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Services for Authors at the Penn Libraries: The Right to Share and Publisher Contracts

Retaining the Right To Share

Signing Away Your Rights -- Or -- Retaining the Right to Share

Question: “What is the biggest lie on the Internet?”
Answer: “I have read and understood the terms and conditions”

Publication with prestigious journals in your field is paramount for academic success and career advancement. If that prestigious journal were an open access journal, you would be more likely to retain some or all of your exclusive rights, under U.S. copyright law. These exclusive rights include the right of distribution (to share), of reproduction (to make copies), and to create derivative works (new scholarship based on your prior scholarship). Although these rights are yours automatically once you’ve created a tangible work, you can also choose to give these rights away. Because publishing is so important to career advancement, we often sign these rights away without a backward glance or second thought. The time has come to develop some strategies to take back some of this unequal bargaining power, and to think critically about how, and when, you grant others one or more of these valuable rights.

Since we were children, we have been advised to read closely and to make sure we understand documents before we sign anything. Now that we are grown, the saying is especially true, but we have become complacent through custom. It seems that every day we agree to terms, conditions and privacy policies that we cannot possibly read—we do not have the time, we do not understand the language, and we assume that we will not be harmed if we agree to the terms. We need to use the site or the tool, so do we really have a choice? Similarly, we feel pressure to move forward quickly to publication when an article is accepted by a prestigious journal. Academic culture stresses the need to publish, so we accept the terms, and assume we do not have the power to push back.

Contemplate Your Copyrights

These concerns are not insignificant. However, it is well worth the time to educate yourself and to develop a publication strategy for your work that contemplates your copyrights. Read your contract closely before you sign to make sure you understand what is being asked of you. Be prepared to ask some questions of the publisher. Do a little research to find out about the journal’s reputation. How do they treat the authors that work with them? What is the norm in your field for retaining your copyrights? Talk with your colleagues to learn from their experiences and have a conversation with the subject librarian in your discipline to get started. The Penn Libraries also offer a series of webinars and events to help you understand your rights as an author. Check the Libraries’ workshop calendar for future events. Even if you may not have much room to negotiate to keep your rights now, experience may help you leverage more of your rights down the road, allowing you to share and build on your research as you choose. Building a good foundation grounded in knowledge will mean you are prepared when you receive the acceptance letter from your dream journal.

You are the best advocate for your work and scholarship. After all, you are the subject matter expert. With education regarding the norms of your discipline, and armed with the right vocabulary, you may be able to negotiate to keep one or two of your valuable exclusive rights. For example, to make sure your work is receiving attention, it is critical to know if you can share your article with a colleague or with your students, whether you can post the article on your own website or include it in your university’s institutional repository, or even whether you can reuse your own graph or diagram in a conference presentation. Think back to your most recent publication – do you know the answers to these questions? Revisiting the agreement, you may be (unpleasantly) surprised.

If you find that you have signed a contract with your publisher, that includes specifying that you transfer your exclusive rights from yourself to the publisher, it is not unreasonable to ask the journal to grant you permission (or a license) to make additional academic uses of your scholarship, to present on your published scholarship, and to share your article with colleagues in your community. These requests are not unusual or outlandish, and they make good professional sense. Consider that academic publications are driven by the power of citation – the more people discover and engage with your work, the more likely you are to build readership in the original article and to raise your scholarly impact. Negotiating for the right to share, reinvent, and build on your work only leads to possibilities.

Tools Exist to Help You on Your Journey

One of the benefits of the academic ecosystem is that many tools already exist to help you understand and hold on to your rights. As a bonus, these tools are frequently available free of charge. One great tool is the SPARC Addendum. The addendum includes alternative language to propose when you are presented with a publishing contract. The language makes clear how you are able to reuse and share your scholarship in the future. For instance, it adds language that specifically retains the author’s right to:

  • reproduce, to distribute, to publicly perform, and to publicly display the Article in any medium for noncommercial purposes;
  • the right to prepare derivative works from the Article;
  • the right to authorize others to make any non-commercial use of the Article so long as Author receives credit as author and the journal in which the Article has been published is cited as the source of first publication of the Article.

For example, the Author may make and distribute copies in the course of teaching and research and may post the Article on personal or institutional Web sites and in other open-access digital repositories. (SPARC Access-Reuse Addendum)

The addendum was developed by SPARC Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) and the Creative Commons. While you might not be ready to make use of the addendum, reading through it, and the SPARC FAQ, may help you understand what is at stake, and what options you have. The FAQ also includes negotiation strategies you can use to leverage your discussions with a publisher when the time is right. Another valuable (free!) tool is the Sherpa-Romeo database. It provides information about the “sharing” policies of specific journals and publishers. Each entry provides information on where you can post either the accepted version of your article (usually a word document) or the publisher’s official PDF, whether it is in an institutional repository or non-commercial website (including the author’s website). This information is a good place to start as you prepare to sign a contract.

Knowledge is Power.

It has been said so many times, the expression is trite, but it is true. Know your exclusive rights under copyright law, know what you are giving away, understand your options for retaining some of your exclusive rights when working with your publisher, ask questions, push back if you are comfortable. A strong base knowledge of copyright culture, and custom can only help you get where you want to go. Read, ask, and schedule an appointment with a subject librarian to get started.  

Infographic explaining copyrightinfographic on revising your publisher contract to reserve your rights

Infographic by Labib Hossein, M.S. ‘17

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