An open letter to academic publishers (and academics who publish)

I am a PhD student – I read a lot of academic articles and the occasional academic book. I have an iPad. I don’t print anything. I have a system in place that helps me keep all my reading organized. I believe that I am a pretty typical representative of the future of academics.

Nothing frustrates me more than when you provide an article in electronic format (PDF) and then disable the ability to annotate that article. You pretty much make your article useless to me – as you make it significantly more difficult for me to take notes and cite your publication. Note that if you don’t provide your article in electronic format, I won’t read it at all.

Now, if you are a publisher of books, you too need to think of about the needs of your audience. An eBook that doesn’t let me annotate is useless to me. If I can’t highlight important quotes and sections, and copy those quotes then your eBook is of no use to me.

So, for me, as an apprenticing academic, who is also looking to publish, I will take into consideration the usefulness of your product before I submit my article/book chapter. If you are closed-access, I will think twice before submitting. If you do such foolish things as “protecting” your documents from annotations, I will choose to publish elsewhere. By “protecting” your content, you are severely reducing the impact of the content, and frankly, you are annoying the hell out of me!


  1. Having just purchased an ebook from SUNY press — a book I would have purchased in print if it had been available on a timely basis — I've discovered that it's locked to annotation.  I am incredulous.  I fully appreciate a press's need to protect its copyrighted material, but how is my annotation of an ebook any different from my annotation of a print book.  I bought it; I want to write in it.  The idea that I would want to print it out to annotate is absurd.  Like you, I am a PhD student, and I print nothing.
    Has anyone heard of a 3rd-party application to annotate?  I would pay for that.

    • I totally understand your frustration. I find it obnoxious when they lock annotations, especially when they don’t advertise that they have locked them.  Is the book available in multiple formats? It might be more user friendly in a different format (sometimes you can get Kindle editions that allow annotations when the PDF editions do not).

  2. I would like to also add my agreement with these comments. I too am a doctoral student and a nurse living in Paris and completing my course work through a university in the US. In my discipline, I’ve found a greater selection of texts in the Google ebooks, which creates even more frustration due to the inability to annotate and save the annotations. I have used Kindle, but there selection is more limited related to books in my field. I hope Google moves forward quickly to make their expansive collection more useful to academics.

  3. Dear Rebecca,
    British Council Russia and a group of authors is working at a textbook for academic students. Your letter is an interesting example of a letter to a publisher. If you kindly agree, we will include the letter in the textbook, with reference to your blog).

  4. Well said, Rebecca!  That's why I'd choose Kindle over other e-book providers any day.  Kindle, as you know, offers the ability to highlight and annotate.  Google eBooks–come on!  Wake up and smell the new millenium!  Same to you, Apple iBooks!  And as for journal articles, this speaks to the larger issue of OA (Open Access).  Studies such as those conducted by Harnad and Brody (2004) show a positive correlation between a journal's accessibility and their impact factor.  I am just finsihing a study where I show that this is true in education too.  I'm new in my publishing career, but my goal is to publish in OA versus non-OA journals whenever the circumstances permit, the value of which is made evident in the follow excerpt from the Right to Research Coalitiion's Statement:
    Scholarly knowledge is part of the common wealth of humanity.  Learning and inquiry are impeded when scholars lack access to fellow researchers’ work, and when students lack access to the work of scholars before them. (The Right to Research Coalition)

    • Hi Julie,
      Yes, I too have been limited to Kindle for eBooks – I tried to use Google Books and Kobo (I hated the Kobo interface on iPad and it did not keep page numbers sequenced when I accessed it on my Android Phone). I did learn that Kindle posts your “highlights” to your account. Annoyingly, Kindle has two accounts – one for your purchases and sending files to your device, and a completely separate account/website for your highlights. Once I found the highlights, I was happy – it at least gives me something and I cut-and-paste key quotes into Mendeley for organization and searching.
      I too am looking at OA journals – but will eliminate them from list if they publish OA but locked PDFs. Locking the PDFs from annotation is a separate issue, and one that is really annoying.

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