authors use its fastback publication service. The publisher calls the $150 payment an honorarium, in recognition of the typical one- or two-week timeline.

Many publishers could probably afford to pay all reviewers. And there’s evidence that doing so would speed up some painfully slow publication timelines. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, for instance, involved paying some peer reviewers $100 for meeting a four-week deadline. The researchers found that cash incentives significantly improved turnaround time, especially in the week before the deadline, and that these reviewers continued to meet deadlines even when the cash stopped flowing.

Even so, academics are divided on the payment issue. Several surveys run by the group Accelerating Science and Publication in Biology, or ASAPbio, have found hesitation. In one survey of 295 scientists, 46 percent answered no when asked if researchers should receive financial compensation for peer review. One-quarter said they didn’t know, and just 29 percent answered yes. In another survey of 370 scientists, however, 70 percent said they would accept $200 for reviewing a manuscript.

Jessica Polka, executive director of ASAPbio, said she didn’t have hard data to explain those particular findings. But her guess was that scientists have concerns about “increasing the overall cost of publishing if this becomes a universal expectation.”

Increasing the cost of publishing could, of course, potentially limit the number of journals. Other possible objections to paying reviewers include adding perverse incentives to what is supposed to be a merit-based system supported by volunteers (even if the realities of academic publishing don’t always live up to that ideal).

Himmelstein said that in an optimal system, scholars would be paid every time they did something useful -- rigorous peer review included. “But we are so far from this optimal system, where scholars are rewarded for individual contributions, that we lack good mechanisms for paying reviewers.” For example, he said, most reviews never see the light of day. Yet the actual work required write an excellent one represents something closer to $1,000 than $100.

In any case, Himmelstein said, “if I had to choose between paying reviewers and open access, I'd choose the latter.” Himmelstein also endorsed the idea of open peer review, in which reports are published alongside the article itself.

If journals are doing both those things, he said, “I think it makes sense for them to evaluate whether paying reviewers increases the timeliness and quality of reviews.”

And Cunningham? He thinks review should remain a labor of love.

“Better to be intrinsically motivated than extrinsically motivated.” That said, he added, “it would be great if doing reviews gave points towards allowing your own articles to be open access.”

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