Copyright & Journal Publishing

a messy business indeed

Copyright rules and regulations might not seem like a thrilling topic for a blog post, but it’s a topic that generates a lot of confusion, especially in relation to journal publishing. Those new to the journal publishing industry might be aware of article copyright lines, but what does copyright mean for authors? Why is it that sometimes permission is required to reuse content, while on other occasions content is freely available to use and reuse? Well, this blog post aims to answer some of those questions!

Copyright essentially denotes the owner of the piece of work, and how it may be used, published or distributed by others. While there isn’t a direct link to the various publishing business models out there, Open Access journals tend to have more “open” licenses, meaning that the rules of use are a little more flexible. On the other hand, subscription models often have closed licenses, use of the content is more stringently controlled and the process for receiving permission to use the content is frequently monetised (more on this later).

Many large publishers require authors to hand over the ownership of their article (or “assign copyright”) to the journal publisher. You might be wondering why authors aren’t up in arms about the reassignment of their intellectual property rights. For one thing, it’s become a standard practice in the journal publishing industry, authors are familiar with this process and expect to transfer their copyright if they want to publish with certain journals. Secondly, it means that authors don’t have to handle the complex business of managing requests to reuse content, taking appropriate action when content has been plagiarised and ensuring that the article appears in the right indexing databases to properly disseminate the research. Ultimately, authors are prepared to hand over their copyright to publishers in return for certain benefits. When the article is published, the publisher will appear as the copyright owner, instead of the author/(s). The only caveat to this is when a publisher offers an exclusive license option. This option allows authors to grant the publisher exclusive rights to publish and disseminate their article, while the author still maintains copyright ownership. Sweet deal, right?

Generally speaking, under Open Access models, the author retains their copyright ownership (hooray!) and grants the publisher the right to publish and distribute their article, much like the exclusive license model described above. It’s a little more complicated though, but stay with me as I attempt to clear things up. Under an OA model, the publisher will likely publish the article under a specific Creative Commons license. This is where it gets a bit confusing, because there are several different types of CC licenses, but below I summarise the main ones:

Firstly, we have the beautiful CC BY, the most open form of copyright license. CC BY allows “reusers to distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the material in any medium or format, so long as attribution is given to the creator.” ( Bonus, CC BY allows for non-commercial and commercial use of the content.

This license offers the same permissions as CC BY, but only allows reuse for non-commercial purposes provided that attribution is also given to the creator. (

This license does allow for commercial (and non-commercial) use of the content, but users can only copy and distribute the content in the original form (no nips and tucks here), and they must credit the creator. (

Earlier in this blog post I mentioned that publishers have found a clever way to monetise copyright. Publishers use third-party organisations like the Copyright Clearance Centre (CCC) to manage the many variations of copyright licenses in their journals and to manage permission requests and payments. Those who wish to reuse content from a published article where the copyright belongs to the publisher, may need to pay for permission to use the content. I say may rather sarcastically in italics as I have, because the process to work out whether permission is needed is rather convoluted. For example, sometimes permission is not needed if the publisher is a member of the STM Permissions Guidelines and the use of the content falls within the use guidelines. On the whole though, permission is nearly always needed and comes at a cost to the re-user.

I hope this post has answered some of the questions you might have about the *ehem* “exciting and glamourous world” of copyright in journal publishing. I know, I know, it’s not the most inspiring subject, but it’s an important one in publishing and one that newcomers to our industry often have questions about. Feel free to bookmark this post and send it to your colleagues who are new to the industry! And don’t forget to subscribe for more posts soon!

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