On Keeping Pledges

A few months back, I posted a series of pledges about being a good scholarly citizen. Among other things, I pledged to keep my data and code open whenever possible, and to fight to retain the right to distribute materials pending and following their publication. I also signed the Open Access Pledge. Since then, a petition boycotting Elsevier cropped up with very similar goals, and as of this writing has nearly 7,000 signatures.

As a young scholar with as-yet no single authored publications (although one is pending in the forward-thinking Journal of Digital Humanities, which you should all go and peer review), I had to think very carefully in making these pledges. It’s a dangerous world out there for people who aren’t free to publish in whatever journal they like; reducing my publication options is not likely to win me anything but good karma.

With that in mind, I actually was careful never to pledge explicitly that I would not publish in closed access venues; rather, I pledged to “Freely distribute all published material for which I have the right, and to fight to retain those rights in situations where that is not the case.” The pressure of the eventual job market prevented me from saying anything stronger.

Today, my resolve was tested. A recent CFP solicited papers about “Shaping the Republic of Letters: Communication, Correspondence and Networks in Early Modern Europe.” This is, essentially, the exact topic that I’ve been studying and analyzing for the past several years, and I recently finished a draft of a paper on this topic precisely. The paper utilizes methodologies not-yet prevalent in the humanities, and I’d like the opportunity to spread the technique as quickly and widely as possible, in the hopes that some might find it useful or at least interesting. I also feel strongly that the early and open dissemination of scholarly production is paramount to a healthy research community.

I e-mailed the editor asking about access rights, and he sent a very kind reply, saying that, unfortunately, any article in the journal must be unpublished (even on the internet), and cannot be republished for two years following its publication. The journal itself is part of a small press, and as such is probably trying to get itself established and sold to libraries, so their reticence is (perhaps) understandable. However, I was faced with a dilemma: submit my article to them, going against the spirit – though not the letter – of my pledge, or risk losing a golden opportunity to submit my first single-authored article to a journal where it would actually fit.

In the end, it was actually the object of my study itself – the Republic of Letters – that convinced me to make a stand and not submit my article. The Republic, a self-titled community of 17th century scholars communicating widely by post, was embodied by the ideal of universal citizenship and the free flow of knowledge. While they did not live up to this ideal, in large part because of the technologies of the time, we now are closer to being able to do so. I need to do my part in bringing about this ideal by taking a stand on the issues of open access and dissemination.

The below was my e-mail to the editor:

Many thanks for your fast reply.

Unfortunately, I cannot submit my article unless those conditions are changed. I fear they represent a policy at odds with the past ideals and present realities of scholarly dissemination. The ideals of the Republic of Letters, regarding the free flow of information and universal citizenship, are finally becoming attainable (at least in some parts of the world) with nigh-ubiquitous web access. In a world as rapidly changing as our own, immediate access to the materials of scholarly production is becoming an essential element not just of science, in the English sense of the word, but wissenschaft at large. Numerous studies have shown that the open availability of electronic prints for an article increases readership and citations (both to the author and to the journal), reduces the time to the adoption of new ideas, and facilitates a more rapidly innovating and evolving literature in the scholarly world. While I empathize that you represent a fairly small press and may be worried that the availability of pre-prints would affect 1 sales, I have seen no studies showing this to be the case, although I would of course be open to reading such research if you know of some. In either case, it has been shown that pre-prints at worst do not affect scholarly use and dissemination in the least, and at best increase readership, citation, and impact by up to 250%.

Good luck with your journal, and I look forward to reading the upcoming issue when it becomes available.

It’s a frightening world out there. I considered not posting about this interaction, for fear of the possibility of angering or being blacklisted by the editorial or advisory board of the press, some of whom are respected names in my intended field of study. However, fear is the enemy of change, and the support of Bethany Nowviskie and a host of tweeters convinced me that this was the right thing to do.

With that in mind, I herewith post a draft of my article analyzing the Republic of Letters, currently titled The Networked Structure of Scientific Growth. Please feel free to share it for non-commercial use, citing it if you use it (but making sure to cite the published version if it eventually becomes so), and I’d love your comments if you have any. I’ll dedicate a separate post to this release later, but I figured you all deserved this after reading the whole post.


  1. Big thanks to Andrew Simpson for pointing out the error of my ways!

7 thoughts on “On Keeping Pledges”

  1. Scott, congratulations on doing the right thing, even though you fear it might harm your prospects. I think you can legitimately be hopeful that that won’t be the case, though: integrity is an asset that’s only going to grow in value as the world becomes more connected.

    Regarding publication: of course you can and will find a publisher that accepts your terms. If you’ve not already seen it, you may find the SPARC author addendum helpful: it’s a standard, established way of retaining control over your submissions. It might even be worth sending it to the editor you corresponded with an offering him another chance. But if we doesn’t take it, it will in the end be more his loss than yours.

  2. I agree in principal with most of what you say, and think it is unfortunate the way that publications try to manipulate access to work.

    However, the word you are looking for is “affect” not “effect”. The distinction is important, especially for an academic.

    1. Ahh, you’re absolutely right! Thank you for catching this, I’ve updated the post accordingly. One more point for the importance of peer review, eh?

  3. Well done, and applause.

    I just thought I’d add that any smaller publication holding out for closed access in order to preserve a library market is probably trying a failing strategy. Our budgets are so locked up in paying for packages offered by big publishers (mostly for profit, but also “non-profit” societies that make so much money on publications that they act in concert with the big guys on Capital Hill in opposing open access) that we are having to cancel every other journal that we might subscribe to – and adding new journals? HAHAHAHA oh that hurts. With the big guys jacking up their prices, our flat or shrinking budgets won’t allow for adding anything new.

    Holding out for open access is likely to mean your research reaches more people even if through less traditional means, and as you say – oh, the irony of this being the case for research on the Republic of Letters. New journals that are not open and are not owned wholly by gigantic corporations are not going to find homes in libraries. Sad fact.

Leave a Reply