Whose right is it anyway? Copyright and scholarly publishing

The question of who owns the copyright to scientific publications, such as journal articles, is complex and contested. Jenice Jean Goveas looks at the issue and considers some of the recent initiatives designed to support authors to retain rights to their published work.

Dear Author,
The copyright is yours to retain,
Beware! Ignorance you cannot blame.
Profiteering in the name of publishing,
Big Businesses are indeed flourishing.
Think again before you sign the transfer form,
Donating intellectual Property is not the norm.
To bring about change here is a strategy;
Deposit your manuscript in an OA repository.
It’s not easy, but familiarity vanquishes fright,
#Publish with power, protect your right.
A revolution while abiding by the law,
Yes! It’s true, don’t drop your jaw.  

Copyright transfer – Why is it such a big deal?

‘Freedom of information’, regardless of frontiers, is integral to the fundamental right of freedom of expression enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international instruments. It is a basic human right and not a luxury available only to those who can afford it. Any argument on this premise clearly shows how commercial publishing violates this right, since science is a global public good. By imposing unaffordable journal subscription charges, they exclude a major segment of scholars – particularly those in smaller universities and low- and middle-income countries – from accessing research outputs. Researchers struggle to obtain funding and to get access to information and infrastructure, among other challenges. Having slogged their way towards a scientific breakthrough, they need to publish their findings. Current modes of research assessment incentivise scholars to publish their research outcomes in journals. That’s when commercial publishers step in, and in the guise of the ‘regular protocol for publication’, convince the author to sign a copyright transfer form through which that knowledge becomes the private property of big corporations.

Ironically, knowledge that is largely acquired using taxpayers’ money (such as in public universities) becomes inaccessible to those who cannot afford the unjustifiably high subscription fees of journals. How can this be fair when we all aim to create an equitable world of equal opportunities? The idea of ‘copyright’ for scientific and educational resources is in itself debatable and often deemed irrational, as ‘science’ by definition is meant to be reproducible and universal.

The paper “Ten Hot Topics around Scholarly Publishing” reveals several reasons why copyright transfer is problematic. Firstly, the profit-driven publication process pressurises researchers to let go of copyrights in a rampant ‘publish or perish’ culture. This makes publishers – instead of authors – the owners of the intellectual property, which gets locked behind heavy paywalls. Secondly, authors are not alerted prior to or during submission that copyright transfer will be a conditional step. The information on such transfers typically comes at the end of the publication process when the authors do not necessarily want to go through the review process all over again. They then sign the copyright transfer without a clear understanding of the legalities involved. Ironically such transfers go against the true spirit of copyrights – instead of safeguarding authors’ rights, they cause authors to lose their rights. The bottom-line: Copyright transfer does not benefit authors, compromises their academic freedom by preventing them from sharing their research output and does serious damage to the entire research ecosystem.

The (Open) road less travelled

Several initiatives have been taking shape to increase opportunities for accessing, sharing and reusing the outcomes of publicly funded research. Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences was one of the first to adopt a university-level rights-retention Open Access (OA) policy. In that model, the university authorises OA through its institutional repository, based on a set of nonexclusive rights granted to it by its faculty through voting. The same nonexclusive rights are also granted back to the faculty authors. The Arctic University of Norway and a few others have also developed institutional rights retention strategies.

cOAlition S is a consortium of national research agencies, funders and international organizations that was launched by the European Commission and the European Research Council (ERC) in 2018. Under its Plan S for OA scientific publishing, it encourages scholars to publish their research outcomes in open repositories and journals such that they are freely accessible to all. cOAlition S recently launched an online campaign titled “Publish with Power: Protect your rights”, to guide researchers and create awareness around the various nuances of intellectual property rights. Their Rights Retention Strategy is a strategy for author compliance that mandates grantee authors to indicate to the journal that any accepted author manuscript arising from a submission is already CC BY licensed. Through the development of a journal checker tool, explainer videos, activities, user guides and quizzes, cOAlition S handholds authors in complying with Plan S and asserting their fundamental rights on their intellectual property. It promotes the “green” route to open access (OA) to ensure that authors can freely share their manuscripts, independent of where they are published, while complying with their funder’s OA policy.

In addition, the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)’s OA policy, Cambridge University’s opt-in pilot rights retention scheme, Horizon Europe’s addition of rights retention to its OA policy, and Electronic Information for Libraries’ ‘Think.Check.Submit’ campaign are all steps in the direction of the Rights Retention journey.

Is the open route a cakewalk?

Although there are various Creative Commons licenses to enhance the sharing and re-use of research, the complexity of the legal framework can become a deterrent. Researchers report fears about implementing such an author-led copyright negotiation, which could add to their administrative and legal burden. An author addendum drafted by lawyers was proposed as a solution to make author-publisher negotiation unnecessary but has not been widely adopted. Enhancing researchers’ knowledge of copyrights and creating awareness about the benefits of Rights Retention is key to bringing about behavioural change towards adopting the OA route to scholarly publication. However, even in the midst of a widely unregulated scholarly publishing market, the good news is that research outputs which include the Rights Retention Strategy language are increasing.

Embarking on a new journey together

Open Access returns us to the true nature of ‘science’ – as a public good that can facilitate quicker scientific solutions to problems. While the larger aim is to make full and immediate OA a reality, there are a few things to keep in mind. Researchers – particularly those in the Global South – navigate through myriad challenges with limited opportunities to have their research published. In such realities are they empowered enough to negotiate with publishers? There is a need for Plan S to shed its image as a Europe-centred initiative and become representative of the rest of the world, particularly that of the Global South, which houses three fourths of the world’s population.

The future of scientific publishing needs to evolve in a more democratic, participatory fashion that eradicates bias and embraces inclusivity of diverse perspectives, so that it truly belongs to the global scholarly community. It’s high time to explore sustainable alternatives that allow sharing of research outputs because, only when science becomes more open, will we all advance.


Further Reading:

  1. Suber, Peter. Open access. The MIT Press, 2012.
  2. Plan S Rights Retention Strategy,” cOAlition S.
  3. Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, “Explaining the Rights Retention Strategy,” The Scholarly Kitchen (blog), February 17, 2021.
  4. Good practices for university open-access policies”, Harvard Open Access Project.
  5. Suber, Peter. “The open access mandate at Harvard.” SPARC Open Access Newsletter (2008).
  6. Raju, Reggie, and Jill Claassen. “Open access: From hope to betrayal.” College & Research Libraries News 83, no. 4 (2022): 161.

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