Publishers relax author rights agreements

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The internet is changing the ways that publishers negotiate rights with authors. Sian Harris reports from the London Book Fair

The attitudes of scholarly publishers to rights ownership and permissions have changed in the digital world, according to presentations at the London Book Fair. In a seminar at the meeting, John Cox of John Cox Associates presented findings from a recent study of 203 publishers’ practices.

The study followed similar ones in 2003 and 2005 and found some major changes over that time. One of the key differences was in the transfer of copyright. ‘There is a clear trend away from mandatory copyright transfer,’ said Cox.

In 2003, 83 per cent of publishers required copyright transfer. By 2005, this had dropped to 61 per cent – a further 21 per cent had initially requested copyright transfer but accepted a licence to publish at the request of the authors. In 2008, however, just 53 per cent of publishers in the survey required a copyright transfer, with over 20 per cent happy with a licence to publish. A further 6.6 per cent of publishers no longer require a written agreement at all. This, according to Cox, reflects the increase in open-access publishing, although he commented that having no licence agreements in place could leave publishers open to problems.

When one size doesn’t fit all

Aside from the general trend away from copyright deals, the study found variations in approaches depending on the type of publisher and the disciplines they serve. The study revealed that commercial publishers are more prepared to accept a licence to publish, and less likely to insist on copyright transfer.

There are also sometimes differences between journals from the same publisher. Representatives from two major publishers, Oxford University Press (OUP) and Nature Publishing Group (NPG), spoke in the same London Book Fair seminar. They revealed that the policies adopted for their own journals were often different from those for the titles they publish on behalf of societies.

As Fiona Kearney of OUP explained, ‘Most of our titles belong to societies so they own the copyrights and set the conditions. There is also a broad range of disciplines and some disciplines are more conservative than others so a “one size fits all” approach is not going to work for our list.’

In 2003, OUP switched from asking for assignment of copyright on all its journals to asking for an exclusive licence to publish where possible. However, some societies wanted to continue asking for copyright.

NPG’s experience is similar: it switched to an exclusive licence to publish in 2002 but the licence conditions are different for some of the titles it publishes on behalf of societies.

John Cox of John Cox Associates

So what has been the reaction of authors to the changes in their rights agreements? Grace Baynes of NPG observed that authors have been very used to journals asking for copyright. ‘They don’t really understand what rights they have,’ she said.

‘We didn’t get an overwhelming flood of feedback either positive or negative [when we moved to an exclusive licence to publish],’ commented OUP’s Kearney. And it doesn’t make a great deal of difference to how the publisher can use the content: ‘We still get exclusivity of the published version of the article,’ she added.

Reuse trends

The study that John Cox presented also looked at publisher practices towards various forms of open archiving and other types of article reuse. ‘Irrespective of the nature of the author agreement required by publishers, there is clearly a growing custom and practice emerging in being explicit about what authors can and cannot do with their papers after submission,’ he commented. Publishers tend to define this in five broad categories: posting submitted articles online; posting accepted articles online; posting published articles online; linking requirements; and re-use of article content.

One significant trend is that large publishers have become increasingly concerned about the unremunerated availability of articles in repositories, and have become more specific in their policies. Embargo periods on such posting are becoming increasingly common.

In addition, publishers prefer pre-print posting on personal web pages and institutional repositories to subject-based repositories. ‘Publishers have a touching faith in the incompetence of universities to run repositories,’ he commented. However, publishers are accommodating the requirements of those funding agencies that require open access to their funded research, said Cox.

This is not the end of the story though. As Cox observed, ‘policy and practice are still evolving.’