Managing Your Rights to Openly Share Your Research

So far, in our Open Access Week blog series, we’ve discussed what “open access” is and how it can increase your scholarly impact, and you might be ready to have us deposit all your articles into OpenEmory . Today, we’ll switch gears and focus on your legal rights as an author and how managing those rights can allow you to share your research more openly.

So first things first: are you a copyright owner?

In the United States, copyright law provides legal protection to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression”. Scholarly works such as articles, books, book chapters, posters, presentations, reports, and conference papers, all enjoy copyright protection under the law.  When you create a scholarly work, you automatically become the legal copyright owner of that work.

As a copyright owner, you are entitled to a set of exclusive rights giving you control over reproduction, distribution, display, and/or performance of the work. The law also gives you the ability to control the creation of derivative works, a work based on or deriving from your original work. These rights let you control when, how, and where your work is shared with and distributed to the public.

However, if you publish the work, the agreement with the publisher may determine how and where your work can be used in the future. When you publish a journal article, book or book chapter, or conference proceeding, you will likely sign an author agreement. This agreement, either a license or a contract, stipulates the terms of publication between you and your publisher. Whether or not you can share your work with the wider world depends upon what your author agreement says.

The Author Agreements: What do they mean for you?

Author agreements vary by publisher. In some author agreements, you, the author, retain copyright and license to the publisher rights that make it legal for them to distribute your work. Open Access publishers, like PLoS and Biomed Central, typically use this type of license. The vast majority of Open Access publishers will also apply a Creative Commons license to the work when published, to allow users to access and/or reuse your work.

In other types of author agreements, you transfer all copyright ownership of your work to the publisher. Once signed, you have no more rights to the work than a reader. The publisher may grant certain rights back to you in the agreement, but it can vary widely from publisher to publisher. This type of agreement is more often used by traditional publishers, who require users to purchase or subscribe for access to your work.

How can you ensure you have rights to share when publishing?

It’s best to know a publisher’s policies around author rights before deciding to publish with them. If you’re getting ready to submit an article to a publisher, you can take a look at the publisher’s policy on their website. You can also search SHERPA/RoMEO, a database of publisher copyright policies.

If you are already working with a publisher, it is important to read and understand your author agreement before you sign it to ensure that you have rights to share your work openly and re-use it in ways that suit your needs.  You can negotiate with your publisher prior to publication if the terms of the agreement do not align with your goals. You can request that the publisher grant you the right to share your work in an institutional repository like OpenEmory . Or you can ask that your work be published under a Creative Commons License so that others can reuse it.

If you are publishing a journal article, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) has created a handy author’s addendum to assist researchers like you in exactly this type of negotiation. You simply complete the addendum, attach it to your author agreement, note in your cover letter to the publisher that you’ve included the addendum, and mail it to your publisher.

If you are publishing a book, you can negotiate the terms of your agreement directly with the publisher. Not sure what you should be looking for in the agreement? The Emory Scholarly Communications Office is happy to consult with you on your book contract to help you understand what it means and what is typical.

In short, do not be afraid to negotiate. Your publisher wants to publish your content and has an incentive to work with you to meet your needs. If your publisher is unwilling to negotiate with you, you can still decide to publish under the standard terms of the contract. It never hurts to ask!

Still have questions? Email the Scholarly Communications Office at scholcomm [at] listserv [dot] cc [dot] emory [dot] edu .