I was recently told a very disconcerting story by a supervisor about something that had just happened to one of the doctoral researchers she was working with. I’m repeating it here because it’s a cautionary tale. The moral of the story is that not everyone offering to publish your work is to be trusted.
So the story goes like this. The doctoral researcher gives a paper at a conference and afterwards two senior academics approach her saying that they love her work, its really important and they want to include it in a new online course they are developing. Can they have her paper, and indeed her whole thesis? She doesn’t hand the paper over but says that that seems like a good thing because she wants people to know about her research. Later on, she tells her supervisor who points out that the two academics are developing an online course which is actually high fee-paying, that none of this money will come to her or her university and even if the work is attributed, it will be to an unpublished conference paper and thesis. She really needs to get the paper published in a journal first of all.
After the conference, the doctoral researcher is contacted by the two academics and asked again for her paper. She refuses, saying that she is going to publish the paper. The academics respond by getting very nasty, saying that since she is nearly completed, they will be able to get her work anyway from the digital thesis repository and they don’t need her permission to do this.
The doctoral researcher again consults with her supervisor and together they decide that she will take advantage of the possibility, within the digital thesis programme, of refusing public access to a digital repository for a period of time. This is an option available in some digital thesis schemes – it is intended to allow time for doctoral researchers to work with and on the intellectual property they have developed. And that was that.
Now this is a story that makes me really angry. I generally assume that senior academics are all able to understand that doctoral and early career researchers need to be able to manage and publish their own work. I understand that it can be very exciting to see someone present something that is genuinely innovative, or important. But recognizing that doesn’t equate to a license to rush in there and grab it for your own ends.
It’s very easy for doctoral researchers, unsure of their own capacity to get their stuff out there, to be surprised when their work gets attention. They can be taken in by offers to publish their thesis in its entirety and then find that (a) they have a book that is never properly distributed by a bottom feeding publisher, (b) the book is given no credence in bid or job selection panels, and worst of all (c) they may also have given away most of the copyright on their own research.
This particular instance however was different from the unsolicited offer to publish a thesis. It was a request to use the material for teaching purposes – but a request in which the question of the profit-making nature of the course was not discussed. At least with the publishing offers there is a contract with conditions that are clear at the outset, even if it is a matter of reading the fine print. And there is no bullying involved. In the incident I have recounted there was deception, in that the full story was not told, and there was then a threat to go ahead anyway despite the wishes of the researcher.
For me, the narrative reveals the fragile nature of the gift economy in which we work – as well as the ignorance of at least some academics about the legalities of ‘intellectual property’. We all present at conferences and write online, assuming that none of our scholarly contemporaries are out there to exploit us or rip us off. Unfortunately this is not the case. There are a minority of people who are just not to be trusted.
I don’t want to add to the general paranoia that is out there about getting your work stolen. However some of this fear is well founded. The possibility of encountering the unscrupulous doesn’t mean stopping putting the stuff out in conferences and on-line, I reckon, but it does mean exercising some care. It certainly means being wary of enthusiastic offers from senior academics offering to do you a favour by including your work in theirs.
Note: This story told with permission from the doctoral researcher and supervisor.