Michaels Nielsen and Mitzenmacher pointed out a recent post by Harvard’s Stuart Shieber about the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that is the implicit norm in scholarly publications, at least in computer science.
“Publishers officially forbid online distribution, authors do it anyway without telling the publishers, and publishers don’t ask them to stop even though it violates contractual obligations. What happens when you refuse to play that game?”
I recommend reading the whole thing. Shieber does post his papers online and, unlike many authors, he makes sure to attach an addendum to any copyright agreements with publishers to ensure that he is not in breach of contract. Publishers almost never complain, he says.
“In retrospect, this may make sense. Since the contractual modification applies only to a single article by a single author, it is unlikely that anyone looking for copyright clearance would even know that all copyright hadn’t been assigned to the publisher. And in any case publishers must realize that authors act as if they have a noncommercial distribution license…”
I will consider using the Science Commons addenda for future copyright agreements with publishers. But just to share my own story: When we submitted the final version of the fuzzy extractors paper to SICOMP (SIAM Journal on Computing), Leo Reyzin suggested we explicitly modify SIAM’s copyright agreement to make it a “publication agreement” that confers only non-exclusive publication rights to SIAM. The revised agreement let us retain all other publications rights, including free online distribution via sites of our choice. For my readers’ entertainment, here is our modified agreement with SIAM, which SIAM accepted without comment.
Finally, David Eppstein points out that free online journals make all the hassle so last century.
P.S.: For a great radio show about what people usually mean by “don’t ask, don’t tell”, listen to the June 16 episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, in which Terry Gross interviews Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire.