Publisher copyright transfer agreements

We frequently meet with Dartmouth students, faculty, and staff to talk with them about publishing and copyright.  Recently, a lab group at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) invited us to their recurring meeting to talk about author rights, open access publishing, and publisher policies. Meeting with colleagues in this way is particularly productive because it allows us to customize the information in advance and address their specific needs.  It also offers them an opportunity to ask us questions specific to their communities of practice.

We also consult with Dartmouth authors individually (students, faculty, and staff) just after their article has been accepted for publication, and they reach out to us with questions about the publisher’s copyright transfer agreement. The copyright transfer agreement specifies which copy rights the publisher expects to take and which of the rights the author will retain (if any). Often the publisher is asking to retain “exclusive rights” to the work, which basically means that the author relinquishes their right to publish that work elsewhere or share/post the publisher’s final version (the “Version of Record”) on the author’s own website or elsewhere.  Last week, I happened to receive questions from two separate authors, publishing in two separate journals, but with the same publisher. The legal terminology within copyright transfer agreements can be unclear and daunting, even for prolific authors who have completed multiple article submission processes. Although these two articles were published in separate journals, the terms of the copyright transfer agreement were similar. However, the difference between these situations were the copyright needs of the authors and their individual experience reviewing copyright agreements.

The first question came from a prolific faculty author who had an interest in retaining the rights to share the “Version of Record” (the publisher’s final version).  In reviewing the language within the copyright transfer agreement, we could see that the publisher was asking for exclusive rights to the work, which meant that sharing or posting the “Version of Record” would not be possible for the author if he signed the agreement in its original form.  The author would only be able to share the final, peer-reviewed manuscript, which does not have the same polished look-and-feel of the final published version. In order to help this author, I provided him with the Dartmouth Author’s Amendment Publication Agreement Amendment, which we amended to reflect his request to retain the right to share the publisher’s final peer reviewed version (the “Version of Record”) on his own website and within the Dartmouth Digital Commons: Open Dartmouth Faculty Open Access collection.  This amendment was sent to the author’s editor, who is in the process of reviewing it and deciding whether to change the copyright transfer agreement to reflect the author’s request.  Often authors feel uncertain about modifying the language within the publisher’s copyright transfer agreement. But, making special requests or attempting to change the terms of the agreement can be much more difficult years down the road. Publishers don’t directly acknowledge their familiarity with requests to amend the copyright transfer agreement, but authors should know that this kind of request is not completely unusual for publishers. Requesting an amendment adds an extra step to the process of seeing one’s work published, but it is well worth the try in this stage of the publication process.

The second question came from a graduate student who was publishing his article for the first time as the sole author, which meant that this was his first experience navigating the article submission process with any publisher (previous articles had been published in collaboration with faculty who were the corresponding authors and handled this side of things). His main concern was that  he interpret the copyright transfer agreement correctly and check all of the right boxes as he completed the submission process.  But, he was also interested in better understanding what exactly he was agreeing to when signing the copyright transfer agreement.  We really enjoy helping all authors with copyright questions, but it is particularly satisfying to help new authors become confident in the language of copyright as it pertains to their own work.  This student and I met and we reviewed the terms of the agreement piece-by piece together.  All of the terms were the same as they had been for the author I’d helped previously that week.   But, as a this author’s disciplinary sharing needs were different.  He was not concerned about the publisher’s request to retain exclusive rights to the “Version of Record.” As a mathematician, he felt confident that the difference between the “Version of the Record” and the author’s submitted manuscript is so slim that he’d already felt comfortable sharing that version on a discipline-specific sharing spaces such as, which he had done already.

Whether we meet with authors individually or as a group, it is important to create time and space for authors to ask questions specific to their personal and professional copyright needs.  We will continue to host copyright and publishing events and workshops, but we welcome individual requests and department meeting invitations like the ones described above.  Please don’t hesitate to contact us about with your copyright questions!


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