Copyright in an Open Access World

The importance of protecting content

Copyright plays a vital role in the world of publishing scientific, medical and technical content. It provides authors with a set of rights to enable them to utilize their work and to be recognized as the creator of the work.  Publishers are empowered to act on behalf of the author through a copyright transfer or exclusive license to copy, publish, and adapt works, whilst protecting their integrity. In this way, publishers are empowered to do various things on behalf of the author, for example to ensure that the article is widely disseminated, that all requests for the rights to re-use content and provision of permissions are answered efficiently, and to ensure that the original is correctly attributed. Each month, Elsevier receives more than 10,000 rights and permissions requests for content – both books and journals - and we have developed sophisticated systems to facilitate these requests and make the process as simple and timely as possible. We take this role very seriously.

The importance of protecting content

But what about copyright in an open access world? Does it make a difference that articles are being made available to all and should we be concerned? The answer is…well, yes and no.

To all intents and purposes, the fact that journal articles are being made available to all through open access, or to subscribers under the subscription model, should not really affect things.  Issues can arise, however, as there is a common misperception that open access means anyone can do anything with an article  – in fact, the rights in the content must still be understood and upheld.

In addition, from an editorial perspective, copyright helps to prevent elements such as plagiarism, multiple submission and fraud in journal articles, and whilst is does not actually detect these elements, it acts as a protective measure to uphold the quality of journals.

Within open access publishing there seems to be a dilemma over copyright and the three choices facing an author: retain copyright, share it or transfer it. Elsevier believes that it remains a fundamental role of a publisher to act on the author’s behalf and by continuing to transfer copyright, we can ensure and uphold the rights of the author and handle all subsequent permission requests. If copyright is retained, then this process remains with the author and, if it is shared, there is a greater risk that fraudulent use may occur, which is why we continue to advocate the transfer of copyright for our journals.

Clearing up the confusion

Some believe that in an open access world these factors become blurred and journal articles are easier to copy and incorporate into other works. For example, open access journals offer additional usage rights which may introduce some confusion in relation to copyright. These factors may threaten the rights of the author and make it difficult for publishers to enforce copyright policy. However, if it is clear where copyright lies through consistent application, the usage rights of the article in question become independent of the publishing model and work for both subscription and open access content.

Of course, one of the main issues with copyright in general is that it is often widely misunderstood and interpreted in a different way by each individual. A study published by JISC in 20051 investigated the level of understanding of researchers towards copyright. It found that from a pool of 355 respondents, 30% of researchers did not know who initially owned the copyright of their own research articles and a further 26% of the respondents indicated that they had a low interest in the copyright issues of their own research articles! Clearly, this continues to be one of the important roles a publisher must embrace: ensuring that it is clear and easy to understand what can be done with content.

1 Towards good practices of copyright in Open Access Journals: A study among authors of articles in Open Access journals, Esther Hoorn, University of Groningen, Faculty of Law, Maurits van der Graaf, Pleiade Management & Consultancy, 2005-08-05

Author biography

David TempestDavid Tempest
David’s role focuses on the development of a wide range of strategies and implementation of access initiatives and he is a key contact between Elsevier and funding organizations, universities and research institutions around the world. He has worked at Elsevier for more than 15 years, including periods in both editorial and marketing positions, and spent the majority of his career managing the scientometric research and market analysis department within the company. David speaks frequently at various global events about the development of new universal access initiatives and technologies, as well as publishing matters in general.  He has a BSc in pharmacology from the University of Sunderland and an MBA with distinction from Oxford Brookes University.

Archived comments

Ben says: March 27, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Any empirical evidence that publisher retaining copyright reduces fraudulent use of academic publications? Especially difficult to believe this given the low level of interest of the existing system and understanding among scientists.

Alicia Wise says: March 30, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Copyright is the form of intellectual property rights relevant to the publication and distribution of research articles. Copyright starts with the author(s) and flows via agreements to others with a stake in the publication. This framework of agreements establishes what everyone with an interest in the research article – author, publisher, institution and user – can do. Copyright plays an important role in scholarly communications, including playing a part in publishing ethics. The agreement between author and publisher typically empowers the publisher to take action on behalf of the author if there article is misused – for example if the work is plagiarized.

Gavin Simpson says: April 3, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Alicia, that doesn’t really answer the question! The substantive point was; is there any evidence that transfer copyright to a publisher such as Elsevier reduces fraudulent use of academic papers. This was what was suggested by David Tempest in the above article. Care to back those claims up?!

David Tempest says: April 12, 2012 at 7:15 am

Thank you for your comment. The section regarding the reduction in fraudulent use of academic papers is in relation to the role of the publisher relates to potential disputes with respect to duplicate publication or in cases of plagiarism. For the most part, journals, editors and publishers work well together and cooperate in identifying the appropriate “article of record” and in retracting other versions. There are cases, however, where it is necessary to insist, on the author’s behalf, for a correction in the record, and in such instances being the owner of copyright (at least with respect to the distribution of the article) is very helpful. We have never, at least not in the past several years, had to file a lawsuit to establish this precedence, but it does provide helpful legal backing to the moral and ethical dimension.

Graham Steel says: March 27, 2012 at 7:21 pm

MKy $0.02

In the land of dead trees “Copyright plays a vital role in the world of publishing scientific, medical and technical content”

Along came teh Interwebz 1.0, 2.0 and so on.

And so it came to pass that “Copyright played a vital role in the world of publishing scientific, medical and technical content”..

malcolm mcewen says: March 27, 2012 at 8:28 pm

again we see an article on copyright which confuses (by omission) moral right!… aarrrgghhh.. I had a very similar argument with a mark shuttleworth fan after I posted a comment on his blog over the same inability to realise that open source should carry Moral Rifght and that largely negates the majority of your concerns here.. Copyright is a divisive tool that HARMS us and the correct use and promotion of Moral right protects the author without resrricting wider use… heres the link to shuttleworths blog

Mike Taylor says: March 27, 2012 at 9:54 pm

“There is a common misperception that open access means anyone can do anything with an article.”

Actually, that’s not a misconception. The term “open access” was coined by the Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2002, and was given a quite explicit definition, which I quote from the Initiative itself

“By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

That is what the term open access means. If there has been any confusion around the term, it’s been caused by people blurring it (whether inadvertently or deliberately) to mean something else.

Ross Mounce (@rmounce) says: March 28, 2012 at 8:19 am

I’ve made a comment on this advertorial here, over on my blog:

Needless to say, I don’t agree with the views espoused in the piece here.

Dr. Banamber Sahoo says: March 12, 2014 at 4:24 am

If a librarian downloads research articles from free open access journals on a specific research field and distributes to its user community daily, is it against copy right?

David Tempest says: March 12, 2014 at 11:25 am

Thank you for your interest in this topic. There is no problem with the articles being downloaded and distributed, but the Creative Commons licence that the author has selected to cover the use of the article need to be adhered to, details of Creative Commons licenses are available at

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