When I fell in love with words as a young man, I developed a respect for publishers that was born mostly of fantasy. I imagined venerable institutions filled with people of great intellect, integrity, and respect for ideas. I’m sure many people who fit this description still work for publishers, but my personal experience has mostly involved those who couldn’t think their way out of a wet paper bag and apparently have no desire to try.
My most recent experience was with the academic publisher Taylor & Francis. They publish several academic journals, including one that I was asked to write for over a year ago: the “Journal of Computational and Graphical Statistics.” Specifically, I was asked to write a response to an academic paper entitled “Infovis and Statistical Graphics: Different Goals, Different Looks” by Andrew Gelman and Antony Unwin. When approached by Richard Levine of San Diego State University, the journal’s editor, I had grave reservations. Back in 2008 I wrote in this blog about an experience that I had with IEEE’s journal Computer Graphics and Applications. The article that I wrote in response to the editor’s request was pulled from publication at the very last minute, when without warning they sent me a contract that demanded the right to alter my work, without approval, however they wished. An author would be insane to grant this right. With this experience in mind, I expressed my concerns to Levine before agreeing to write for his statistics journal:
If the journal requires authors to transfer their copyrights to it, I’ll pass on the opportunity. I’m happy to grant exclusive rights of distribution to the journal, which is all that should matter. I never grant others the right to revise my work without permission, which is what can happen when copyrights are given away.
In response, Levine checked with Taylor & Francis and assured me that my terms were acceptable.
With this commitment in writing, I proceeded with confidence to write my response, which involved roughly two days of effort. Following the submission of my response in March of 2012, I began to navigate the arduous process that one inevitable faces when writing for an academic journal: rushed spurts of activity (peer reviews, copyedits, layout reviews, etc.) separated by months of inactivity. After all was complete, guess what Taylor & Francis asked me to sign? A standard contract that ignored our prior agreement. I quickly redlined the inappropriate sections of the contract and offered to sign it with my redlines intact. I didn’t hear back from them for a while, but finally received a new agreement that I assumed was a replacement for the original contract, which I signed and immediately returned. I was then informed that what I signed was an addendum to the original contract, not a replacement, and that I would still need to sign the original. I replied that I would gladly sign my redlined version of the original contract, as previously promised. At this point our correspondence was kicked upstairs to Eric Sampson, the Journals Manager at Taylor & Francis, who informed me that I must sign a copy of the original contract without redlines. You can imagine my dismay. I told Sampson that I never sign contracts that contain errors. He responded that Taylor & Francis did not have the right to publish my work unless I signed the original contract without alteration. Further, he said that I was preventing the journal from going to press and that they would therefore remove what I’d written from the journal. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I replied to Sampson with the following:
This is rather absurd. I agreed to sign the original agreement back when it was first sent to me provided that I could redline the parts that you agreed to negate in the addendum. In other words, there is no disagreement between us and you absolutely have the right to publish the article as originally promised. I abhor this kind of dysfunctional bureaucracy, which I’ve encountered far too often among publishers. I’ve spent a great deal of time working on this and I expect my article to be published as originally promised. Otherwise, why did I do all of this work? Before I wrote the article, I made it clear that the copyright would remain in my name and that I would not allow revisions to the article without my permission. I have honored my agreement; I would appreciate it if you would honor yours.
The following excerpts from Sampson reveals the extent to which Taylor & Francis is dysfunctional (un-italicized comments in brackets are mine):
We have done our absolute best to meet your requests. Our original agreement was that you would retain copyright provided we received a signed, unmodified license to publish. [Not true. I was never told when we forged our agreement that I would be required to sign an "unmodified license to publish"—a license that I had never seen.] When you objected to the license, T&F [Taylor & Francis] went above and beyond to create a special addendum to that license, which you signed, but the addendum is just that—the signed license to publish is still required, which you have refused to provide without significant modification. [The only modifications that I required were the removal or redlining of those sections that Taylor and Francis agreed would not apply to me.]
Our bureaucracy is required to make the publication process as smooth as possible, and we ask for copyright transfer so that, in the event of a copyright dispute, the ASA [American Statistical Association] and T&F protect authors’ rights instead of leaving them to fend for themselves. [So they're just trying to help me? That's what all this fuss is about? What an egregious lie!] The ASA publishes hundreds of articles a year. If we negotiated each and every one as we’ve done here, it would be all we do. [If they respected the rights of authors in their standard agreement, negotiations would seldom be necessary.]
The ASA and T&F have one of most permissive copyright agreements in publishing, and we take great pride in taking care of the authors who contribute to our journals. I’m sorry that you’ve found our efforts so lacking. We’ve genuinely done our best. [If this is their best effort, their routine efforts must be pitiful.]
At this point, as you might imagine, I was getting angry, so I wrote the following reply:
Contrary to your claim, you have not done your best. You are currently breaking an agreement that we made in the beginning. You waited until the last minute to send me a license that you knew was in conflict with my requirements. Now, despite the fact that we have agreed in principle to the terms, you are insisting that I sign a form that miss-states those terms. Please explain to me how this makes any sense.
In all of our correspondence, Sampson wrote only one sentence in response to my request that he “explain…how this makes any sense.” Here it is: “I have no idea why we can’t just edit the license, but the society and publisher prefer the addendum approach.” He, the Journals Manager, did not know why the original contract could not be redlined or revised to remove errors. After days of consultation with his superiors, he sent a final written response that still provided no explanation. Again and again in our correspondence I pointed out that there was absolutely no legal requirement that the original contract be signed without redlines or revisions. I invited him to have his legal department explain otherwise, if they disagreed. No explanation was ever provided because no rational explanation exists.
Taylor & Francis is an academic publisher. I would expect that any publisher, and especially one that serves the academic community, could respond to a clear and reasonable question with an answer that is better than the traditional response of tyrants, “Because we said so.” How do they get away with this behavior when dealing with the academics who write papers for their journals? Academics must publish in journals to advance in their careers. When academic journals demand of authors the right to alter their work without permission, students and professors feel that they have no choice but to surrender their rights, because they have no other avenue for publication to which they can turn. I think it time for this to change.