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D-Lib Magazine
February 2006

Volume 12 Number 2

ISSN 1082-9873

Copyright Issues in Open Access Research Journals

The Authors' Perspective


Esther Hoorn
University of Groningen, Faculty of Law

Maurits van der Graaf
Pleiade Management & Consultancy

Red Line



This article presents results of a survey undertaken as part of a series of work packages under a joint initiative by JISC and SURF to explore the attitudes of authors in the UK and the Netherlands towards Open Access.

The Open Access environment has created a number of entirely new copyright models, which stand in contrast to the traditional academic journals in which the copyright has to be transferred from the author(s) to the journal publisher. The following emerging copyright models in OA journals were identified:

  • a model in which the author keeps the copyright: this was preferred by nearly half of the respondents
  • two models in which the author shares the copyright (with Creative Commons licences): these were preferred by nearly a third of the respondents
  • a model in which the author transfers only the exploitation rights to the journal publisher: this was preferred by a small minority.

These and other results seem to reflect a desire on the part of academics to change the balance of rights within copyright between authors and publishers in scholarly communication journals. Libraries and academic institutes are already taking part in the scholarly communication copyright debate and could use these results to align their positions with the academics' views.

1. Introduction

The Open Access (OA) movement has greatly stimulated the debate on copyright in the scholarly communication system. Stakeholders in the system – publishers, on the one hand, and academic institutes and libraries, on the other – participate in this debate, often taking up diametrically opposing positions. However, the voice of probably the most important stakeholders – the academic authors themselves – is relatively little heard in the debate. What are the views of academic authors on copyright issues in research articles? In this article we present the results of a web survey of authors of articles published in OA journals. The survey focussed on copyright issues [1].

Open Access journal publishing has created a number of entirely new copyright models. These copyright models stand in contrast to the model used by traditional academic journals in which the copyright is effectively transferred from the author to the journal publisher, with only minor variations in practice. The emergence of new models is providing a wide range of choices for authors wishing to publish their work, and it is important to have some sense from academic authors as to the advantages and disadvantages of these new models. Our survey asked academic authors to express their views on the usefulness of present-day copyright policies for scholarly communication. In general terms, the survey shows that authors publishing in Open Access journals appear to be no longer satisfied with assigning copyrights to publishers. One of the key elements is authors' interest in being read and cited, and thus in maximising the free availability of their output. A creator's right to let his or her work to be used in order to advance science and culture is seen as very important, and the survey therefore emphasises that the views of authors should be taken into account when determining copyright models. The purpose of this article is to stimulate libraries and academic institutions to take the authors' views into account and to represent the authors' interests along with their own in the aforementioned copyright debate in the scholarly communication system.

2. What is copyright and what is at stake?

Copyright pertains to the exclusive rights to publish and distribute a work. Copyright is a bundle of rights, automatically assigned to the author(s) by legislation in most countries [2]. It is a combination of moral rights (most important of which is the right as an author to be properly and fully acknowledged) and exploitation rights. Moral rights are well acknowledged in the scholarly communication system and are upheld even when the copyright is transferred from an author to a publisher. Therefore, moral rights are not at stake in the copyright debate; rather, the debate centres on exploitation rights.

Exploitation rights raise potential issues of ownership in the use and reuse of scholarly material. In the traditional publishing model exploitation rights are generally transferred in full to the publisher. This means that reuse, defined most often as the republication and/or redistribution [3] of the original article by someone other than the publisher, is limited or dependent on the publisher's permission. This limits access to the material for author and reader alike.

Exploitation rights are in themselves a bundle of rights, and they reflect both the needs and requirements of the parties involved, as well as the mode of exploitation [4]. In scholarly communication the exploitation options for research articles are in fact rather limited: the two main options are reuse for educational purposes and for commercial purposes. The right to reuse is the key to the definition of Open Access: effectively, Open Access means free online access and permission to use the information for any responsible purpose [5].

3. Three choices with regard to copyright: retain it, share it or transfer it

Retain it - an early Open Access copyright model

The Open Access journal Electronic Journal of Comparative Law (EJCL) allows authors to retain their copyright and restricts reuse to educational purposes. EJCL was started in 1995 with the aim of creating a scientific peer-reviewed journal with a good reputation in the electronic environment. Its copyright policy is simple:

  • The author keeps the copyright.
  • The copyright notice mentions that classroom use is free, but other uses depend on the permission of the authors themselves.
  • The journal asks only for a licence to publish the article as the first publisher.
  • The author is obliged to mention EJCL as a source whenever the author later republishes the article on other platforms.

The copyright policy of EJCL is a good example of the copyright policies of many electronic-only Open Access journals that were started a number of years ago. These early Open Access journals have frequently been published by the academics themselves without the involvement of a publisher or publishing organisation. Leaving the copyright with the author spares the editors the trouble of answering permission requests.

Share it - with a Creative Commons licence

Creative Commons was founded in 2001, being in part inspired by the open source software movement. Creative Commons has changed the copyright slogan "all rights reserved" into the slogan "some rights reserved," and has created various types of licences whereby the creators can protect their works while still encouraging certain defined uses.

The leading Open Access journal publishers PloS and Biomed Central use the Creative Commons licence 'attribution'. This licence guarantees to the author the moral rights – the right to be cited through a proper citation – but otherwise gives broad permission to use and reuse the article, including for commercial purposes. This type of licence maximises the impact of the research article for the author. A variation on this 'sharing of copyright' is seen with the journals of the European Geosciences Union. They use the Creative Commons 'share alike' licence [6], which restricts the reuse to Open Access publications.

Transfer it (partly) - traditional journals that go Open Access

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) and Nucleic Acid Review are two prestigious journals that recently switched from the traditional model of publishing to an Open Access model. They use licences that keep the copyright with the author, but the author transfers all commercial exploitation rights to the publisher. What does this policy mean? The BMJ, for example, leaves the copyright with the author, only requiring an exclusive licence to publish the article first and claiming all commercial exploitation rights. The author retains all other rights to his or her BMJ article. In addition, the BMJ publishing group give the author a percentage of the royalties if they enter into a commercial republishing or redistribution deal on the basis of the author's article.

The advantage for authors is that they can do whatever they want with their own article without asking the BMJ publishing group's permission as long as commercial rights are not involved. The other advantage, of course, is that the model provides for potential revenue for the authors from royalties: so far, this seems a unique approach in the world of academic publishing.

4. The authors' perspective as revealed in results of a web survey

We conducted a web survey among 1,226 corresponding authors of Open Access articles in Biomed Central journals, PLoS Biology and PloS Medicine, BMJ and EJCL. 355 persons participated in the survey (a 29% response rate).

Attitudes with regard to transfer of copyright

Given the choice between transferring the copyright to a journal publisher versus keeping the copyright, a large majority (71%) of authors prefers to keep the copyright (see bar diagram below). Only 2% prefers a transfer of the copyright to the journal publisher. The other respondents are neutral (23%) or do not know (4%).

Bar chart showing the percentages of preference regarding the transfer of copyright

Figure 1.

Who should handle permission requests?

For authors, handling permission requests is an important issue. This question was answered as follows (again, see bar diagram below):

  • 72% of the respondents think the author of the articles should handle this.
  • 6% of the respondents think the institute of the author(s) should handle this.
  • 10% of the respondents think the publisher should handle this.

Bar chart showing the authors' preferences regarding who grants permission for article reuse

Figure 2.

What constitutes an ideal licence agreement?

What would an ideal licence agreement for an Open Access journal look like? The respondents were asked to indicate if they would limit or permit the various rights for reuse and republication. The results are listed in the table below. The main conclusions:

  • Reuse for educational or scholarly purposes: Almost all respondents (92%) think that the author should be permitted to reuse his/her own article; a large majority of the respondents (81%) think that others should be permitted to reuse the article as well.
  • Reuse for commercial purposes: A majority (61%) thinks the author should be permitted to reuse his or her own article for commercial purposes; a larger majority (71%) would like to limit such reuse by others.
Table 1.
Ideal copyright licence according to
OA authors (n=355)
neutral (somewhat)
(re) use for educational/scholarly
purposes by the author should be:
0.6% 7% 92%
(re) use for educational/scholarly
purposes by others should be:
10.4% 8.2% 81.4%
(re) use for commercial purposes by
the author should be:
16.6% 22.3% 61.1%
(re) use for commercial purposes by
others should be:
71% 17.5% 11.6%

The authors perspective about copyright models

In the next section of the questionnaire, four possible models of copyright practices in Open Access publishing were presented to the respondents, giving the following model and explanations with the figure below.

Image showing the various models of copyright practices in open access publishing

Figure 3.

The results were as follows:

  • Model A and Model C – both variations on sharing the copyright with the Creative Commons licences – were preferred by 30% of the respondents.
  • Model B – in which the exploitation rights are transferred to the publisher – was preferred by 13%.
  • Model D – the author keeps the copyright – was preferred by nearly half of the respondents (46%).
  • Nearly 8% of the respondents had no preference or did not know.

Bar chart showing which model of copyright in open access publishing authors preferred

Figure 4.

Is there a problem with reuse?

Many respondents indicated that they reused their own articles for scholarly or educational purposes. Is it, then, a problem to reuse an article when the copyright has been transferred to a journal publisher? The respondents were questioned about their behaviour with regard to permission requests to reuse research articles they published in traditional journals. Based on the authors' answers, apparently this situation is unsatisfactory:

  • 29% of the respondents reuse their articles without asking permission.
  • 4% of the respondents ask permission of the publisher, which is sometimes refused.
  • 19% of the respondents do not reuse their articles in the way they would like to use them because of the effort to ask permission.

Bar chart showing what authors do when they want to reuse their own articles

Figure 5.

5. Conclusions and recommendations

Desire to change

The results from our web survey of authors can be interpreted as reflecting a strong desire on the part of authors to change the present situation whereby authors transfer the entire copyright for their works to the journal publishers. Given the choice between transferring the copyright and keeping it, most authors prefer to keep it. Even with regard to handling permission requests to reuse the article, most respondents do not see a role for the journal publisher. Sketching an ideal copyright licence, the respondents want to permit authors and others to reuse articles for educational and scholarly purposes. With regard to reuse for commercial purposes, however, most authors prefer to limit this type of use by others but permit commercial reuse by the authors themselves.

These preferences are also reflected in the choice of copyright models for Open Access journals: the model whereby the author keeps the copyright is preferred by nearly half of the respondents, the models whereby the copyrights are shared with Creative Commons licences are preferred by nearly a third of the respondents. Only a small percentage (16%) prefers the model whereby the commercial exploitation rights are transferred to the publisher.

Are OA authors representative of the academic community?

Do the opinions expressed in the web survey reflect the opinions of the academic community in general? As said, the survey was held among authors of Open Access articles [7]. However, 86% of the respondents were referees for traditional journals, 6% were members, even, of an editorial board of a traditional journal. Apparently, these academics play an active role in traditional journal publishing yet, even so, seem to hold these opinions about the copyright transfer to the journal publisher. This leads us to believe that the results of our web survey of authors can be applied to the academic community as a whole. However, a similar survey among a wider group of academics would provide welcome extra evidence.

Input for the positions of academic institutes and libraries in the copyright debate

In the scholarly communication field, the interests of the academic authors run parallel, in large part, to the interests of libraries and academic institutions. The main interest of the academic author is to maximise the impact of his/her article. Maximum access to scholarly information – thus stimulating academic research – is also the goal of libraries and academic institutions.

The International Federation for Library Associations (IFLA) has developed a number of goals and a set of principles for the International Development Agenda of the World Intellectual Property Organization [8]. Two goals seem especially relevant to the field of scholarly communication:

  • A robust and growing public domain to provide new opportunities for creativity, research and scholarship.
  • High levels of creativity and technological progress resulting from individual research and study.

These goals can be translated into an action programme for the scholarly communication area:

  • Libraries and academic institutes can stimulate the use of Creative Commons licences or similar licences that allow a sharing of copyright, thus enabling the reuse of scholarly information for educational and scholarly purposes. In order to achieve this, raising awareness of copyright issues among academics is necessary. It is believed that debate around models such as the four models described in this article will prove to be instrumental in raising authors' awareness of such issues. An important target group for such awareness campaigns would be that part of the academic community that also functions on editorial boards of academic journals. Editorial board members can compare the various copyright models with the copyright practice of the journal with which they are affiliated, and ideally propose improvements to the journal publisher.
  • Libraries and academic institutions can also influence publishers to adjust their present copyright policies with regard to the reuse of published articles. The present situation, as noted in our web survey, is far from ideal. Nearly 20% of the authors surveyed indicate that they do not reuse their own articles the way they would like because of the effort of asking permission. In addition, 4% states that they ask permission, but sometimes do not get it. Consequently, nearly 30% no longer asks permission. This situation calls for a standardisation of copyright licences of subscription journals. If a number of good practices with regard to copyright for subscription journals were to be developed and applied widely, this would give authors and libraries/academic institutions alike clarity with regard to reuse for scholarly and educational purposes for academics, or republication in, for example, institutional repositories for libraries and academic institutes.


The authors would like to thank Mark Brown, Rachel Bruce, Gerard van Westrienen and Leo Waaijers for their valuable comments on the various drafts of this article and the underlying report.


[1] The full report of the study, titled 'Towards good practices of copyright in Open Access Journals' can be found on the websites <> or <>.

[2] In this article we sidestep the debate on the ownership of the copyright, whether it rests with the university or the academic. In practice, however, academics generally act as the rights holders. It is unclear if this will change in the near future with the developing intellectual property rights policies of universities and academic institutes.

[3] Reuse of research articles is in practice mainly limited to: republishing and redistribution of the entire article, reproducing parts of the article in textbooks/syllabi, etc., translating (parts) of the article into another language, and similar uses in digital networked environments. The media for distribution are in practice limited to printed form, microform, CD-ROM and online access, including databases, virtual learning or research environments.

[4] See also the Zwolle principles 'Balancing stakeholder interests in scholarship friendly copyright practices,' <>.

[5] See: Definition of an Open Access Contribution Conference on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities 20 - 22 Oct 2003, Berlin.

[6] Share Alike: If you alter, transform or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a licence identical to this one.

[7] It should be noted that the web survey respondents consisted of a large overrepresentation of academics from the life sciences and medical sciences.

[8] IFLANET Committee on Copyright and other Legal Matters (CLM), <>.

Copyright © 2006 Esther Hoorn and Maurits van der Graaf

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