The Wheel Turns

In the old days, academic journals would typically give you 25 or more free reprints of any article you published. They were exact replicas of your article as it appeared in print, complete with volume and page numbers, and could be sent to interested colleagues as a “post-print” advertising option, or given to family and friends (because your loved ones deserve  a boring, jargon-filled derivative piece of research material they can’t understand for Christmas!)

This practise has long since disappeared for most or perhaps all journals covering subjects with large overlap with the arxiv (one of the few downsides of the arxiv, as I will argue below). Reprints ceased to make sense: the free immediacy of the arxiv changed how people felt about preprints. The diets of researcher’s rapidly changed from a staple of hard-copy published articles to electronic preprints from the arxiv which could trivially be emailed to researchers who might be interested (but actually aren’t). Reprints and old-school printed preprints simply piled up on desks and filing cabinets only to thrown out en masse when people moved office (the dreaded clear-out!)

I remember very clearly how my PhD my supervisor, the wonderful late Dennis Sciama, would come into my office in the morning with a hard copy of a pre-print. By then I was reading the arxiv in the morning far more regularly than I ate breakfast, so I had almost always seen the preprint and had either printed my own copy or saved it to file, so didn’t want another copy. After a couple of months Dennis simply stopped bringing them to me and so, sadly, I lost a channel of chatting to him. Fortunately there was always lunch. Let’s hope Soylent doesn’t kill this avenue for chatting between academics!

Anyway, fast forward to 2013. Now if you want an official copy of your paper, you have to download it from the journal webpage. If your institution doesn’t subscribe then you have to pay, typically $25-$35 for a paper – even if you are the author, which I think is disgraceful. Now you might think this is irrelevant – typically the arxiv version has all the info. That is true, but in the last few years we have seen the rise of funding linked closely to bibliometrics and in South Africa at least, the government is now demanding hard copies of journal articles as a cheap way (for them) to be sure of the validity of authorship claims, to circumvent bibliometric fraud. Hence the arxiv version is not good enough.

Ironically now those free journal reprints would come in really handy. In the case of a book, the funding agency wants a copy of the book (for free)! In some cases, the online version of a journal is one or two years behind the print edition to encourage libraries to subscribe to the excessively expensive hard-copy version, and if your university library doesn’t subscribe to the hard copy, then you may have no option but to buy a copy of your own paper, just to prove you wrote it!

This was the amazing time-wasting rabbit hole into I went down a year or so ago when I tried to get a copy of our paper on Fisher4cast, our Fisher matrix code, which we published in IJMP since there are very journals that accept papers about codes. Not only did none of my three institutions have the print version, neither apparently did anyone else. Eventually our librarian, through some quantum process which appeared to involve tunneling briefly into a parallel universe in which someone actually subscribed to the print version, was able to get a copy. But it was tortuous in the extreme and I came very close to simply buying the article, which would have killed me inside.

What is the alternative? Well, journals could give authors a pdf of the final journal article with some legal proviso that it is to be used only for personal use, a bit like what happens when you buy a song or e-book online. As usual the complex issues around this, set within a much broader context of creativity and the impact of the internet, are encapsulated in a wonderful TED talk by Larry Lessig,  which I highly recommend you watch. When most people are breaking the law, its time to change the law…

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