A Primer on Open Access Publishing: Copyrights and the “Gold Rule”. Part Two by Jason Colditz
Posted by atarrant

This post is the second of a blog series focusing on Open Access publishing, written by Jason Colditz. For an introduction to Open Access publishing and what it is, you can read Part One of the series here. 

This post will briefly discuss author copyright agreements and provide resources to help you to make your published research publicly available (“Open Access Gold” model). This is the most straightforward way to bring your research to the public who benefit from it – sharing your final publication with the largest possible audience. This model allows for public access and allows researchers/authors/media to freely cite and report on the final version of your work. If you want to build your public presence in your field and broader scientific/professional networks, the public availability of your research should not be taken for granted.

Every time you create a manuscript for publication, you have to shop around for the “best” journal in which to publish your work. Maybe you’ve done this before or maybe you’re planning to publish for the first time. Either way, it is exciting – another notch on your CV and an opportunity to share your work with your peers in the research community and beyond. It can also be anxiety provoking as you consider the venues that are the best fit for the content of your manuscript, and those that demonstrate enough impact for your work to be appreciated. When you think about impact, it is important to consider the “prestige” of the journal as well as the availability of the final publication. The publisher may ask you to sign-away certain rights of your intellectual property that will limit the availability/usability of your work, and you need to consider what you are giving up in order to get your paper to press (i.e., is it still legally “your” paper after it is published? – often times not).

Copyright Transfer Agreements

Publishers require you to sign a legal agreement that determines how your article can be used and shared. Some publishers (e.g., Elsevier) have complex restrictions on how your article is licensed and shared, while others (e.g., Public Library of Science) pride themselves on broad accessibility of research articles, with authors retaining copyright. To understand the complexities of copyright transfer agreements, you don’t need to be a lawyer – the basic principle is that you (authors) may do whatever you wish with a manuscript until you agree to trade certain freedoms for the privilege of publication. Simply put, some publishers require you to give-up more freedom than others…

“Not all publication agreements lead to problems, but many do. Some publishers, including scholarly journal publishers, ask for only a limited right of publication and generously leave other rights with you. Other publishers, however, insist on an assignment of the copyright and leave you with little or nothing. If that is your agreement, you may have lost all rights to use even your own work.”

Columbia University

“When you assign copyright to publishers, you lose control over your scholarly output. Assignment of copyright ownership may limit your ability to incorporate elements into future articles and books or to use your own work in teaching at the University.”

Cornell University

If you want a broad reach for your research, there are several things to pay attention to when choosing a journal/publisher:

  • Who owns the copyright to your published work (you or the publisher)?
  • How soon (if ever) will the article be made freely available to the public?
  • Are you permitted to post the publication on personal- or institutional websites?
  • Can the publication be freely reproduced for educational purposes?

For some publishers, the answers to these questions are: “Not you – never – absolutely not – no.” If you should get your research well-read and cited, those aren’t the answers that you want to hear. Open Access (OA) Gold publishers, on the other hand, will tell you: “You own it – your publication is publicly available – share it freely!” If you want to know more about the copyright agreements for particular journals or publishers, the University of Nottingham hosts the “SHERPA/RoMEO” website to help you decode and compare copyright agreements for most popular publishers. When looking at OA publishers, you will want to keep in mind what I call the “Gold Rule” of OA publishing (buyer beware)…

The OA Gold Rule: You might pay for what you get, but you don’t always get what you pay for.

Several mainstream journals provide an option to publish the electronic version of your article, free to the public, at a price to the author(s). Some Elsevier journals, for example, charge a one-time US$3,000 (or more) fee to release the article publicly. While there is a definite advantage to opening up access to your research article published in a highly-ranked journal, is it worth the fee? Maybe not – Elsevier and similar publishers may still retain the copyright to authors’ works. This isn’t exactly OA Gold in a practical sense (if the publisher owns the copyright, they may still restrict how the article is used). If your research was funded through certain agencies (e.g., National Institutes of Health in the US, Wellcome Trust in the UK), it has a mandated public release date within 6 months or a year anyway. Is an earlier public release worth $3,000 from your research budget? If you’re not funded by one of the big players in research, can you afford to pay out of pocket or from institutional funds? (Wouldn’t it be nice?)

While there is movement towards reimbursing some of these fees at an institutional level (e.g., U.C. Berkeley), that is more the exception than the rule, and it contributes to further racketeering by some publishers who will retain the copyright to your article and charge your institution for unlocking your article (which the publisher may still own). This presents another set of ethical as well as financial difficulties.

On the other side of the spectrum of “predatory publishers” are those who don’t offer much in the way of prestige (or not even peer-review) but will still charge you for publication. They may tout prestige and OA but function more as publication mills. These are often called “vanity journals”, and they will publish just about anything if you are willing to pay the price. Watch out for these, or else you might pay out of pocket for a publication that you wouldn’t want to list on your CV (or that you wish your tenure review board hadn’t discovered).

Then there is the Public Library of Science (PLoS), an exemplar of OA Gold practices. Its interdisciplinary publication, PLoS ONE, boasts a respectable impact factor, peer review, and fully open publication terms. It charges less than half of the bottom-dollar Elsevier rate and will waive publication fees for authors who can not afford to pay for publication. This is one example of many journals (some with no fees at all) that adhere to best practices of the OA Gold model. If you want to shop around for reputable OA journals, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is the place to start.

If OA Gold sounds a bit convoluted to you, you’re not alone! The publishing process is heavily politicized by powerful special interest groups that are more concerned with profit margins than continuity of scientific rigor and dissemination of knowledge (in practice if not in political activism). The process of OA publishing oftentimes runs counter to the traditional publication profit model and requires some ingenuity to navigate. OA Gold can be co-opted by publishers who don’t have the best interests of the research community in mind, and so you need to be an informed consumer when deciding to pursue the “Gold standard” in publishing your works.

Gold OA versus Green OA

Open Access is color coded to distinguish the two ways that you can get your research directly to the public. If you equate gold to money, you’re on the right track (though that needn’t be the case for many free electronic journals). Whereas OA Gold puts the finished (published) product in the public domain, OA Green can give you a work-around to get your research out there in other ways. Think of OA Green as the grassroots alternative to OA Gold. In the next post, we will cover the OA Green model that allows you (depending on the copyright transfer agreement) to archive a version of your article in the public domain.

Stay tuned, and stay open!

Jason

Resources:

Author’s Note: Mike Taylor, who provides an online oracle of Open Access activism (and sauropod vertebra pictures for paleontologists), was kind enough to comment on my original post’s use of “public domain”, which is a specific term denoting public ownership of works (i.e., a Creative Commons license instead of a copyright).  This is an important distinction to make when considering publisher copyright agreements.  The post has been edited accordingly and I hope to address this topic more fully in a future post.

Find out more about the OA Green model in the next in the series….Part Three of A Primer on Open Access Publishing.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @colditzjb

atarrant. Posted by atarrant


2 Comments Posted in Pitching & Publishing
Tagged , , , , ,

2 Comments

  1. Hi, Jason, many thanks for posting this excellent and informative primer.

    One important nit to pick, though: several times you use the term “public domain” in a very broad sense to mean anything that anyone can get their hands on; but in fact this term has a very specific definition, “not copyrighted” — it’s what you get when you use CC0 (so it that sense it’s an even freer set of terms than the OA standard CC BY). In particular, no articles in PLoS journals are public domain: copyright is retained by the authors, and a CC BY licence is used to allow broad rights to parties other than the copyright holder.

    I think it’s worth revising this article to be more precise.

  2. You make a very good point, Mike. I don’t want to dive (too) deeply down the Creative Commons rabbit hole in this post. That topic requires another full post for due diligence (which isn’t a bad idea). I agree that it is important to distinguish “public domain” from “publicly accessible” and I will choose my words more carefully in future posts. In the mean time, revisions are underway…

    Thanks for the response!

Leave a Reply

What is 4 + 13 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is:
IMPORTANT! To be able to proceed, you need to solve the following simple math (so we know that you are a human) :-)

Using Gravatars in the comments - get your own and be recognized!

XHTML: These are some of the tags you can use: <a href=""> <b> <blockquote> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>