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I have published in journal X and given them the rights to my work. In the "Author's Rights" clause, it says that I am allowed to post my work to pre-print servers (in the form immediately prior to publishing and sticking the copyright on) such as arXiv.

I am also allowed to distribute the copyrighted version for teaching and technical purposes, conference presentations, or other scholarly activities, and also allowed to post the copyrighted version to a personal website.

Here are my questions:

  • I can't understand the logic behind why I am given so many rights. Where does the journal make money? In what scenario does someone want to read my work and not very easily find a free way to do so?

  • I realize that if someone wants to cite my work, they have to cite the official version, which boosts the reputation of the journal. Is the main point that journal subscriptions negotiated with research universities have more bargaining power, based on impact factor?

  • I am planning on posting my work to a pre-print server while referencing the official DOI of the copyrighted version. It simply feels odd to me, even though I know it's perfectly legal.

  • What am I missing? I realize all journals are different, but I want to better understand why author's are given these rights. I feel like a copyright transfer is a big deal.

  • From my perspective, I want eyes on my paper. From the journal's perspective, they want money from my work. How are there so many subscriptions to journal X if it's so easy to get ahold of the papers for free?

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Short answer: Pre-prints are not a big threat to the business models of journals and there are scientific norms that mean that journals are expected to permit pre-prints.

Longer Answer:

Why do universities and others pay for journals when some of the articles in these journal subscriptions are available via pre-print servers and other means?

  • Readers want access to the copy of record supplied by the journal.
  • Readers want access to every single article, not just the subset that are available as pre-prints.
  • Readers want efficient and consistent access.
  • Readers want an attractively formatted PDF or HTML copy.
  • Although not a pre-print server, it's also worth noting that universities respect copyright and therefore do not see services like scihub that provide more comprehensive free access as legitimate.

Why do many journals allow authors to share pre-prints?

  • They don't see it as a big impost on their business model given the points above.
  • Many journals have an embargo period on post-prints (i.e., pre-prints that have been updated based on the feedback provided by journal peer-review). These are presumably designed to encourage purchase of journal subscriptions.
  • Some journals may appreciate the importance of academic dissemination even where the potential readers do not have a subscription.
  • In some fields, pre-prints are very entrenched to the point that if a journal did not allow pre-prints, they might be seen poorly by that field and receive fewer high quality submissions.
  • More generally, there is competition amongst journals, and allowing pre-prints is one small way that journals can compete for submissions.
  • There has also been an ongoing debate about the business models of journals. Journals are receiving pressure from various parties to permit these forms of distribution.
  • Also, pre-print servers are generally non-commercial. I have seen some publishers ban positing on ResearchGate because they are for-profit and serve Ads alongside pre-prints.
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    Thanks. This is exactly what I was looking for. Honestly, my hunch was similar. I think the reason I was struggling to see where the author has leverage was in the value of subscriptions. The author generates the quality and makes subscriptions necessary for high-quality, efficient research. Given this leverage, the journals throw bones to compete for the paper, while also hoping that extra viewership increases viewership of their journal.
    – zugzug
    Oct 15 '20 at 23:32
  • I find interesting your remark about preprints being entrenched. I work in mathematics so it's extremely common for people to post to arXiv for many benefits. What I was thinking originally was if, theoretically, every mathematician published on arXiv, then the whole "subscription for quick and efficient access" wouldn't make sense. I wonder why journals aren't afraid that everything will just be on arXiv, decreasing the value of a subscription. This is what I was thinking when I posted the question.
    – zugzug
    Oct 15 '20 at 23:35
  • Back when I had a research university's worth of access, I found many times where I could quickly access papers with subscriptions. This was super convenient and worthy of paying for. However, much of the reason is because I was referencing papers from years ago. I feel like in the future, there will be more arXiving and less demand for subscriptions.
    – zugzug
    Oct 15 '20 at 23:38
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    Two more points for allowing to share pre-prints: 1. there are legislations (e.g. Germany) where authors have the right to publish their preprints under certain conditions (Germany: UrhG §38 (4) gesetze-im-internet.de/englisch_urhg/englisch_urhg.html#p0241). In that case, the publisher allowing pre-print publication can look nice a very low cost to the publisher. 2. the publisher hope for more more interest in the publication which is triggered by preprints being available. I.e., people decide via the preprint to get the journal version they then cite. Oct 18 '20 at 12:28
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What am I missing?

That we are the geese who are laying golden eggs for the publishers. Their business model is to do little and to get paid huge sums of money for it. Scientists do essentially all the work: the writing, peer review, and the editorial work. All that publishers really do is copyediting, and quite frankly they often do a mediocre job of that.

If publishers forbade researchers from posting preprints, then researchers would post preprints anyway. If publishers tried to enforce such a restriction, then researchers would stop submitting there.

The academic publishing industry is an example of economic rent seeking, generating profits without creating wealth. The balance is precarious, and publishers understand that it is in their economic interests not to disrupt it.

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    To be clear, I never meant to imply that I thought publishers were more valuable than researchers or that researchers didn't deserve the right to post to pre-print servers. More like, I am pleasantly surprised that scientists appropriately use their leverage in a way that makes sense.
    – zugzug
    Oct 16 '20 at 14:35
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That's an interesting example of two different Nash equilibria. If all top journals in a field allow to publish preprints, then one journal/publisher disallowing it would simply lead to no-one publishing there. If the norm is to forbid it, then one journal allowing it will probably just decrease its revenue (it would attract more good papers, but that's not directly monetizable).

Same on the scientists' side: if everyone else publish on Arxiv, then publishing my papers in a journal that disallows it would simply diminish the visibility of my work. If the norm is to embargo/paywall publications, then by not following it I just cut myself off most good journals.

Historically, different fields ended up in different equilibria; for that reason, some use arXiv, some don't. This is also en example of a situation where a regulation, e. .g, mandating "green" open access by some big funding agencies, could move the situation out of the "bad" equilibrium. Whether it's what happening is another question.

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The main thing you are missing is the "Big Deal" model that publishers use with university libraries (pioneered by Elsevier). The basic way that this works is that you pay one price for all the journal you get from a given publisher, and this price is based on the previous price you paid plus a certain increase each contract. You can change what journals are in the bundle, but you'll still have to pay what you paid before plus 5-10% each new contract. Your choice as a library is to either cancel the "Big Deal" entirely (which some libraries are doing now) or to continue on subscribing to journals in all fields. Now we get to the critical point:

  • Most of the grant money is in biomedical sciences, and it's the biomedical sciences which drive the subscription decisions made by the university.
  • Preprints are mostly in minor fields like physics and mathematics which are largely irrelevant to universities decisions.

Publishers just want to keep the preprint disciplines happy enough that they don't start pushing too hard to cancel the "Big Deal." Meanwhile universities can't cancel the Big Deal just because the preprint disciplines don't need the journal subscriptions anymore, since the much more valuable non-preprint disciplines still want the subscriptions.

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Adding to some of the other answers.

Many grants now require that works supported by said grants be freely available in some form. This is the famous “open-access” debate about people paying to access research paid for by government (and thus tax-payers) monies. NOT allowing this would mean fewer submissions.

Overall, pre-prints etc don’t seem to be much of a threat since this industry is very profitable.

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  • Note that these grant rules are usually about long-term open access. For example, in the UK the journal can impose a 12 month embargo in STEM subjects and a 24 month embargo in HASS (Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) subjects. So journals still have monopoly control over access to most papers for that first 1-2 year period. Oct 18 '20 at 18:55

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