Copyright Transfer Agreements = Copyright Confusion? Some thoughts on our recently published research

Alex Kohn
Jessica Lange







We are delighted to receive a blog post from Alex Kohn and Jessica Lange, based on their recent journal article on Copyright Transfer agreements published in the Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication. Alex (@lexkohn) is an academic librarian who has worked in copyright, scholarly communications and research support in libraries in Ireland, Italy, the UK and Canada. She is currently the Head of the Office of Copyright Compliance at McGill University Library in Montreal, Canada and a member of the Copyright Committee of the Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA-FCAB).

Jessica Lange is a Scholarly Communications & Repository Librarian at McGill University. In addition, she is the editor-in-chief of the open access journal Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research. They tell us…. 

After months of refining our survey instrument, collecting data, and drafting and redrafting, we are thrilled to see our paper “Confused about copyright? Assessing Researchers’ Comprehension of Copyright Transfer Agreements,” published in the Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication. In this paper we pursue the research question: to what extent do authors understand the terms of publisher policies as expressed in publishers’ copyright transfer agreements (CTAs), taking into account such factors as the authors’ disciplines, publishing experience and the wording and structure of these agreements?

So why did we decide that this article needed to be written? The impetus for this research came from the questions and concerns that we encountered in our day-to-day interactions with academic authors. We are both librarians at McGill, a large research-intensive university, where we assist highly intelligent and well-educated academic authors, many of whom have a wealth of publishing experience. As a copyright specialist and scholarly communications librarian, we are often the people that authors come to with their reference questions on copyright. Questions like:

“I want to send by email and post on our website … [a published figure from one our faculty members]..Is it ok if I send the [figure] with the correct source by email? Is it also ok if I post it on the web with the source?”

“A professor in Australia has asked if I can send them a copy of my published article. Am I allowed to do this?”

“I was wondering if you could help me clarify some things about posting my published work on ResearchGate. My article…is published in the [redacted] Journal. Based on the SHERPA/RoMEO website, it says that the publisher’s vision I currently have posted online should not be done. However, if I don’t publish that, what other complete version should I post?”

In a majority of cases, our advice is a variant of, “well, it depends what your author licence/copyright transfer agreement allows.”

Once we started looking into existing studies that touched on CTAs, we saw that the confusion that our users displayed was backed up by the literature. This came to the fore particularly when authors were asked about their reasons for not self-archiving: many indicated that a lack of understanding of publisher policy was a major factor in failing to deposit an article in an institutional repository.  And there is good reason for this confusion: these agreements and their conditions are becoming Increasingly complex: between 2004 and 2015, “the volume of restrictions around how, where and when self-archiving may take place has increased 119%, 190% and 1000% respectively” (see Gadd, E., & Covey, D. T. (2016). What does ‘green’ open access mean? Tracking twelve years of changes to journal publisher self-archiving policies. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science In addition, studies found a significant mismatch between the rights that authors think they retain versus what they actually retain.

All of this raised the question: do academic authors really have trouble understanding their author agreements or are they signing them without reading them? The literature on standard form contracts suggests that most people agree to terms and conditions of a standardised contract with a cursory glance. Indeed, how many of us can claim to have read through user agreements for common services like Netflix or iTunes before ticking the “Agree” box? That said, when asked, the majority of academic authors claim that they do indeed read and/or examine these agreements prior to signing them. So instead of verifying the veracity of authors’ self-reported behaviour, we decided to test their comprehension when they do read CTAs.

How did we do this? We looked at the CTAs of four major publishers (Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, and Taylor & Francis) and scored them using the SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) readability formula. From there we chose one longer and one shorter CTA with similar readability scores to be used in the experiment. The CTAs selected were freely available on the open web, with no digital locks, which allowed us to anonymize them, while preserving formatting to replicate the real-life experience of reading the agreements as much as possible.

Once we had selected the CTAs we distributed them to corresponding authors of academic research articles indexed in Scopus. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of two copyright transfer agreements and were subsequently asked a series of questions about these agreements to determine their comprehension.  We also collected basic demographic information as well as information about participants’ previous publishing experience.

Once we analysed our results, we had three main findings:

1) Overall, comprehension levels understanding was very low, with little difference between the two agreements: participants scored 33% and 34% respectively.

2) None of the demographic or publishing experience variables  affected participants’ likelihood of answering the questions correctly. For example, it didn’t matter what discipline the author was from or how many papers she had published or how long she had been in academia. There were also no discernible gains in understanding as a result of being tested on the CTA of a publisher with whom the author had previously published.

3) One interesting finding was that there were several individual questions that participants were more likely to answer correctly depending on the agreement they received.

Upon reviewing the data, several patterns emerged from this finding.

  1. A) Explicit wording. We found that participants were, perhaps unsurprisingly, more likely to answer a question correctly if the answer was provided explicitly in the text of the agreement. For example, we asked: “According to the agreement you just viewed you can post the article in a course management system.” (Possible responses: Yes, absolutely; Yes, with conditions; No; Unclear)

Agreement 1 included the following wording:  “Electronic posting of the Final Published Version in connection with teaching/training at the Contributor’s company/institution is permitted subject to the implementation of reasonable access control mechanisms, such as user name and password.” Participants were significantly more likely to answer correctly (Yes, with conditions) to this question .

  1. B) Assuming permission if wording is unclear. We noticed that where wording was ambiguous or the answer was not mentioned in the agreement, participants tended to assume that they had permission to engage in the activity about which the question asked.

In many ways, for those of us who work with researchers and copyright transfer agreements, the fact that authors have difficulty understanding the rights they retain and relinquish in these agreements is not terribly shocking. We firmly believe that one of the reasons for the poor results of our survey is that CTAs are not currently written to facilitate natural understanding. Even though we work with these agreements all the time, the two of us had to go through the agreements several times and often engage in discussion and debate before we felt comfortable agreeing on the correct answers to be used to score our results.

Benefits of Open Access by Danny Kingsley and Sarah Brown CC-BY

One of the fantastic things about publishing in an online open access journal like the Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication is that a wide ranging audience could engage with our research right away. We had several interesting interactions with publishers, researchers, and librarians looking to improve author understanding of these agreements. We’d like to continue this line of inquiry, but at this stage, our main takeaway are that for librarians and copyright specialists working with researchers, author rights advocacy and education should focus on all researcher levels (e.g. not just junior faculty or graduate students). Part of these educational efforts might include providing tools to parse difficult language and to help authors isolate key agreement conditions and restrictions.

For those that have the opportunity to craft or influence CTAs, they should focus on identifying the most common uses that authors want to make of their work and incorporate more explicit and less jargon-heavy language that clarify author rights in this regard.

Have suggestions on education, advocacy or publisher action that should be taken to help with this issue? Ideas for further research in this area? We’d love to hear from you!

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