Who owns the copyright in your research?

June 16, 2017

This week, psychologists are the newest group of scholars to learn that their “publishers” are dedicated to preventing their work from being made public. The American Psychological Association launched a pilot to monitor and seek removal of unauthorized online postings of APA journal articles. What this meant in practice was sending DMCA takedown notices to researchers, telling them to take copies of their own papers off their departmental web-pages. This has raised predictable and justified anger in the community.

Was this legal on APA’s part? Unquestionably, yes. They own the copyright in the articles, and determine how they can be used. But that does not make it acceptable. As Rik Smith-Unna‏ put it this very morning:

Absolutely, academic publishers requiring copyright transfer is always predatory. They don’t say it before submission or explain it clearly. Once the paper is accepted, to say “We’re not publishing unless you assign copyright”, is highly unethical. Months of your time and energy held to ransom.

The APA has since backed down — or “refocused”, as they put it — which is to be welcomed. But it may be too late. They may already have made an important contribution towards radicalising a new segment of the scholarly community. Psychologists are now more aware of how much control they give up to the APA when they publish in their journals.

The thing is, there is simply no need for us authors to put ourselves in this position. As copyright specialist Charles Oppenheim explains:

Journals do not need copyright in articles to publish them. They never have. It’s only tradition that means they keep asking for it. In other areas — novels, for example — it’s completely routine for the author to remain the copyright holder, and for the publisher merely to be given a licence to publish. And this is how it should be for scholarly articles as well.

None of this a new insight, of course. Just last month, Times Higher Education urged its readers that academics ‘should not sign over research copyright to publishers’, citing a report that discusses the matter in detail. And of course we’ve discussed such matter many times here on SV-POW!. Here are a few:

There is absolutely no legitimate reason for journals to take authors’ copyright away, and a journal that exists to serve scholarship will not do so. Which leads me to …

Fair OA Principle 2. Authors of articles in the journal retain copyright.

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5 Responses to “Who owns the copyright in your research?”

  1. Marc Couture Says:

    You write:

    “In other areas — novels, for example — it’s completely routine for the author to remain the copyright holder, and for the publisher merely to be given a licence to publish. And this is how it should be for scholarly articles as well.”

    I agree, but the most crucial issue here is often not if the author grant a licence or transfer the copyright, but what are the actual rights (or permissions) granted to the publisher and those retained by authors. Both copyright transfer and license agreements come in many flavours. Some transfer agreements allow the author generous reuse permissions, others don’t allow any. Same for licences: some grant the publisher just the rights it needs to do its job (namely, publish the article), while others grant most, if not all rights, commercial or otherwise.

    For instance, for its subscription-based journals, Wiley offer a choice between copyright transfer an (exclusive) licence, but one can check that in both cases the respective rights of the publisher and the authors are exactly the same. In fact, the text of the whole agreement, describing in details the rights of both parties, is almost identical, with “assigns to the Owner […] all copyright” (copyright transfer) replaced by “grants to the Owner an exclusive license of all rights of copyright”.

    Both agreements are available here: http://authorservices.wiley.com/author-resources/Journal-Authors/licensing-open-access/licensing/licensing-info-faqs.html

    I don’t know the intricacies of novel publishing, but when I decide to “merely” grant a licence to a scholarly publisher, I check carefully the agreement to assess what’s left of my rights.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Marc, you seem to have anticipated my next post :-)

    In short: you are dead right. The specific terms of licence-to-publish — and indeed of copyright transfer — are crucial. (This is why I favour cutting the gordian knot by dedicating manuscripts to the public domain before any of this happens.)

  3. Fair Miles Says:

    Agree. However, aren’t specific terms ultimately irrelevant if researchers are “forced” to sign whatever the publisher considers necessary for them to write to control/grow their business? From a distance (I am not lawyer) licences and contracts look (only) as formal expressions of the power struggle between parties. And (big) publishers have clearly been exploiting the power that researchers surrendered. Lack of information and individual principles apart, not every researcher is (or feels) in the position to discuss copyright terms of an accepted manuscript in A Top Journal That Can Make A Difference In My Career. Of course they should, better if as part of the decision on where to submit. So why are they so unaware? Rules and traditions that lead us to this situation are the knot that must be cutted.

  4. Mark C. Wilson Says:

    Why “sociologists” on first line, instead of “psychologists”?

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    A plain and simple error; now fixed, thank for spotting it!


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