By Richard White

“Can I put my article on ResearchGate?”

“I want to put a conference paper in our institution’s research repository, can I do that?”

These — among others — are questions I frequently get these days from university staff and students, usually followed by “but I’m not sure about copyright”. Like so many copyright questions, the answer is “it depends”.

First of all, if you don’t actually copy anything, copyright doesn’t come into it. If your work was already published somewhere, like a journal’s website, then just link to it. ResearchGate, for example, makes this simple for you by asking for a few search terms and then pointing to the source, meaning you don’t upload anything. The less you copy and instead point people to a single source, the easier it is for you to track how many people are reading your work. Perhaps more importantly, a journal or your institutional repository will have a stable link that won’t die because someone changed the way they structure their website. The only problem with linking is if your work is behind a paywall that blocks anyone who doesn’t work for an institution with the relevant subscription, like government policy makers, businesses, schools, lots of other tertiary institutions, the general public, etc. More on that below.

If linking isn’t an option, then ask yourself whether you are the copyright holder. The default in most cases is: if you created it, you own the copyright, whether it’s a research paper, a photo you took on holiday or your shopping list. And if you own the copyright, that means you have the right to copy, share, adapt, or communicate the work. So, yes, if you own the copyright, it’s fine to put it wherever you like.

One caveat is that an employer or someone who commissioned a work will own work by default, though this can be varied by contract; in most universities the employer will have a policy that leaves copyright in the hands of researchers (as is the case where I work). The other main reason you might not have copyright is that you assigned it to someone else in a contract.

Anytime you publish, there’ll be an agreement you sign that is a formal contract setting out your rights and theirs. Trouble is, for most of us these agreements are written by lawyers and are not really suitable for human consumption. Next time you get one of these, look for these key terms:

  • “transfer” or “assign” copyright — this means you’re giving your copyright to the publisher
  • “licence” — in some contracts you keep copyright but provide the publisher with a licence (i.e. permission to publish), which is actually all they need to publish the work, the terms of which will include things like the points that follow;
  • “exclusive” vs “non-exclusive” — you only ever want to grant a non-exclusive licence so that you retain the right to put your work where you want to
  • “irrevocabale” means the terms will apply for all eternity
  • “self-archiving,” “archival deposit” or similar — some contracts now specifically allow you to deposit a version in an institutional repository (usually this version is either the submitted version or the accepted version post-peer review, not the final ‘version of record’ that appears in the journal)
  • “open access” — this is a hot topic in academic publishing; the specific terms will vary but most commonly you will retain the copyright and the open access licence that is applied allows anyone, including the publisher, to copy the work under certain terms.

And, as I said above, if you own the copyright (and you didn’t grant an exclusive licence), you can put your work in ResearchGate, in a repository, on a blog, on a departmental web page or give it to students, etc.

And if you get a contract that seems to be giving up all your rights, there are plenty of resources that can help you claim some of them back. It’s your work after all.

Richard White is the Manager, Copyright and Open Access, at the University of Otago Te Whare Wānanga o Otāgo. He blogs at Open Otago. He is also a musician who releases his work under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence. You can listen to Richard’s music at his Soundcloud page and follow him on Twitter @rkawhite.

Feature image credit: I’ve contracted an agreement, by Juli, 2008, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

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