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Criminology Units Can Sidestep Embargoes With a Rights-Retention Policy

Published onOct 31, 2020
Criminology Units Can Sidestep Embargoes With a Rights-Retention Policy

Every criminology1 article can be free, without radical change to the current system. In my Open (Access) Letter to Criminologists, I write about why we should pursue that goal and how we can achieve it. Key to the strategy is taking advantage of “green access” — the legal and public sharing2 of postprints.3 A detriment to the strategy is that some publishers limit where and when authors can share them. In other words, they embargo green access. This has a number of negative consequences for criminology and its stakeholders, but there are solutions. The most impactful one is for academic units to adopt a rights-retention policy. Below, I explain how the policy works; call on criminology units to adopt it; and, finally, encourage us to take advantage of it, to everyone’s benefit.

Embargo Problems

Embargoes are widespread among criminology journals (see the Wiki List of Criminology Journals), including those that are most cited (see the Green Access Rank of Most Cited Journals in Criminology). At the extreme, embargoes prohibit authors from sharing postprints on any website for 24 months after publication of the final version. The most lenient embargoes allow authors to immediately share postprints on their personal websites, but prohibit doing so on others for a year or more.

These embargoes are bad for everyone, even publishers.4 They preclude the timely and widespread dissemination of information and knowledge. This limits our impact: that of authors and supporting organizations (e.g., universities and external funders); editors, publishers, and their journals; and, the field as a whole. It also contributes to social injustice and thwarts research, student success, evidence-based action, informed discussion, and democracy. For all those reasons, it is important to find and implement solutions to embargo problems.

Embargo Solutions


At the level of individual authors, the easiest way to solve embargo problems is to avoid publishing in journals with them. By doing so, authors enable themselves to immediately share their postprints on any website. The issue with this approach, and also with the approach described in the next subsection, is it has limited effect. It works, but only for one author or a few coauthors at a time. A more radical solution is a collective boycott. If a substantial portion of criminologists made this move, it could lead embargoed journals to become unembargoed. But in the foreseeable future, I think a widespread boycott is unlikely to happen and, thus, not a realistic solution.

Post on Personal Site, Link to Others

I wrote about another individual-level solution in Your Personal Website is a Legal Solution to Embargo Problems. As mentioned above, some embargo policies allow authors to immediately share their postprints on their personal websites. The issue with personal websites is they are less findable, and do a poorer job of preservation than repositories. The implication is that postprints on personal websites are less discoverable by search engines (e.g., Google) and apt to have a shorter lifespan. So what I recommend is for authors to share works on their personal websites and then link to them on repositories.5


A negative of the prior solution is that some journals have a total embargo. They prohibit authors from sharing on even their personal websites. Examples are Criminology and Criminology & Public Policy, which are owned by the American Society of Criminology (ASC) and published by Wiley. An alternative solution, then, is to lobby the owners and publishers of journals to forgo embargoes. For example, Eric Piza and I published an Open Letter to ASC Concerning Access to Its Journals: Make It Legal for Authors to Immediately, Publicly Share the Accepted Version of Their Manuscript. This letter explains the problems with the journals’ embargo policy, calls on ASC to change it, and asks people to sign the letter if they agree with its cause. Needless to say, lobbying entails asking for change, not directly making it.

The Best Embargo Solution: Adopt a Rights-Retention Policy

There is an established way for authors to gain power that preempts embargoes and thereby makes them a thing of the past: As members of our respective academic units, we must draft and then vote to approve a rights-retention policy; once adopted, we must act to take advantage of it by immediately sharing our works on repositories.

How It Works

Units that adopt a rights-retention policy have the ability to immediately share their authors’ postprints, on a website or websites specified in the policy. The policy is ingenious. To understand how it works, let us first walk through the three ways that a party can gain the right to distribute a postprint:

  1. By authoring a work, a party becomes the default owner of its copyright. The work’s owner has the right to dictate its distribution. This includes the right to share its postprint version.

  2. The owner, or time, can put the work into the public domain. In that case, no one owns the copyright. Ergo, everyone has the right to share the work in any form, including its postprint version (assuming it is available).

  3. The owner can transfer copyright to another party, such as an academic unit, funding body, or publisher. To be clear, an owner can transfer copyright in toto, or they can transfer part of it and retain the rest.

A rights-retention policy takes advantage of the third scenario. Peter Suber6 explains it this way:

At Harvard, which pioneered this [rights-retention approach] for universities, faculty members vote to give the university [or a smaller unit therein] a standing nonexclusive right (among other nonexclusive rights) to make their future work [green] OA through the institutional repository. When faculty publish articles after that, the university [or smaller unit] already has the needed permission [to share the work], and faculty needn’t take any special steps to retain rights or negotiate with publishers. Nor need they wait for the publisher’s embargo to run. Harvard-style policies also give faculty a waiver option, allowing them to opt out of the grant of permission to the university [or unit therein].7

How to Draft & Adopt

To adopt a rights-retention policy, there is no need to draft one from scratch. The Harvard Office of Scholarly Communication provides a Model Open-Access Policy with annotated explanations; it is displayed in the following iFrame (and best viewed on a computer or large smart device). That model policy can, and should be, adapted to fit any unit. A supplementary resource of great use is Suber’s “Good Practices for University Open-Access Policies.” It also may be useful to consult SPARC’s “Responses to Common Misperceptions about Campus Open-Access Policies.”

For a rights-retention policy to be in effect, a unit’s members must vote to adopt it. Whether this requires a majority, supermajority, or unanimous vote depends on the unit’s bylaws. At the time of writing, 79 units have adopted a rights-retention policy in the Harvard style. Currently, I am guiding my college, The Andrew Young School (AYS) of Policy Studies, toward being the 80th unit.8 Naturally, a rights-retention policy has more effect when adopted by an entire university than a smaller unit within it (e.g., a college, department). However, it is also more difficult to get a policy adopted as the size and complexity of the unit increases (e.g., more faculty members across more departments).

As a criminologist, my prime concern is shepherding our field toward becoming more open, an important part of which is ensuring that authors can immediately share their postprints on repositories. My advice for criminologists is to begin by drafting and adopting a policy within their home unit (e.g., department), as this is relatively easy to accomplish and will immediately make publisher embargoes defunct. In turn, if desired, that experience can be used to inform broader efforts at one’s institution.

There are resources to help. Hyperlinks to a few of them are above the iFrame. People want to support you. Most likely, your librarians want to see the policy adopted at your university, so ask them for assistance. Off campus, and probably anywhere in the world, the best source of information and wisdom is Peter Suber. Among his other contributions, he offers pro bono consulting for open access. From personal experience, I know that his feedback is very useful; not only for figuring out what is best, but also for reassuring people that the policy is a sound way to secure unembargoed green access. Inspired by Suber’s service, I too offer pro bono support to criminology units that want to move toward adopting a rights-retention policy. Do not be shy to send me an email. It is a privilege, not a chore, to help this cause.

How to Take Advantage

It is unnecessary for all criminologists to draft and adopt a rights-retention policy. That is because some of us are already covered by one. It is found at universities with programs or concentrations in criminology, including Florida State, Indiana University, IUPUI, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers, Simon Fraser, and the Universities of California Irvine, Delaware, Nevada Las Vegas, and Washington. (For an up to date list, see Rights-Retention Policies at PhD-Granting Criminology Programs in the US.)

Once an academic unit’s members are covered by a rights-retention policy, the responsibility falls back to them as individuals to take advantage of it. We have to share our postprints as soon as they are accepted for publication, on our respective institution’s repository and others (e.g., CrimRxiv). We owe it to ourselves, our institutions, the field, and its stakeholders.

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