Journals and the Web

by Brian on September 6, 2003

These days many academics, including I would guess most who read this blog, keep collections of their papers available on their websites. (If you’re interested in seeing some samples, Dave Chalmers keeps a fairly comprehensive list of people with online papers in philosophy.) In the last few years several issues about the relationship between posting something to a webpage and publishing it in a book or journal have become a little pressing.

There’s actually a tangle of inter-related questions here that could use sorting out. For one thing, there are both legal questions (about copyright) and moral questions (about whether such posting is stealing from editors who’ve agreed to publish things) about the practice. For another, the answers to those questions may be different for articles that have been published, or have been accepted but not published, or are as yet homeless. For another, it might make a difference whether the journal in question is electronic or dead tree. So there’s potentially ten or twelve different questions here.

I hadn’t thought much about the moral issues until my colleague Dave Estlund raised them. I think they are interesting, but my first inclination is to think there probably isn’t a major moral problem here. I suspect there are other duties I have that override any duties I may have to journals. For instance, I suspect there is a general duty on academics to promote the growth of knowledge, and in this case it overrides duties to provide journals with virgin pages, for instance. (I also think Brown pays me to promote the growth of knowledge rather than to provide copy for journals, and that’s already a duty that might justify posting papers to websites, I think.)

Having said that, there’s a few restrictions I keep to when posting papers that might indicate I really do (at some level) take the moral questions more seriously.

First, I never post PDFs of an article as it will look in print to a freely accessible website. I know some people do this, and I think it’s probably defensible, but I think there’s a plausible argument that the journal has a right (i.e. a moral right) to have a say over where those PDFs go. After all, it was their layout work that made it look like that. (In philosophy at least there’s still layout work done by journals – we don’t send LaTeX files in ready to print.)

Second, I don’t normally post articles that are intended for (exclusively) online journals. Again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but I feel a little bad about doing something functionally equivalent to what that journal will do eventually.

I’ve noticed a few people keep to a third restriction, which I usually do in practice if not by intent. That practice is to only post penultimate drafts to their personal webpage, not the final copy. Now I’m normally too lazy to make the corrections I make on the page proofs (adding ‘not’ in the right places etc.) on my online copies, so I suppose most of my online papers are penultimate at best. But this isn’t a deliberate policy.

I can’t tell if keeping to these rules is an indication that I really do care about theiving from journals and so posting anything is really wrong, or I think there are trade-offs to be made here and so I’m following a reasonable, even sophisticated, policy.

The legal issues raise different complications. Most journals seem to have conceded that they can’t block everything that has appeared online, so they have de facto conceded that articles can appear on web pages before they appear in print. This concession isn’t universal. The New England Journal of Medicine won’t (or at least wouldn’t last I checked) publish papers that have previously appeared online. But it seems most of them have practically conceded defeat here.

What happens with articles that have been accepted, or even appeared in print, might be different. Several people keep available papers that have appeared in print, as the briefest scan through Chalmers’s list will reveal. (Indeed, many people only post printed articles.) But it’s not clear to me that journals couldn’t fight back a little here. If I were running a journal I would consider asking writers to remove personal copies of papers from their websites once they had appeared in print, and if I did ask that it wouldn’t be a throwaway line – I would make some efforts to enforce it. I certainly think journals (and book publishers) would be within their moral rights to do this, and it’s hard to see how they would be out of their legal rights.

I’d be very interested to know what the experience has been in other disciplines. Philosophy has been quite different to some other fields in that we have never had a central archive for papers, nor even a really active mailing list culture for distributing preprint papers. People send papers to their friends, but they don’t announce on mailing lists that papers are available. (Nowadays I make an effort to make those announcements, but I’m running a pretty small scale project.) So we don’t really have the experience that other disciplines have.

Here’s the policies that two prominent online paper archives I follow have about the connection between posting to the archive and publication.

Semantics Archive
This third point is the tricky one. Strict legal rules do not currently quite match commonly accepted practice in Linguistics and other fields, and there are some difficult cases where conflicting interests must be balanced. On the one hand, if a journal owns the copyright, they have the legal right to decide where and how the paper is made available to the public. On the other hand, if it takes two years or more for a paper to go through the refereeing and publication process, you, the journal, and the field will all benefit from making a pre-print version available sooner: wider exposure generates feedback, which improves the quality of the revised paper and generates interest in the published version. Will anyone cancel their subscription to L&P because of the archive? We strongly doubt it.

We’re not lawyers, of course, but our rule of thumb is: if it’s appropriate to post a paper on your publicly-accessible professional web site, it’s appropriate to post it on the archive. Think of the archive as a meta-web site that gathers in one place some portion of individual semanticists’ web pages. Also, bear in mind that you can always delete an item when it finally becomes available in print.

Rutgers Optimality Archive
Publication status. Archiving is not a form of publication. By accepted academic convention, well-established in the hard sciences, electronic archiving is completely independent of publication, future or prior. It is the equivalent of mailing out a typescript, pre-print, or off-print to colleagues.

Electronic archiving shares and generalizes the advantages of private circulation of papers. Authors are put in a position to receive maximal feedback from the entire community of interested researchers. Ideas and results are disseminated rapidly and widely, unchanneled by sociological limitations. Journals, volumes, and other venues of publication receive a boost in quality from the vastly broader pre-publication review of work, and benefit commercially from the visibility accorded to the material they publish. Authors should, of course, take care in the matter of signing over their intrinsic copyright.

It’s also notable I guess that the very biggest preprint archives, SSRN in social sciences and in physical sciences, seem to have no policy whatsoever on this. On the other hand, has quite detailed information on just this point. Their position seems to be that bans on pre-publication do not rule out electronic posting (self-archiving as they call it) but some journals could explicitly rule this out if they wanted to.



KF 09.06.03 at 7:58 pm

Interesting post, considering quite a quandary. I’m piping up here only to steer you toward Rory’s ponderings of such ethical issues surrounding scholarly publishing, copyright, and the web, which I find both enlightening and useful:


Ophelia Benson 09.06.03 at 8:23 pm

Very interesting subject. I had an article commisioned and then accepted by a journal many months ago – I have no idea when they’re going to publish it. I have to strain every nerve in order not to publish it on Butterflies and Wheels. [sigh]


Eric Rasmusen 09.06.03 at 9:00 pm

Here’s another twist: legally, the journals probably don’t own the copyright. To be sure, the author signed it away to them. But the author didn’t own it either. If he is a university employee (as opposed to a student) then his article meets the usual criteria of “work for hire”. His job requires him to do it, it affects his pay, the university claims research as its achievement, etc. So the journal’s title to the article is questionable. It is the employer, the university, who owns it.

The counterargument is that universities customarily allow professors to keep book royalties, etc., so by common convention the universities have lost their rights to the copyrights. I don’t know which argument would win.


Joe Liu 09.06.03 at 10:10 pm

Actually, it’s not at all clear that scholarly articles are “works made for hire” and therefore owned by the university. True, such articles appear to fall within the definition of works for hire. However, several federal courts have recognized a “teacher’s exception,” under which faculty members retain the copyright. Perhaps not coincidentally, the two main modern cases on this point are written by Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook, two former law professors.

On the broader point, the copyright issues should be settled, at least in theory, by the publishing agreement you signed with the journal. In my experience, agreements can differ quite dramatically with respect to the rights retained by the original author. As to whether there are any moral obligations beyond the four corners of the legal agreement, my guess is that it probably depends a lot on the particular field.


EKR 09.06.03 at 10:37 pm

In CS, at least, conferences and journals typically allow you to post PDFs to your web ste provided that you indicate that the paper first appeared in the conference/journal.


Zack 09.07.03 at 12:11 am

In my area (Computer science/Electrical Engineering), usually you are allowed to post a preprint version online before it has been published with a notice that it has been submitted to the journal/conference etc. After publication also, both IEEE and ACM I think ask that you put their copyright notice if you put your paper online and it has to be the published version.


Dan Drezner 09.07.03 at 3:45 am

In poli sci, journals aren’t just de facto allowing authors to publish articles on their website — they’re de jure allowing it. Over the past few years, the copyright forms I’ve signed permit me to put my articles on my web site. Which is why I violate all the norms Brian mentions above.


Kai von Fintel 09.07.03 at 3:56 am

I agree with Joe Liu that it should be clear from the publication agreement what you can do with your work on your own website. In the case of my own most recently published paper, MIT Press had me sign an agreement, according to which authors retain the right to “distribute the article for classroom or research purposes in paper or electronic form”. Making an electronic copy available via my website to colleagues who are interested in my work appears therefore fine. (I didn’t think, however, that I should make the offprint available through the Semantics Archive, which might have constituted giving the paper to a secondary publisher). I would encourage everyone to carefully read the publishing contracts that you sign, to make sure that you retain at least some rights to your own work. And in many cases, you may be able to amend the agreement to give you the right to post the work on your on website.

There are some links to relevant webpages in my blog entry at


rps 09.07.03 at 4:09 am

A scholar’s duty is to share information, not to prop up somebody’s business. I can’t help but think there has to be a better way to do so than the current practice of turning over control of information to some journal, which seeks to restrict access to information (often created with public funds) for its own profit.

There’s an attempt in the life sciences to publish a free, first-rate, prestigious journal online. There’s a link to it here and an article about this issue here

I don’t think the PLoS approach is perfect, but I’ve rambled enough for now.


williard 09.07.03 at 8:57 am

What if you post a revolutionary idea in the comments section of a blog and somebody steals it?


Kragen Sitaker 09.07.03 at 9:15 am

I’m speaking ex recto here, since I’m not published in any peer-reviewed journals — I’m primarily a consumer of academic work, not a producer.

But the academic work I consume is almost invariably the online version. I never look things up in paper form in libraries unless they aren’t available online, because the online version is so much easier to find, scan through, store for later perusal, and follow references in. (Usually I just cut and paste from the bibliography into Google or Citeseer.) I think this approach is typical of the computer science researchers I know, and it will become typical in every academic field, if it isn’t already.

So if your duty is to promote the growth of knowledge, then you are failing in your duty if you deliberately post uncorrected papers to the Web. The version on the Web is the one people will read, save, and cite, and it’s quite likely the only version that will survive into the next century.


zizka 09.07.03 at 7:22 pm

I am far from a technophile — much closer to a Luddite — but it has to be said that e-publication is in many respects far superior to print publication. Which is better: a.)to finish a piece of writing, post it, and email anyone you think might be interested,or b.) send it in the mail (with floppy) to a journal, which prints it from your floppy (i.e., transforms the e-form into print), prints it, and mails it out — with a delay altogether of a year or more?

The worth of printed journals is entirely in validation and criticism — but this can be done on the net too. Internet first-publication presently has an odor of crankiness and self-publication (me, incidentally), but an edited e-journal can be as good as an edited paper journal.

In my communications with journals they seemed to have no feeling of proprietorship regarding the later fate of the pieces they publish as long as acknowledgement is made. It would strike me as boggling if they did, since they never pay anyone. (Knowing what I do about the way the music industry treats creative musicians, I am skeptical about current trends in intellectual property rights anyway).

Since most print journals neither pay royalties nor make a profit, it would make sense to look into free e-publication at a smaller loss. This would be especially valuable for highly specialized journals which have a global readership of only a few hundred people. Especially nowadays when universities are feeling the pinch.

There would be a problem with archiving — things don’t stay on the net forever the way they sit on library shelves. Something like the Variorum series, which publishes print versions authors’ collected papers would partly fill this gap. Informal e-anthologies of papers thought useful by an editor would also keep things alive. There would be a risk that if some interesting article was completely forgotten (by everyone whatsoever) for 20-30 years, it might disappear entirely. But how often does that happen?

Perhaps, also, some of the amazing proliferation of publication deserves to be forgotten. We’re really not talking about the lost plays of Aeschylus here.


Brian Weatherson 09.08.03 at 7:29 am

These comments have been really interesting. Much thanks to all the contributors so far. (And keep info coming!) It seems that I’ve been much more cautious than I need have been with my posting policies, at least if the standards of the rest of academia are to be followed.

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