Last week there was a flurry of exchanges on copyright and author manuscripts, unintentionally set off by Kevin Smith’s clarifying post Setting the record straight about Elsevier. I had thought that my right to archive, given in the publishing contracts I have signed, also allowed me (implicitly) to assign whatever license I liked to my own versions. Smith (and others) make it clear that a copyright transfer applies to all article versions. So you can archive your article if permitted, but you should attach the publisher’s copyright statement, and you are not free to attach a Creative Commons license. I’m currently in the process of correcting this for my archived articles, to which I erroneously assigned a CC-BY license. And I have updated my CC-BY recommendation in the previous post on the Elsevier fallout to make it clear that this can’t be done if the copyright has been transferred.
Smith followed up with two posts (It’s the content, not the version! and So what about self-archiving?), Nancy Sims posted, and Michael Carroll addressed this issue back in 2006. All are worth reading.
These posts reinforce the importance of retaining copyright whenever possible. But the fact remains that this is not always easy to do. The suggestions of some to “never sign over copyright” or “just put it in the public domain” I don’t find very helpful. In my niche of information science, there are very few OA journals, and most are owned by the large multinational conglomerates. While I have transferred copyright in all of my peer-reviewed articles, I have archived all of the post-prints. In the one case in which I attempted to retain copyright, the journal simply refused (and my co-authors did not seem particularly interested in putting up a fight). Placing an article in the public domain, it seems to me, would likely result in journal refusal (if I remember correctly, on most copyright transfer forms this option is only available to federal government employees). Additionally, since the public domain does not require attribution, most authors would not want to explicitly give that up.
Tenure-track faculty are under pressure to publish, and copyright transfer occurs at the end of a very lengthy process. Not many authors will be willing to start this process over if they can’t come to agreement with the journal about copyright. If authors are doing their best to make open the default, then they shouldn’t be made to feel badly about copyright transfer, particularly in cases where they can provide access through archiving. And if they are willing to negotiate for that right where it is not given, so much the better. But sometimes we have co-authors who are more interested in publication than copyright or archiving. So it’s more important than ever to address these issues in advance: to identify an OA journal (or one that explicitly allows archiving), and to ensure that co-authors are in agreement well before time to sign a publication agreement. Until more OA journals are developed in more fields, that is the best we can ask for.