Who Owns Research?

Or better yet, who should own research? Last Thursday CRASSH―the Cambridge based institute for Cultural Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities―assembled an expert panel from the publishing and library community to tackle this question.  Linda Bree (Cambridge University Press), Rupert Gatti (Open Book publishers), Gary Hall (Open Humanities Press) and Elin Stangeland (DSpace Cambridge), engaged in a discussion with the CRASSH Postdoctoral community on copyright and ownership of research. The exchange soon evolved into a wider debate on subjects as diverse as authorship, (Open Access) publishing and business models, peer review, branding and credibility, and deposit mandates and PhD theses. Google Books, Internet control and plagiarism also seeped into the discussion. The atmosphere was open and the crowd in a problem-solving mood. All the more surprising (and fulfilling) considering the fact that the principles of the panelists and the audience could be located on a sliding-scale from more traditional to highly experimental.

Linda Bree described herself as “the one in traditional publishing”, which, according to her, entails giving away forms of control. By default, she explains, the system revolves around the single author doing a substantial research (preferably in the form of a book). This research is then reviewed, published, disseminated and marketed. The researcher gains in this process by gathering career benefits, where the publisher receives a financial gain―which in academic publishing mostly means not going bankrupt. So, Bree explains, we find ourselves in a semi-commercial situation. In this context the publisher is not so much involved content-wise, but s/he does have a big say in the way research gets presented. This is an important aspect of the publisher’s work and is based on the possibility of presenting a work within certain financial limits. Because all of the above mentioned processes cost money, from reviewing to marketing. And they are all essential in the end for the scholar to, as Bree calls it, get a “nice published book” and to achieve the idea of “I wrote this”.

            Although you could say that giving away this amount of control over one’s work costs quite a lot for an author, Bree defends her and CUP’s position by stating that the transference off control to the publisher is a necessary process. The publisher has invested money along the way and needs to attain revenue. And CUP does give some rights to re-use the work (often fee-based). However, the current technological changes in the publishing process have now given individual scholars the possibility to assert more control over their research (through Open Access and electronic publishing). The individual scholar now has much more choices than in the traditional model (which as Bree admits, is in many ways not sufficient anymore). The seminal question an author thus needs to ask himself is what kind of added value traditional publishing gives him (in forms of branding and other benefits) and whether this is worth the loss of control?

Elin Stangeland from DSpace Cambridge explains the special position Cambridge scholars have in the UK, where they (and not their universities) actually hold the copyright to their research. Giving away forms of control can take place in various settings, as an author can also give a publisher a license to publish (as with a Creative Commons license). Other options for a scholar to keep more in-control include publishing your work with an Open Access book or journal publisher (according to Stangeland, half of the journals in the DOAJ are HSS journals) and self archiving. Scholars can also try to retain their rights from a publisher. Often traditional publishers—like CUP—also provide a hybrid option, where the author can opt to make his specific work openly available. DSpace—which can both be used for books and articles—takes care of the storage and dissemination of the researchers work. They also offer services and advice, like the copyright toolbox (developed by SURF and JISC), and provide information on funders’ policies concerning self-archiving requirements. And they are looking ahead, actively thinking about the archiving of research data (and the management hereof), new citation and reward systems for publishing in the digital humanities and developments concerning the social and semantic web.

            Rupert Gatti explained how he—an economist at Trinity College—started Open Book Publishers out of frustration: publishers were not responding quickly enough to the digital developments. Publishers will not sell books they deem to be in un-publishable areas (even though they match their quality criteria) and if they are published, these books are only bought by elite libraries in the west. But the POD revolution and the Internet brought new possibilities to disseminate research. And as Gatti states, dissemination is an important justification of research. Society needs access to research, were the current model prevents dissemination. Open Book publishers takes another route where their publications are completely searchable though Google Books and authors and readers have the freedom to transform and distribute the research. As publishers they have a non-exclusive right to publish (via a CC license). And they don’t give in on the quality aspect: OPB’s books are just as rigorously peer-reviewed as books in the traditional model. OPB is not for profit (and in case they do make a profit they share it 50/50 with their authors) and for a large part counts on the work of volunteers. And they take care of the ‘lap value’, as Gatti calls it, where they publish (affordable) hard and paperback copies of their publications—using the same printer as CUP does, Gatti adds. As Gatti concludes, there are alternatives to the traditional model and they are growing quickly.


After shortly describing the development of the Open Humanities Press—an international Open Access publishing collective—Gary Hall focused on one of the more experimental projects the press is undertaking. For next to more traditional forms of publication, OMP wants to experiment—through its Liquid Book Series—with changing the physical conception of the monograph. Liquid books offer open editing and free/libre content on a Read/Write basis and can for instance consist of a collage of different media and texts; snippets, pages, references, podcasts, youtube clips, etc.. This form of publishing directly confronts the idea of the author. Remembering Barthes, Hall explains how by giving a text an author, we at the same time give it a limit. Liquid Books are an experiment with the decentralization of the author. In a way this decentralization is already on its way. With the massive rise of authorship through the online medium the (discourse on the) author has again become more open, decentralized and distributed. With Google as our major spotlight and Internet filter, the performers of different roles (authors, editors, compilers) are not always identifiable. Everyone is potentially an author or an editor online.

The discussion that followed focused for a large part on the differences between the traditional subscription and the new Open Access models. Worries about the sustainability of Open Access models and their quality assurance were systematically taken away by the panelists. As all panelists confirmed and agreed upon, there is no such thing as one sustainable model for publishing books. In the future there is likely to be a mix of eclectic models with various revenue sources. Where it comes to quality standards, Gatti for one emphasized that the thorough peer review methods of OBP confirm to the highest standards (comparable to those of CUP for instance). Bree however emphasized that for young authors—publishing their first book—the brand of a publisher also plays an important role. She clearly advised young authors to think about this when making their choice on where to publish. Gatti replied by stating that the more open availability of Open Access publications (and in OBP’s case the lower pricing of their print books) is also an important aspect of the marketing and dissemination of publications.

In this respect it is again about the added value of the publisher and about which addition you value the most. And as this seminar showed, with the increased possibilities for authors to publish their research online, publishing is now more than ever about making choices. What the right choice is in this respect, especially concerning the ownership of research, is up to the researcher. Perhaps now more than ever, s/he is in control about how and where to publish.

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Open Reflections is created by Janneke Adema



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