What changes when publishing open access — understanding the fine print

A brief guide to author and user rights, user licenses and new developments in OA publishing

With the introduction of open access publishing and the move into e-only, there is now a greater focus on the rights of the author and the rights of the reader (user) in journal publishing. This article helps to explain what has changed and how this impacts the publication and use of your research.

Author rights and permissions

In order for a publisher to do their job of publishing and disseminating research articles, publishing rights are required. In a subscription journal, these rights are traditionally determined by a copyright transfer, which enables clear administration of rights and the use of content in new technological ways. Even when Elsevier obtains copyright transfers, authors retain scholarly rights to post and use their articles for a wide range of purposes.

However, for open access articles we use an exclusive licensing agreement, which applies to all our Gold Open Access content. While granting publishing and distribution rights to us, this exclusive licensing agreement means that authors retain copyright alongside the scholarly usage rights we have always supported. [note color="#ffffff" position="right" width="180" margin=10 align="alignright"]

OA Special Report

A version of this article originally appeared in the Editors' Update OA Special Report [/note]

User rights and permissions

The exclusive licensing agreement between publisher and author only covers one side of the picture. Users or readers also need to be clear on how they can use the article. For subscription journals, the online user rights are generally defined by subscription access agreements.

For all open access articles, whether published in an Elsevier open access journal or via our Open Access Articles option, we currently offer various user licenses. The choice is dependent on the journal in which the author chooses to publish, and details can be found on the journal's homepage. These licenses allow readers to not only read and download an article, but to reuse it for other defined purposes. The new user licenses are designed to make it easier for readers to understand how they can use an open access article. They are provided by the Creative Commons organization and are now being adopted into academic publishing. We continue to test and learn about author preferences and business impacts, and will refine our approach as we learn more. One size does not fit all academic communities and journals.

For all user licenses offered, it remains fundamental that the author receives full acknowledgment and credit for their work and that a link to the original published version of their article is featured.

What is the difference between user licenses?

Different licenses will appeal to different academic communities and authors.  It is important that an author decides what is relevant to them and what this means for their own research. We are continuously working with our authors to provide the best range of license options. Below we define some of the more common user licenses available:

  • CC BYThis is the broadest usage license and allows for the widest possible use of the research, including commercial use.  Users are permitted to:
    • Copy and distribute the article
    • Create extracts, abstracts, translations and new works from the article
    • Alter and revise the text of the article
    • Make commercial use of the article - provided the author is attributed and is not represented as endorsing the use made of the work
    • Text or data mine the article
  • CC BY-NC-SAThis allows for the same uses as CC BY but only for non-commercial purposes.  Further, any new derivative works must be made available on the same user license conditions.
  • CC BY-NC-NDThis allows users to copy and distribute the article, provided this is not done for commercial purposes and the article is not changed or edited in any way. Again, the author must be attributed and must not be represented as endorsing the use made of the work.  This does not allow users to text or data mine the article.

For our Open Archives content — archived content that we make available after an embargo period — we use a bespoke user license. This permits users to access, download, copy, display and redistribute documents as well as adapt, translate, text and data mine, provided that the original authors and source are credited and that the reuse is not for commercial purposes.

New developments

As the Creative Commons user licenses were not specifically developed for academic publishing, there have been some concerns raised by authors and publishers about ‘grey’ areas. These relate to the need to protect an article from plagiarism and to preserve its scientific integrity.  In addition, concerns have been raised about the possibility of commercial advertising being associated with research content without authorization.

To help address these concerns, the International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers (STM) is contemplating the release of a more specific user license designed for scholarly communication. This would likely:

  • Permit scholarly non-commercial use
  • Prohibit the creation of derivative products
  • Expressly permit text and data-mining for academic purposes and translation

It may also be included in our current offering of user licenses for open access content.

Author choice

While we look forward to the new developments and continued evolution of copyright and licensing, we have an on-going commitment to provide researchers with a choice about how their work is disseminated and used. By offering a variety of user licenses we hope to better understand authors’ needs and tailor our future approach accordingly. [divider]

The Authors

Jessica Clark Federica Rosetta

As Senior Company Counsel at Elsevier, Jessica Clark focuses on publishing policy issues. She started her career at a law firm in London and worked for four years for Penguin Books before joining Elsevier. She is a member of the Copyright Committee at the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers.

As Access Relationship Manager for Europe, Federica Rosetta is involved in the strategy development and implementation of initiatives and mechanisms aimed at enabling the broadest possible access to quality research content. She acts as a liaison between Elsevier and governments, funding bodies, universities and research institutions in Europe. Her experience in scientific publishing, earned during nine years at Elsevier, spans marketing communications, publishing and business development. Her passion for publishing traces back to her master’s degree in Literature, Press and Publishing History.

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10 Archived Comments

Federica Rosetta May 3, 2013 at 10:34 pm

Hi Rob,

Some authors and some academics are concerned that the protective measures you mention are not sufficient to prevent adulteration of content, others are concerned about commercial uses. Ultimately it will be about author choice.


Kaveh Bazargan May 4, 2013 at 11:54 am

My suggestion would be at least to encourage CC-BY. Author choice sounds good and fair, but often they don't realise the restrictions they are imposing on the reuse and redistribution of their work when opting for NC or ND. If I have a site with Google Ads, that can be considered commercial, so I would not be able to post on there. And ND means I would not be able to redistribute a table or an equation by themselves.

Mike Taylor May 4, 2013 at 11:35 am

Feederica, why is Elsevier suddenly so excited about author choice when for decades they gave authors no choice at all about transferring ALL rights in their work to the publisher?

In any case, the existing CC licences include all coherent combinations of allowing and prohibiting various uses, and they have been successfully road-tested for a decade. There is no good reason for fragmenting licensing by introducing one or more new and incompatible licences. Doing so will certainly not make things clearer for authors, and will most definitely impede re-use and combination of works published under different licences.

Please abandon this harmful process and stick with the industry-standard CC licences.

John King May 4, 2013 at 7:16 am

Let's be clear, the main beneficiaries of prohibiting further commercial use are the publishers, not the authors, as the author has already permitted commercial use (by the OA journal publisher). Do not use the misguided fears of a small number of academics for your own ends.

Federica Rosetta May 7, 2013 at 1:06 pm

We have adopted a test-and-learn approach because there are a number of uncertainties including author preferences, clarity of some terms in the Creative Commons license, an absence of case law, and the influence on revenue streams of different forms of license. It’s in the interest of all stakeholders to have a scholarly communication system that maintains quality and that is sustainable. One way to keep Article Publishing Charges (APCs) low may be to have a mix of revenue streams, including commercial revenue streams. This is not the only reason, however, that we are offering authors a choice. To get a feel for the range of issues and questions that have been raised it could be interesting (if you have time!) to review the submissions to this question submitted to the House of Commons BIS Select Committee inquiry (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmbis/writev/openaccess/contents.htm)

Federica Rosetta May 7, 2013 at 1:08 pm

The rights of authors – and the choices they make about how to deploy these – should always be taken into account, and publishers have always done this. We have always tried to engage to understand author’s priorities (which is why we are listed in Sherpa-Romeo) and we will continue to do so in the current changing environment.

Federica Rosetta May 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Thanks for the comment, Kaveh. If you do need to use content for commercial purposes there are quick and easy ways to get licensed to do so. For example, most academic publishers use the CCC Rightslink service (http://www.copyright.com/content/cc3/en/toolbar/getPermission.html). In addition, the STM Association has recently issued a statement that provides more information, see http://www.stm-assoc.org/2013_04_19_STM_ALPSP_PSP_Press_Release_Safe_Harbor_Provisions_for_the_Use_of_OOC_Works.pdf

Federica Rosetta May 3, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Dear Chris,

It is our aim to offer authors licensing options so they can choose the most appropriate way to disseminate their work. Authors willing to allow the creation of derivative works are free to choose between CC-BY and CC-BY-NC-SA. As per the definition of commercial use vs. scholarly use, the STM initiative should help to provide more clarity for us all moving forward.


Rob Myers May 3, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Incompatible licenses are bad, as they fragment the commons.

NC isn't "Open".

Academic research and writing proceeds through a process of critique and quotation of previous materials that builds reputation through attribution. BY protects this and thereby prevents plagiarism.

Requiring "scientific accuracy" will fail because of the Dunning-Kruger effect. The existing CC licenses require revised versions of works to be marked as such and prevent endorsement claims, so they protect the original work against adulteration in this context.

Please just use CC-BY-SA or CC-BY.

Chris Rusbridge May 2, 2013 at 7:10 pm

Prohibiting the creation of derivative products rather misunderstands the nature of the scholarly process, which can be viewed as the continuous creation of derivative works! Also, don't forget that there is no clear definition of "commercial" that rules academic activity OUT of that realm. Please desist from these diversionary activities and publish Open Access materials with an Open licence, preferably CC-BY. If the added value you have been touting is sufficient, you will survive and prosper.


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