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Understand Your Rights as an Author

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 This week we’ll continue discussing issues surrounding open access by focusing on your rights as an author. Didn’t know you had specific author rights? Don’t know what they are? Read on! 

  Contracts © Government of Alberta in the Public Domain

Your work. Your rights.

When you write a manuscript for a peer-reviewed journal, you own the full copyrights to that manuscript. If you decide to publish in an open access journal, you generally retain your full copyrights even after the article has been published. However, if you choose to publish in a traditional subscription access journal, you will often be required to sign a form transferring some – or all – of your copyrights to the publisher. These forms go by different names –  publishing agreements, copyright transfer agreements, publication agreements, journal publishing agreement, etc. – and they outline exactly what you can and cannot do with your own article. After transferring your copyrights to the publisher, you generally have very little say in how your work is used later. All too often, these publishing agreements restrict the dissemination of your scholarship, and your impact is actually lessened. 

Think about this: The publication process is long. You spend a great deal of time and effort conducting research and putting together an article worthy of publication. The steps in this process can take months and even years. 

Research Cycle © Cameron Neylon. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license. 

Signing the author agreement can be the very last step, and it presents challenges when you’re eager to simply be done with it. Publishers sometimes add to the pressure by giving you little notice, saying it’s “just a formality,” or that the agreement needs to be returned to them in a day or two. We urge you to be aware of what you’ll need to sign long before you’ve put all your eggs in one journal's basket. It’s wise to figure out if a particular journal can accommodate what you want before the very last minute. 
Transferring your copyrights, in part or in whole, doesn’t have to be the end of the story. When you sign a copyright transfer form, YOU can decide which rights you want to keep and which you want to give away. Understanding the effect of fully exercising your author rights can help you make more informed choices about how and where you choose to publish your work.

Know Your Rights as the Author

  • The author is the copyright holder. As the author of a work you are the copyright holder unless and until you transfer the copyright to someone else in a signed agreement.
  • Assigning your rights matters. Normally, the copyright holder possesses the exclusive rights of reproduction, distribution, public performance, public display, and modification of the original work. An author who has transferred copyright without retaining some of these rights must ask permission unless the use is one of the statutory exemptions in copyright law.
  • The copyright holder controls the work. Decisions concerning use of the work, such as distribution, access, pricing, updates, and any use restrictions belong to the copyright holder. Authors who have transferred their copyright without retaining any rights may not be able to place the work on course web sites, copy it for students or colleagues, deposit the work in SHAREOK, upload it to their own website, or even reuse portions in a subsequent work! That’s why it is important to think about and retain the rights you need.
  • Transferring copyright doesn’t have to be all or nothing. The law allows you to transfer copyright while holding back rights for yourself and others.

Scrutinize the Publication Agreement


Woman with magnifying glass, in the public domain


  • Read the publication agreement with great care. Publishers’ agreements have traditionally been used to transfer copyright or key use rights from author to publisher. They are written by publishers and may capture more of your rights than are necessary to publish the work. Ensuring the agreement is balanced and has a clear statement of your rights is up to you.
  • Publishing agreements are negotiable. Publishers require only your permission to publish an article, not a wholesale transfer of copyright. Hold onto rights to make use of the work in ways that serve your needs and that promote education and research activities.
  • Value the copyright in your intellectual property. A journal article is often the culmination of years of study, research, and hard work. The more the article is read and cited, the greater its value. But if you give away control in the copyright agreement, you may limit its use. Before transferring ownership of your intellectual output, understand the consequences and options.


A Balanced Approach 

As an author, you will want to be specifically mindful to: 

  • Retain the rights you want
  • Use and develop your own work without restriction
  • Increase access for education and research
  • Receive proper attribution when your work is used
  • Deposit your work in SHAREOK where it will be permanently and openly accessible 

While publishers often want you to transfer your entire copyright, the only rights publishers actually need are to:  

  • Obtain a non-exclusive right to publish and distribute a work
  • Receive a financial return
  • Receive proper attribution and citation as journal of first publication and/or version of record
  • Migrate the work to future formats and include it in collections

Think About Future Uses of Your Work.

Do you want to retain the right to post your article on your course website, or in OU’s institutional repository, SHAREOK? Do you want to legally share copies of your articles with your colleagues? How about with students? Do you want to use the figures, illustrations, or graphs elsewhere? Do you want to post the article to your website? Do you want to upload it to ResearchGate or Maybe you want to include it for use in a text mining project? 

Unfortunately, the publication agreement you’ll likely encounter will actually prevent broad distribution of your work. In the traditional publication agreements, all rights — including copyright — go to the journal. 

You would never knowingly keep your research from readers who could benefit from it, but signing a restrictive publication agreement limits your scholarly universe and lessens your impact as an author. 

Several organizations provide resources to help you learn more about your rights as an author, and there are tools available to help you effectively manage your copyrights. We think SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, provides one of the best tools there is – the SPARC Author Addendum. 

SPARC Author Addendum

The SPARC Author Addendum is a legal instrument that modifies your publisher’s agreement and allows you to keep key rights to your articles. The Author Addendum is a free resource developed by SPARC in partnership with Creative Commons and Science Commons, established non-profit organizations that offer a range of copyright options for many different creative endeavors.

How to use the SPARC Author Addendum

  1. Complete the addendum. OU Libraries offers support to help you understand your publishing agreement, complete the addendum, and negotiate your contract. If you’re on the OU-Norman campus, contact your liaison librarian for more information or assistance..
  2. Print a copy of the addendum and attach it to your publishing agreement. This can also be done electronically. Scan the copy and save it as a pdf.
  3. Note in a cover letter or email  to your publisher that you have included an addendum to the agreement. Since many submissions and agreements are handled through the publisher’s website instead of an email, you may need to include this information in the upload form.
  4. Email, upload, or mail the addendum with your publishing agreement and your cover letter or email to your publisher. Again, you may be doing this through the publisher’s website. If there is not a method for doing this through the publisher’s website, send a separate email to the editor and/or the publisher.


What If the Publisher Rejects the Author Addendum?

It’s important to know that the publisher will not reject your article if you use an author addendum. Instead, the publisher may reject the addendum. If this happens: 

  • Explain to the publisher why it is important for you to retain these rights in your own work.
  • Ask the publisher to articulate why the license rights provided under the SPARC Author Addendum are insufficient to allow publication.
  • Evaluate the adequacy of the publisher’s response in light of the reasonable and growing need for authors to retain certain key rights to their works.
  • Consider publishing with an organization that will facilitate the widest dissemination of their authors’ works, to help them fulfill their personal and professional goals as scholars.

If it is still important for you to publish in a journal that rejects your author addendum, you will have lost nothing in the negotiation process. You will at least have a better idea of what to expect and where to publish your work next time. 

It’s up to you to be a responsible steward of your intellectual property! We hope you are now better equipped to retain vital rights for you and your readers while authorizing publishing activities that benefit everyone by making scholarship more widely available.


As the landscape of open access has changed, publishers have adjusted many of their policies in regards to the rights of their authors. Publishers that once honored author amendments began creating policies that formalized – and then charged authors for – some of the most commonly requested amendments. If you’re trying to negotiate with a publisher that has instituted such policies, they may unwilling to negotiate certain aspects of an amendment (like the right for you to deposit your manuscript into an institutional repository). It’s still worth raising the point though! It’s a conversation, and enough authors discussing what they need from publishers will help to make publishers more responsive to their authors.


For this week’s homework, we’re asking you to dig deep – literally! We want you to dig up some of your old publishing contracts and read through them with the following questions in mind: 

  • Where did you give up rights?
  • What rights did you give up?
  • Where did you retain rights?
  • What rights did you retain?
  • If you were signing this contract again, what items would you change? How would you change them?
  • What are some of the phrases to be on the lookout for?

If you don’t have copies of your previous publishing agreements, you can take a look at these contracts from JAMA, Wiley-Blackwell, and BioMed Central and perform the same exercise. 

Completing this exercise (or at least finding your old publishing contracts) will be helpful when we begin next week’s chapter, Uploading Your Work to SHAREOK.

Additional Resources

Content for the OU Impact Challenge has been derived from “The 30-Day Impact Challenge” by Stacy Konkiel © ImpactStory and used here under a CC BY 4.0 International License. 

Content in Chapter 11: Understand Your Rights as an Author has been derived from the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) © SPARC and used here under a CC BY 4.0 International License. 

The OU Impact Challenge is licensed CC BY 4.0, unless otherwise noted.