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The Impending Demise of Greedy For-Profit Scientific Publishers (Part I)

Last year a good colleague invited me to write an entry on Cliodynamics/Social Evolution for The International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (2nd edition). I agreed, in part because I felt that it’s been several years since I had summarized the state of our rapidly evolving field, and committing to this article would provide an extra stimulus to do it.

Everything was going well until I received a contract to sign. Now, unlike most of my colleagues, who sign these things without reading, I always check them carefully. I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that the contract wanted me to sign away my copyright for the article to the publisher. Reading the fine print, I discovered that the publisher, however, would allow me to post a breathtakingly generous 10 percent of the article on my web site, free of charge. I scrolled back and checked who the publisher was. It turned out to be Elsevier, which immediately explained everything.

There are several notorious for-profit scientific publishers, of which Kluwer, Elsevier, and Wiley are probably the worst. I had a personal run-in with Kluwer some years ago and I swore I’d never deal with them again. Colleagues had similar experiences with Elsevier. I cannot explain why I did not check the publisher (or why it did not register that it was Elsevier) before I agreed to write the article.

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Next I did research that I should have done before agreeing to contribute an article. First, I went to the Elsevier site and discovered that the first edition of the Encyclopedia (published in 2001) is selling for $10,915. Now, it’s a big encyclopedia. There are 26 volumes. But that still works out to $420 per volume.

Next stop, Amazon. You can buy the Encyclopedia there for ‘only’ $4,303. And you can buy the Kindle edition for twice that, $8,239.99 (and that’s after a 20% discount). This makes a lot of sense, because clearly electrons are so much more expensive than trees.

The Amazon rank of the hardcover edition is over 3 million – which means next to zero sales. I understand that these reference works are meant for libraries, but the library of my university, which is actually quite good, does not have it. We have the 19 volumes of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (David L. Sills, editor) published by Macmillan in 1968. Makes sense – back then there was no alternative to shelf-space eating multi-volume encyclopedias. But now there are. And back in 2001 my library wisely refused to plunk down eleven grand for this valuable resource. Today, when our library is even more strapped for cash and alternative resources have proliferated, it would have to be completely crazy to buy the second edition. And I am pretty sure that the majority of other research university’s libraries would feel the same.

So I was supposed to write a 6,000-7,000 word article, give all the rights to Elsevier, and never have it read again. In return I would be paid $100. Not a good bargain.

But it gets worse. My plan for writing the article was to take several existing texts I had written in the past, put them together, update them and add new material as necessary. After all, although Cliodynamics is developing rapidly, any particular update would describe the past successes as well as new developments. And once you figured out how to explain something well, why should you compose a completely new text?

Except that you might be accused of ‘self-plagiarism.’ Like most scientists, I find the idea of self-plagiarism absurd. If I reuse my own words, how am I guilty of plagiarism? Should I rewrite it, so that the new text is inferior to the best way I found to explain a difficult concept, just for the sake of having different words? Actually, that would still count as plagiarism. Just shifting words around and substituting a few synonyms is what my lazy students do when they want to defeat plagiarism-sniffing programs. Certain kinds of articles, such as a periodic overview of a scientific field, are inherently ‘self-plagiarizing.’

A year ago there was a big flap about the science writer Jonah Lehrer plagiarizing himself:

It became glaringly apparent yesterday that The New Yorker‘s big-name new hire Jonah Lehrer has often reused his own work, word-for-word, for publications including Wired, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times Magazine, as well as in his books How We Decide and Imagine: How Creativity Works. (New York Magazine, June 20, 2012)

I am not defending Lehrer – selling the same words to several buyers is a bit slimy, especially because there is an easy remedy. You simply tell the editor and the readers that you are reusing your own words, and let them decide whether they want to buy them. You have full rights to your own words – as long as you own the copyright,

And therein lies the rub. Were I to sign away my copyright, not only would I be consigning my words to the oblivion of an overpriced encyclopedia, which nobody would read. I would also not be able to use them in future updates on the state of the field – without permission from Elsevier. And knowing them, this permission would be anything but free.

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Part II here

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4 Comments

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4 Comments

  1. Wikireviews? We need something like Wikipedia that publishes signed reviews of fields. In science, authors need to get credit for their work and most of us like to know who the author of a piece is. Authors might commit to updating the review every 3 or so years for perhaps 3 rounds before being asked to pass the chore on to someone else.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      In fact, we are already working on a massive project, SESHAT: Global History Databank that is implemented as a Wiki website. It combines codes of cultural evolution variables and a narrative part that explains the codes and provides the background. I think such an approach is much better than traditional encyclopedias. It can be used both as an encyclopedia of cultural evolution and a source of data to test various theories of social evolution. Stay tuned for developments!

  2. Shannon says:

    Hi Peter,

    It was great talking to you at the BBQ this weekend! The book I had brought up at the time we were eating, and would be curious to hear your opinion on, was this one, “Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America”.

    link to amazon.com

    Regards,
    -Shannon