Live-blogging the 2009 Vancouver PKP Conference

Open access journals copyright policies: an analysis of the information available to prospective authors: The Session Blog

Thursday, July 9, 2009 @ 11:30
SFU Harbour Centre (Earl & Jennie Lohn Rm 7000)




Marc Couture (Science & Technology professor at Tele-université: Université du Quebec à Montréal’s distance education component)

Session Overview

Session Abstract

Marc Couture presents his research findings about the availability of copyright policies on open access journals. He addresses the assumptions about copyright, the statistics related to his study and recommends a framework for publishers to use with respect to making copyright decisions that take into account the best interests of both the author and publisher.


Couture urges authors to become aware of the copyright policies associated with the journals they are interested being published in. He establishes some basic assumptions he operates on about copyright prior to his research including: copyright is important to authors, the deal between the author and publisher involved in publishing an article must be legally and ethically fair and that the interests of the journal, the author and the end-user (the reader of the article) must be equally taken into account.


The guiding question for Couture’s research was “where can information on copyright be found on open access journals websites?” Specifically, Couture was looking to see if a prospective author can infer from the website who will keep copyright, what rights the author will retain and what permissions will be given to end-users. 300 journals (representing 251 publishers) from the DOAJ list were randomly selected and scoured for any form of copyright that could include statements, Creative Commons (“CC”) licenses, transfer/license forms etc. Key results indicate that copyright information was not easy to find – 9% of journals did not have copyright information and 63% of journals had copyright information buried on an “other page” (ie. not a home page or specific copyright page). Additionally, copyright policy was not consistent across journals; something that prospective authors need to be acutely aware of.

Couture points to the relevant issue of semantics in relation to copyright statements. He identifies key words found in copyright statements ranging from ambiguous terms, such as “make available” and “copy” to more precise terms, such as “photocopy” and “display publicly”. “Use” is the umbrella term that envelops all terms and copyright statements that rely on “use” to direct the reader are clearly poorly defined. An example from a copyright statement is given:

“the full text of articles can only be used for personal or educational purposes?”

The uncertainty that lies within the statement is demonstrated in attempting to answer two questions

–    Can a teacher post the article on his website?
–    Can an engineer working in a company distribute printed copies of the article to her team member?

In addition to the ambiguity of specific words, Couture points out that too many words is no better than too few words.  Another factor that requires clarification is whether or not everything that is not explicitly forbidden is permitted. Couture poses this question as an example to publishers that if their exact intentions are not stated, prospective authors and end users might derive incorrect assumptions about copyright.


As a result of his research, Couture wanted to create a proposal that would define the outline of a software tool which could help a journal by generating, through a series of inputs, a clear and unambiguous statement indicating copyright policy that could be add to a website.  The key, he says, is generating simple text that is aimed at authors and end users. This is a work in progress and Couture would like to see the publisher approach the grid from the viewpoint of “what do I want as a publisher?” rather than “what do I want to forbid the author from doing?”.

The exact content of copyright policies are investigated and Couture notes that about half of the journals require a transfer of ownership from the author to the publisher. This leads to Couture’s secondary motive – establishing the divide that exists between the desires of authors with regards to copyright and the reality of publishing. Couture would like to see what he refers to as “fair practices” whereby there is no transfer of copyright, no more rights than required are granted to the publisher and broad end user permissions are in place (in the form of CC licenses).

Couture’s presentation makes it clear that the copyright policies of open access journals lack a common sense of purpose or consistency and that publishers should make copyright clarification a priority.

Related Links

Article – “The facts about Open Access”

Directory of open access journals

Related Reading

Hoorn, E., & van der Graaf, M. (2005). Towards good practices of copyright in Open Access Journals. A study among authors of articles in Open Access journals. Pleiade Management & Consultancy.