I wonder if other readers of Times Higher Education share my concern that academic publishers are asking authors of scholarly works to sign away one of the protections they are given in law: the moral right to the integrity of their writing. A very well-established and highly regarded academic publisher recently asked me to agree that an article to appear under my name could be modified without my approval, and also to a contractual clause that I would waive my right to legal redress if I felt that such changes so modified the work that my scholarly reputation or standing could be damaged.
The publisher was surprised at my rejection of the contract, which it considered to be standard in the publishing industry. It assured me that it wanted only the ability to make stylistic and typographical changes, and that if it ever needed to update the article and I was not available, there would be acknowledgement of the revisions made by a second author. All this seemed reasonable, and would seem to fall well short of the kind of violence to an author’s work likely to lead to a scholar’s feeling the need to take legal action against a publisher.
Despite a long discussion of the issues, I failed to understand why I was being asked to sign a contract that included catch-all terms such that I had to agree that the publisher could make any changes it liked to work published under my name, for any reason it saw fit, at any time, and I would waive my right to protect the integrity of my writing even if the changes substantially altered the intended meaning or introduced factual errors.
I would argue that no reputable publisher would ever deliberately behave in a way that required such a clause, and so including the waiver of moral rights in a publishing contract is not needed. I also suggest that if such clauses are accepted by authors, they are ceding a legal protection with no good rationale. Moreover, if such clauses become a norm, then it is surely only a matter of time before some publishers get lazy when looking to modify works, and authors will start to find work published under their names that does not represent their academic views or which implies poor scholarship or shoddy writing. I would suggest that academics refuse to sign contracts with such waivers, and that publishers should reflect on why they wish to bypass a legal protection.
Keith S. Taber
Professor of science education
University of Cambridge