Why researchers get copyright so copy wrong: Facing up to the realities of copyright literacy in the academy

Julie Baldwin

Julie Baldwin is a Research Librarian working within the Research Support Team at the University of Nottingham. In her role she supports researchers in their open access publishing endeavours providing guidance, training and advocacy, including in the area of copyright. She also sits on the Libraries’ Copyright Working Group. The below blog post is based on her talk at the recent Scholarly Communications Conference earlier this month, of which you can find the presentation slides for here.  

When Plan S was announced in September last year, whilst there were whoops and cheers from us open access (OA) advocates, people also began reflecting on the implications for researchers, libraries and other stakeholders. I was particularly drawn to the first of the 10 principles, “Authors retain copyright of their publications with no restrictions”, which led to my next thought of, ‘how on earth will we be able to manage this?!’. Renewed focus has also fallen upon the role of the UK-SCL’s Model Institutional Open Access Policy as a lever for achieving this rights retention for authors, which may therefore run alongside the overall Plan S requirements.


CC BY Science Europe

Whilst OA publishing has brought copyright concerns closer to home, many researchers still have only a hazy understanding of copyright and will sign over their rights as a matter of course. But these new OA mandates and rights retention initiatives will ask authors to play an active role in their copyright decisions. So how will researchers be able to make informed decisions about their publishing choices? At the moment it feels hard to have these conversations about rights retention policies without misunderstandings and misconceptions colouring the argument.

To move past this, we first need to acknowledge the current picture regarding current copyright literacy, why it is and what we can do about – before rushing headlong into a battle with an academic about rights retention.

What are the realities?


CC BY Jørgen Stamp, digitalbevaring.dk

We know that copyright can be confusing, but as Lizzie Gadd pointed out a few years ago in her Scholarly Kitchen post – “not all academics are confused, and the confused ones are not confused in the same way”, so it’s hard to ensure they all have the right information available to them for each to make the best and informed choice.

This lack of understanding of the basic copyright principles can be highlighted in researchers’ erratic behaviour, leading to both infringement and under-sharing. When copyright activities aren’t mediated either by a publisher or an institution (usually the library), this is even clearer. Many recent studies are using Social Researcher Network sharing to evidence this, such as Jamali’s study which showed that over 50% articles posted on ResearchGate were infringing copyright due to misunderstandings over versioning (2017).

The scholarly system also foregrounds prestige as a driver for publishing, rather than dissemination. The extreme version of this Casadevall and Fang term ‘impact factor mania’ whereby, “Scientists act rationally in their own self-interests despite the detrimental consequences of their actions on the overall scientific enterprise.” Whilst a little dramatic, a key stumbling block to researchers engaging with their rights retention is viewing the benefits of signing over copyright, in order to publish in certain venues, as greater than the benefits of retaining control of their work through retaining their rights.


Understanding is not improved by researchers coming up against complicated sharing policies on publisher websites which loop and contradict themselves on different pages either. Librarians tie themselves in knots trying to decode these, so it’s no wonder researchers don’t have time for this!

Some publishers also cultivate an image as supporting academic endeavour and researchers trust them to look after their interests, believing them to be in alignment. But at the heart of this however is a contradiction – their claim of being the vehicle for widest dissemination of a work, whilst at the same time restricting access to it. This complicates the landscape as they promote these two paradoxical ideas to their audience. For more on both these aspects I’d highly recommend reading Sally Rumsey’s discussion paper: Help! I’m an author – get me out of here.


One sticking point I’ve found is that copyright relating to research publishing doesn’t always visibly translate into making a copyright-based decision. This context is often further removed where institutions design processes which exclude the researcher from having to make these kinds of decision, from libraries offering mediated deposit services (depositing articles on researchers’ behalf) to schools and departments delegating OA processes to administrative staff.

Additionally, whilst lots of work has been done very quickly to establish practical processes for OA, resourcing for copyright seems to have been less of a priority. Where institutions have dedicated copyright roles there are opportunities to make headway with some of this stuff, but where there isn’t, it’s up to existing staff to make the best of it on top of their normal roles. But with Plan S may come further need for copyright support and it’s hard to see how this can absorbed without additional resource.

Another issue is that copyright ownership has become an indicator for academic freedom. How academic freedom is defined is another issue, but people have very strong views about it, making any moves towards rebalancing ownership, for instance with initiatives like UK-SCL, very hard. My experience is that researchers tend to be extraordinarily suspicious as soon as institutions try to assert any rights or impose any kind of policy which might impact on their ability to publish in the journal of their choice. It’s a major barrier for getting buy-in for these sorts of things and it really needs explaining properly to have the chance of researchers understanding what’s going on.

CC BY Jørgen Stamp, digitalbevaring.dk

There are different fixes for different parts of the problem – changing culture, lobbying of publishers etc. But my view is that we support a mixture of people with different motives, needs and knowledge levels but they all could be helped by having a basic grounding in copyright, even if they then choose to work around it. Copyright is the thread that runs through so much of scholarly activities; it needs more attention given to it! By equipping researchers with the knowledge they will at least be able to understand how and why the institution is making certain decisions and how copyright retention can actually benefit them.


Casadevall, A., & Fang, F. C. (2014). Causes for the persistence of impact factor mania. MBio, 5(2).

Gadd, E. Academics and Copyright Ownership: Ignorant, Confused or Misled? Available online: https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/10/31/guest-postacademics-copyright-ownership-ignorant-confusedmisled/?informz=1 (accessed on 9 April 2019)

Jamali, H. R. (2017). Copyright compliance and infringement in ResearchGate full-text journal articles. Scientometrics, 112(1), 241-254.

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