The moral right to distribute your own publications online

A few days ago several academics commented (on facebook) on the state of our publication rights. It seems that the author comes up with an innovative idea for an article or a book, puts together a number of applications for funding or funds his/her own research, s/he struggles to find the evidence usually in distant countries, catalogues the available material, writes several drafts of the article, presents several papers in conferences. All in the space of five to ten years. Eventually, a publisher appears willing to undertake the task of publishing the Work. The author usually does not see a penny from this publication, unless the book is a popular one (which does not happen very often). At the same time, the publisher reserves every right to distribute the work. The author is not allowed to reproduce online any of his/her publications, unless s/he receives the explicit permission of the publisher. A permission that is almost never forthcoming, because of the alleged loss of income the publisher will suffer.

This is certainly a problematic situation, especially in view of the new available online platforms; being one of them, and google scholar being the other. These two outlets could transform the world of publication, literally over night, if all authors decide to upload their papers and books. These are two well known and respected platforms that all academics use in order to communicate the results of their work to other researchers, if not to the public. However, they do not seem to have the legal right to do so. Several publishers are forcing us to sign contracts that do not allow us to distribute our work in an electronic form.

And my question is: Even if we lose the legal right of our intellectual property, do we still have a moral right of ownership? And I do not mean the moral right described by British copyright law, which gives us the paternity of the manuscript and ensures proper citations. Instead, I mean the broader ability to present our research to the world, who (after all) pays for it in advance of its publication.

Economic historian and numismatic consultant


  1. Constantina – thanks for alerting me to this. I still feel hopeless but a little less alone!

  2. I am not an academic, and only publish on my blogs so not out ot make any money and don’t understand the syste. You say that when going for publication ” The author usually does not see a penny from this publication, unless the book is a popular one”. Therefore, if you guys are making no money at the moment, why not move from the traditional publishers who skin you to these on-line formats? You don’t appear to lose, and you could, I guess, make some money from the on-line format. Good luck to you all. I guess it is a dilemma whatever way.

    • The problem with this (often made) suggestion is that it stands outside the academic “game”: most academics are judged in significant part on their publications, and “publications” in this case means, except in rare cases, professionally recognized publications in accredited, peer-reviewed venues – usually journals with good standing in the field, or books from recognized presses. Unless or until most academics are willing and / or able to publish in open access venues instead of or in addition to these traditional venues – that is, unless or until academic institutions deciding on tenure, promotion, renewal of contracts, and appointments – recognize open access publication, academics are essentially caught in a situation of having to play by the traditional publishers’ rules, or risk their careers, if not their professional standing. This is especially true early in a career, when the approval of senior scholars is much more important to reputation and indeed survival. And many established academics still seem not to see on-line, especially open access, publication as “real” publication at all; and consistently trivialize on-line communication. Indeed, even some who have used on-line fora as students, or when relatively isolated at smaller institutions, seem to use them less as their careers advance, and / or they move to larger institutions and become part of the academic community.

      • Yes I understand that. Truly a difficult dilemma.

  3. I appreciate the immense value of the on-line world, but some of us still like the physical joy of taking a book down from the shelf and turning the pages. And not all of one’s audience are computer savvy! Ah me, I must be getting old!

    • Does it have to be either / or, though? Having used print, on-line, and dual-medium resources, I find benefits and drawbacks to both. I prefer paper books, but there are some works, and some uses of them (e. g., the ability to search a dictionary for terms in definitions; or a large, discrete corpus for specific collocations), that simply cannot be done, or done anywhere near as efficiently, in print.

      But when it comes to the ability to disseminate scholarship, including materials now out of print, to the widest possible audience – including students and scholars at smaller and poorer institutions who may not have access to the full resources of major developed-world institutions – the choice is not necessarily between reading on paper or on-line; it may well be between reading on-line in an open acces venue, and not being able to (afford to) read something at all.

      Sadly, under current models, it is largely the case that, while digital technology and the Web have made many more publications much easier to access, they have been accompanied by access models that have actually rendered them paradoxically less widely available (e. g., whereas in the past libraries bought printed copies of works and had the right to decide to whom they’d give access to a physical copy or photocopy, now they have largely surrendered that authority via licences which can be highly restrictive, and also make holdings more unstable, as the continuance of access relies on an ongoing subscription as well as the continued existence of a resource and of the entity that owns it).

  4. BTW, James J. O’Donnell’s on-line versions of his edition of Augustine’s Confessions ( and his 1979 monograph on Cassiodorus ( are examples of a scholar retaining or reclaiming copyright in order to make available on-line works no longer available in print.

  5. The Open Access Directory (OAD) provides helpful guidance in the form of a listing of author addenda. “An author addendum is a proposed modification to a publisher’s standard copyright transfer agreement. If accepted, it would allow the author to retain key rights, especially the right to authorize OA. The purpose is to help authors who are uncomfortable negotiating contract terms with publishers or who are unfamiliar with copyright law and don’t know the best terms for a modification to support OA. Because an addendum is merely a proposed contract modification, a publisher may accept or reject it.”

    More and more scholars are refusing to work with publishes who do not grant such rights to authorize open access back to authors. More and more (especially governmental) granting agencies, and university faculties are mandating open access to the results of scholarly resources conducted under their auspices. These mandates are clearly at odds with publishers who do not explicitly allow OA.

  6. Speaking from a position of near total ignorance when it comes to publishing classical scholarship…

    Are you familiar with It’s a site used by the physics and mathematics communities to issue preprints of papers, so they can be checked for errors before going to submission. It’s perfectly acceptable for a paper to appear on and then be accepted by a major publication, such as Nature. Preprints of unusually good papers on normally generate such a buzz that it actually increases the circulation for whoever finally prints it.

    Why would a similar system not work for classics?

    Looking at it from the publisher’s view, these people have to stay in business, they’re not charities, and if the likely print run is small then I can see why they wouldn’t want an online version undercutting them at $0.00.

    In fiction at least, it’s almost impossible to dissociate electronic from paper rights. Random House even recently issued a letter to their authors saying that they considered all previous contracts to include electronic rights even if they weren’t specifically mentioned! Whether that would stand up to a legal challenge I don’t know, but it shows how much electronic rights worry major publishers.

    • There are couple of pre-print archives for classics already, such as the Princeton/Stanford Working Papers ( and the Classics section of the SSRN ( There is also a growing body of Open Access journals in ancient studies.

      The point about publishers’ needing to make a profit is valid; however, it is valid only if we assume that the traditional publication model is sound and must be sustained at all costs (which is far from obvious when it comes to specialist scholarship with a small readership, which is expensive to publish in small runs and correspondingly [sometimes astronomically] expensive to purchase, limiting sales to the best-funded libraries and a few individuals), and it loses force when we are talking about publications (esp. journal articles) from years ago, on which there is no further earning to be had, if there ever was to begin with – they have long been read, if at all, in libraries or in photocopies or scans made in libraries, and it is only the rise of databases like JSTOR – which lock out the private individual user – that has given them a partial new lease of economic life (but even then many probably go largely unaccessed and unread). Much the same is true of specialist books unlikely ever to be reprinted, especially if the publisher has no plans at all to make the work available digitally. And the broader point is that if scholars, especially at public institutions, began to favour or to be encouraged to favour open access publication to begin with, and the academic system begins to recognize it, this would be a way around the increasing problems for libraries, institutions, and scholars of the multiplication of journals, all competing for subscriptions and submissions, and readers finding things impossible to access.

    • By the way, as I didn’t make it clear, I was thinking in the first instance of scholarly work that has been traditionally published, but gone out of print – an area in which traditional publishers do not stand to earn much, and will already have made such money as they will from sales to those for whom it is important to have new publications at once.

  7. I have no doubt that we have the moral right to disseminate our work freely and openly. As for the legal right, I think Chuck’s suggestion to modify contracts by proposing an author’s addendum, maybe the way forward (at least in the short-term)..

  8. For sure, if the traditional publication model is considered dead, then ebooks are the way to go for anything specialist with a low print run. But my understanding was ebooks didn’t score points in academia. If you could develop an academically recognized, peer-reviewed ebook system then that presumably would handle the issue then?

  9. I’m coming at this from a scientist’s perspective, but many of the challenges are the same. When I published my dissertation, I paid ProQuest to retain my rights to the document and to not copyright it. This allows me to distribute it, or for others to include it in programmatically-assembled collections.

    The way science in general has handled this is by Open Access publishers, most notably the the Public Library of Science.

    The bit above that caught my eye was this “if all authors decide to upload their papers and books…it could change publishing overnight.” You might not be aware of Mendeley, but that’s pretty much what they’re trying to do. They already have a catalog of research that’s one of the largest in the world, entirely from user uploads, and it’s growing exponentially.

  10. Dan Cohen ( has just linked this paper considering some of these issues:

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