The Cost of Publishing: Image Permissions and the Early Career Manuscript Scholar

Image: Richard Kickbush,

Image: Richard Kickbush,

Back in April 2014, I wrote a blog post entitled ‘Permissions and the Postgraduate: What You Need to Know About Reproducing Images’. I’ve been complimented on that post since. It seems that the mire that is obtaining permissions is a concern to postgraduates who focus on material culture/art history/any topic that necessitates the reproduction of archival material. However, with some awareness of the rules and regulations regarding the reproduction of images, ideally gained as soon as possible, this issue need not be so much of a headache. Most archives will happily grant permissions to reproduce images in a Ph.D. thesis, it is just important to ask.

       It’s now almost three years since I obtained my Ph.D, and I’ve shifted focus from ‘getting a degree’ to ‘getting published’. For an early career manuscript scholar, eager to publish, image permissions present an even greater challenge. I’ve recently written, and had accepted, an article based on medieval documents held in The National Archives. As I did the research, I made an important discovery regarding the scribe of two of these documents. It became apparent, long after I’d channeled hours of work into the research for the article, that I’d need to include two images to support my arguments.

       Scholars working at The National Archives are incredibly fortunate in that we have permission to take our own photographs of much of the material. This is incredibly generous, and is a move that the British Library has also now taken. This allows us to continue to study the documents long after we’ve left the reading room. It reduces the demand for seats in the manuscript rooms, and lessens the impact of human touch on delicate manuscript material. However, I found out last week that in order to publish my two self-taken images in an academic journal (ie. I am making absolutely no money from this), I have to pay the Archives £320 (£120 per image + VAT). This is for two images, published at up to full-page size. If I’d chosen half-page size, the total price would be around the £200 mark. Since many journals – including the one which will publish my article – are published at A5 size, it is not really feasible to go much smaller than a half-page size.

      I am fortunate in that my research position includes a grant for such expenditure. But what if I were an low-waged early career academic trying to survive in London, as I was just over a year ago? That £320 might represent a tricky barrier to getting published. I could have omitted the images, or just included one of them, but that would have detracted from the richness of my argument. It is not only The National Archives that charges academics to publish images – many libraries and archives do. Later this month, I will have to pay the British Museum for an image that I’m using in another journal article. So, I thought I’d elaborate on this issue, with a specific focus on early career academics who might be on a low income, or still job-seeking.

      The National Archives, The British Library and The British Museum have standardised policies and prices for the reproduction of manuscript images. The prices often rise on a scale according to the type of publication, its circulation numbers, whether it is available online, and the size at which the image will be printed. However, the material is often not all covered by the same policies. As I stated in my last blog post about image permissions, The British Library’s Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts offers images of some of its collection under a Public Domain Mark, which means that they are free from any restrictions. I’ve included two images from this catalogue in another article, free from any financial worries. Every time I view the images included in this catalogue, I am astounded by their range and the potential for further scholarship. As an early career academic who focuses on manuscript culture, I’m always tempted to start there. It strikes me that by putting images online, free to use, in this way, the British Library is stimulating a wealth of new scholarship – especially among early career academics – and I hope that other libraries follow suit.

British Library, Additional 40618 f. 22v. An image of St. Luke from an eighth-century Irish pocket Gospelbook. Available online through the BL's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

Detail of British Library, Additional 40618 f. 22v. An image of St. Luke from an eighth-century Irish pocket Gospelbook. Available online through the BL’s Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts

       If the image that you need to reproduce is not free to use, you will have to begin the process of requesting and paying for permissions. It’s best to start on the library’s ‘permissions’ webpage. These can actually be quite difficult to locate, so I’ve given the details for a few UK institutions below:

The British Library: or email:

The British Museum:

The National Archives: Image Library or email:

The Bodleian Library:

Cambridge University Library:

        Remember, also, that in the case of many manuscripts, high-resolution images may not already have been produced. Or, in some cases, no image may exist at all (especially if you are studying documents or lesser-known manuscripts). In this case, you may need to pay for digitisation costs too! If this is your situation, it is worth requesting that the librarian waive some of your permission fees (because digitisation fees + permission fees = a lot of money!).

        The Oxford and Cambridge college libraries and archives each have their own policies regarding image permissions, as do smaller archives such as the College of Arms or the various cathedral archives around the country. Their policies are often not available online, and I’d recommend getting in touch with the librarian as soon as possible, especially if your work is likely to include a great number of images. It is always worth emphasising that you are unwaged or on a low income, and asking for a discount, if that is the case. As my mother might say, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Some libraries may even waive the fee entirely if you are a graduate student or on a really low income (eg. if you are a casual part-time tutor). Also, make it absolutely clear that the use is non-commercial, for an academic journal, if that is the case, Several libraries have given me hefty price reductions when I was in that tentative phase of part-time employment following my viva. I’ve found that smaller archives are often especially sympathetic to the plight of poor scholars, but I’ve also received discounts from the bigger libraries in the past.

        An academic friend recently told me a horror story about having to shell out nearly a thousand euros for images from an European library. My surprise at receiving my £320 bill, and my subsequent relief at the costs being covered by my current research grant, has made me more determined to think carefully about image permissions in the early stages of research planning. I’m putting together grant applications now, and the bulk of my proposed budget is given over to the costs involved in acquiring and reproducing images. If you’re applying for an early career fellowship, it is crucial to pay attention to budgeting for publication costs. It might even affect your choice of research topic! The sad fact is that hefty image permissions costs restrict the choices of early career manuscript scholars, eager to publish but often without a research budget (or indeed, not in a paid position at all). Some consolation comes in the form in increasing numbers of freely-available, free-to-use images, such as those published online by the British Library. I hope that more and more archival material becomes available in this way. Until then, early career manuscript scholars have to think carefully about which images we use to support and structure our arguments.


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