Walking the walk may be trickier than it first appears: An open access publishing story

So I’m pleased to report that an article I wrote, “A Preliminary Methodology, and a Cautionary Tale, for Determining How Students Seek Research Help Online,” has been published in the April 2014 issue of portal: Libraries and the Academy.  Because of a variety of factors, the article is available in its final published version (PDF link) here on my own web page.

But this blog post isn’t really about “hey isn’t this cool I had an article published.” It’s really more about the process of how that article got published, and how it came to be that I’m able to post a copy of it on my own web page, and how difficult that was, even in 2014, even for someone who’s reasonably well-informed about issues of open access and who is even pretty strongly committed to making her own professional work publicly accessible.  This blog post is, if you will, a cautionary tale.

Part One: Where to Publish?

A little more than a year ago, I had an almost-manuscript and I was looking for a place to publish it.  I wanted to publish it in a disciplinary journal, instead of a library journal, because I think it’s important for library research to reach a wider audience of faculty and other readers and not just stay within the library-science echo chamber.  Since the article was at the intersection of library science with educational psychology and distance education/online learning, I was looking at journals in the latter fields in particular.  I managed to find five potential journals whose scopes matched the topic of the article to greater or lesser degrees:

  • Journal A was published by Taylor & Francis. They have a “pay to make your article OA” option which, even if I had grant funding to pay the several-thousand-dollar fee, I’d find odious.  If I chose (“chose”) not to pay the fee, I could still deposit a copy of the article in an institutional repository (which my institution doesn’t have) or in a subject repository.
  • Journal B was published by Springer. They have a similar “pay to make your article OA” option, or I could deposit in my (non-existent) IR, or I could self-archive on my own web page, but only after a 12-month embargo.
  • Journal C was from Elsevier, so that was an immediate no-go.
  • Journal D was published by a scholarly society, which was initially appealing, but they said up front that the initial manuscript review process took at least 5 months, and I didn’t have that kind of time before my tenure portfolio was due.
  • Journal E was also published by a scholarly society, but said up front that they had a 17% acceptance rate. Under the circumstances, that didn’t seem like a particularly good bet.

So there I was: a nice bouquet of bad options for someone who wanted to publish in a particular field, needed to publish relatively quickly for reasons of tenure, and was committed to keeping her work accessible.  I suddenly had a lot more sympathy for the choices that faculty make, the pressures they face, and the limited options that are available to them.  I felt trapped and panicky.  At this stage in the process, I didn’t have a lot of bargaining power — any bargaining power, really — and that’s kind of the point.

Eventually, I gave up on publishing outside of the LIS field, so I re-evaluated the LIS choices and settled on portal and Johns Hopkins University Press, whose default publishing agreement allows self-archiving and institutional repositories (but not subject repositories, unless required by the terms of a grant, i.e., the NIH mandate or similar).  And luckily for me, they reviewed the manuscript expeditiously before accepting it (provisionally, and then definitely) for publication.

Part Two: “Please sir, may I have some more?”

So then at the conclusion of the “revisions, editing, back-and-forth with the managing editor” process, there finally came the moment I was waiting for: the publishing agreement.  Now, I knew going in that no matter what, the default agreement said that I’d be able to self-archive the article, so I was covered there. But, I was pretty sure that the default agreement also would require me to transfer my copyright to the journal, and I was more than a little disinclined to do that.  And, sure enough, when the agreement arrived in my email, that’s exactly what it said.

So I wrote back to the managing editor, and I’m going to quote my email below:

Dear [Name]: Thank you for sending the publishing agreement for Johns Hopkins University Press and portal. I’m very pleased to see that I will retain the right to post a copy of the article on my personal or institutional repository or online site. Retaining the copyright to my professional work is also important to me, so I’m wondering if there is an alternate agreement, or if the current agreement can be altered, so that I retain the copyright but the Press still has the ability to do what it needs to do with the content. If not, the current agreement is fine and I will happily sign, [etc.]. But if an alternate agreement is possible, I would prefer to pursue that option. Sincerely, etc.”

This was a really scary and difficult email to write, and that’s why I’m copying it here, so that if others want to use it as a template they can.  (You totally can! Copy freely!)  It was difficult because I was aiming for a very precise tone: I didn’t want to sound cranky or troublesome or rude or like a “problem,”1 but I also didn’t want to just accept what was being offered without at least asking if what I really wanted was possible.2  It’s a delicate line to walk.

The managing editor wrote back and said she didn’t know, but she’d look into it, and a few hours later, I had a different, far more agreeable publishing agreement in my inbox, whereby I retained copyright and granted the press a non-exclusive royalty-free right to publish the article. Bingo!

And then, a day or two later, my good friend Iris and her co-authors did the same thing, and got the same agreeable agreement.

Part Three: Not really a conclusion

So I guess all this is to say: it’s hard. In some fields, in some situations, it may be harder than it first appears. It’s possible, though, if you’re lucky and if you ask for what you want, and then you’re lucky again.  I hope this blog post goes some way towards enabling others to take similar steps.

Postscript: Good articles make good neighbors

Before you go and (if you’re so inclined) read my article, be sure to read my good friend Iris Jastram and her co-authors’ article, that appears just ahead of it in the table of contents.  Excellent stuff there, too!


  1. I wonder how much of that is gender socialization. Do male researchers/authors/scholars worry about this?
  2. In between when I wrote this post, and when I published it, this whole mess happened, which I think is definitely related to the gender socialization piece, which is also related to the idea that women don’t negotiate. It’s turtles socialization, all the way down.

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