Skip to Main Content

OA / OER Toolkit: Authors' Rights

Authors' Rights to Their Own Works

What rights do journal article authors have to their own works?


When authors publish an article in a journal, they must sign a publishing agreement. Historically, these agreements required authors to signed away all rights to their articles — only the publisher could copy, distribute, and republish the work. Often, the agreement even prohibited authors from sharing copies of the article with colleagues or students. But authors signed because they had to, because that’s what people who wanted tenure did.

But the world of scholarly publishing is shifting. Now when authors sign publishing agreements, they’re often left with many more rights than in the past.

There are three kinds of journals:

  1. Traditional Subscription-Based Journals: Journals that require authors to transfer copyright to the journal, which then has exclusive rights to the article.
  2. Gold Open Access Journals: Journals that automatically and immediately make their articles available online to all at no cost to readers.
  3. Green Open Access Journals: Journals that permit authors to self-archive their articles in OA repositories.

How can you find out whether a journal allows green OA? You can find out by tracking down its copyright transfer agreement and trying to make sense of it – which is not always easy. They’re usually long, and they’re often hard to understand. A much easier method is using the online tool SHERPA/RoMEO, which clearly summarizes journal’s policies about copyright and self-archiving.

How prevalent is permission to self-archive? As of September 2015, 78% of publishers indexed by SHERPA/RoMEO formally allow some form of self-archiving (read more). This means that a huge percentage of scholarly articles could be made freely available online if only researchers: 1) knew about their rights, 2) had a place to put their articles, and 3) exercised their rights to put them there.

Can I negotiate my contract? Sometimes. Your best shot is the SPARC Author Addendum or Scholar’s Copyright Addendum Engine.

Suppose you have the right to self-archive your article. Where should you self-archive?

  1. Institutional Repositories: An institutional repository (IR) -- such as CUNY Academic Works -- is an online database offered by an institution to collect, preserve, and make freely available scholarly journal articles and other works created by that institution’s community. Of course, self-archiving in an institutional repository is possible only at institutions with a repository.
  2. Subject Repositories: A subject repository is a repository dedicated to one or more fields of study. Major examples include (for physics and other sciences), PubMed Central (for biomedical research), Research Papers in Economics (RePEc), and Social Science Research Network (SSRN). Check this list of disciplinary repositories to see if there's a repository for a certain field.
  3. Subject- and Institution-Independent Sites: ResearchGate and are two well-known repositories with social networking features. However, they are commercial sites, and some publishers allow self-archiving only in non-commercial repositories.
  4. Personal Websites: Self-archiving on personal websites is a good step in the direction of green OA, but they're not permanent and therefore not the best option!

Advice to Authors

  1. Research any journal/publisher you’re considering. (Quality? Peer reviewing process? Copyright policy?)
  2. If you have the right to self-archive, exercise that right.
  3. If you don’t have the right to self-archive, request it.
  4. Choose the best publishing venue for you and your career…
  5. …but also think about the system you’re contributing to and the system you want to contribute to.

Authors: Know your rights to what you write!

Authors' Rights Resources