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Princeton goes open access to stop staff handing all copyright to journals - unless waiver granted

Prestigious US academic institution Princeton University will prevent researchers from giving the copyright of scholarly…

Princeton University hopes its new Open Access policy will pressure academic publishers to stop requiring the copyright to the papers they publish. Flickr/Yakinodi

Prestigious US academic institution Princeton University will prevent researchers from giving the copyright of scholarly articles to journal publishers, except in certain cases where a waiver may be granted.

The new rule is part of an Open Access policy aimed at broadening the reach of their scholarly work and encouraging publishers to adjust standard contracts that commonly require exclusive copyright as a condition of publication.

Universities pay millions of dollars a year for academic journal subscriptions. People without subscriptions, which can cost up to $25,000 a year for some journals or hundreds of dollars for a single issue, are often prevented from reading taxpayer funded research. Individual articles are also commonly locked behind pay walls.

Researchers and peer reviewers are not paid for their work but academic publishers have said such a business model is required to maintain quality.

At a September 19 meeting, Princeton’s Faculty Advisory Committee on Policy adopted a new open access policy that gives the university the “nonexclusive right to make available copies of scholarly articles written by its faculty, unless a professor specifically requests a waiver for particular articles.”

“The University authorizes professors to post copies of their articles on their own web sites or on University web sites, or in other not-for-a-fee venues,” the policy said.

“The main effect of this new policy is to prevent them from giving away all their rights when they publish in a journal.”

Under the policy, academic staff will grant to The Trustees of Princeton University “a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide license to exercise any and all copyrights in his or her scholarly articles published in any medium, whether now known or later invented, provided the articles are not sold by the University for a profit, and to authorise others to do the same.”

In cases where the journal refuses to publish their article without the academic handing all copyright to the publisher, the academic can seek a waiver from the open access policy from the University.

The policy authors acknowledged that this may make the rule toothless in practice but said open access policies can be used “to lean on the journals to adjust their standard contracts so that waivers are not required, or with a limited waiver that simply delays open access for a few months.”

Academics will also be encouraged to place their work in open access data stores such as Arxiv or campus-run data repositories.

Princeton University spokesman, Martin A. Mbugua, said the policy was not an outright ban on staff handing copyright to journal publishers.

“It is a new open access policy that gives our faculty an advantage, and the option of seeking a waiver,” he said.

A step forward

Having prestigious universities such as Princeton and Harvard fly the open access flag represented a step forward, said open access advocate Professor Simon Marginson from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

“The achievement of free knowledge flows, and installation of open access publishing on the web as the primary form of publishing rather than oligopolistic journal publishing subject to price barriers, now depends on whether this movement spreads further among the peak research and scholarly institutions,” he said.

“Essentially, this approach – if it becomes general - normalises an open access regime and offers authors the option of opting out of that regime. This is a large improvement on the present position whereby copyright restrictions and price barriers are normal and authors have to attempt to opt in to open access publishing, or risk prosecution by posting their work in breach of copyright.”

“The only interests that lose out under the Princeton proposal are the big journal publishers. Everyone else gains.”

Professor Tom Cochrane, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Technology, Information and Learning Support at the Queensland University of Technology, who has also led an Open Access policy mandate at QUT welcomed Princeton’s new rule but warned that the waiver must not be used too regularly, lest the policy be undermined.

If all universities and research institutions globally had policies similar to Princeton’s, the ultimate owner of published academic work would be universities and their research communities collectively, Professor Cochrane said.

“They are the source of all the content that publishers absolutely require to run their business model,” he said.

Dr Danny Kingsley, an open access expert and Manager of Scholarly Communication and ePublishing at Australian National University said the move was a positive step and that the push for open access should come from the academic community.

In practice, however, the new policy requires staff have a good understanding of the copyright arrangements they currently have with journal publishers in their field.

They will need to ensure future publisher’s agreements accommodate the new position and if not, obtain a waiver from the University.

“This sounds easy but in reality might be a challenge for some academics. There is considerable evidence to show that academics often have very little understanding of the copyright situation of their published work,” she said.

“What will be most telling will be the publishers' response over the next year or so. If they start providing amended agreements to Princeton academics then the door will be open for other universities to follow this lead. I suspect however they will not, as generally the trend seems for publishers to make the open access path a complex and difficult one.”

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13 Comments sorted by

  1. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    My brain hurts. I'm already inundated with the university's copyright sentries barking at me every time I want to show something to a group of students or, God forbid, put a link to something on a unit page.

    So will this make things better or worse?

    I do struggle to see what value some of the publishing houses contribute in an era when everything is accessed is soft copy. Apart from laying out the article (no doubt done for a pittance in the digital sweatshops of Manilla or Kuala Lumpur), why else should they be allowed to make millions out of others' work? But then, professional wrestlers make squillions out of their own particular charade.

    1. Sunanda Creagh

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Hi Mat,
      Not sure if this answers your question but here's what Princeton says in the FAQ that accompanies the new policy:

      "Q. Does this take away rights from the faculty, or give the faculty more rights?
      A. In a narrow sense, it takes away one right: the right to give away all the rights to your article when you sign a copyright assignment. The policy forces the University (and you in turn) to retain some rights, so that even as the journal publishes your article, you can post a copy on your own web site (or the University’s). So, in a broader sense, it helps you keep your rights. See also, Ulysses and the sirens: it ties you to the mast, but you still get to hear the song."

  2. John Kirriemuir

    logged in via Twitter

    The sooner this happens across all academia, the better. As well as the cost implications and barriers, there's a moral and ethical issue of knowledge not being made available to anyone but those institutions and individuals who can afford the (often considerable) cost.

    There's a number of open access and repository initiatives and developments in the UK. And services such as OpenDOAR which allow you to search across many repositories:

    Also a UK government petition, "Knowledge generated by government funding should be freely available", here:

  3. TALWK

    logged in via Twitter

    I welcome this and agree the sooner this happens across all academia, the better.
    I’m please that there is a quality control mechanism as vanity publishing is the curse of the internet in the digital age as quality and origination must be assured.
    Cost implications and barriers like getting found, moral and ethical issue of knowledge not being made available to anyone is limiting access to education.
    Maybe this is why the Khan Academy, with over 24,000 lessons and over 77 million hits must be a clear sign that a creative commons share-a-like license is an inspiration to the whole educational sector.

  4. Cristina Costa

    logged in via Twitter

    Will they also push for the use of open access journals instead of closed ones? This is where where the main issue lies. We are still mainly focusing on making pre-prints available, fighting to preserve rights publishers will not give us, and looking for fees and waivers to 'bail' the work we do for free..! Why not travel the golden route and advocate the publishing of research in open access journals instead? This is exactly what open access policies should be advocating! just my 2 cents anyway

    1. Adam Lipkin

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Cristina Costa

      Agreed! I'm assuming (hoping?) that Princeton is pushing for open access publications actively, and also treating OA publications with the same respect in the tenure and review process they would any other publication.

    2. Cristina Costa

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Adam Lipkin

      indeed - another very important point which I am currently looking at as part of my research. It is necessary that the policy is strengthen by the institutional appraisal mechanisms. The same should be taken into account when 'measuring' research outputs, aka, national research assessment exercises - something which I believe to be still more on the side of traditional publishers than on the open access movement!!

  5. Pat Heslop-Harrison

    logged in via Twitter

    Many of the most reputable Journals, particularly those owned by not-for-profit/charitable organizations, have never required copyright transfer - authors (or their employers) retain copyright, giving the Journal a licence to publish their work. Such an agreement or licence will also often include other important features: that the work is the author's own, that all appropriate authors are included, that all authors agree to publication, and that it is original and not plagiarized (including from the authors' own work).

    This licence is not, of course, 'open access' which means that the authors who want people to read their paper pay the costs of publication, rather than the subscribers who decide they want to read the paper. The costs of editing, review, copy editing, layout/typesetting, web publication, where applicable printing, and distribution are essentially the same for either model.

  6. Prentiss Riddle

    Senior Business Analyst

    I agree with the commenters who welcome this policy.

    However, has Princeton adopted it as an official policy or is it merely a recommendation to the "Faculty Advisory Committee on Policy"?

    After trying both the links in the article and some cursory Google searches, I can't find any indication that it's really Princeton policy. Thanks for any leads you can offer.

  7. Karl Smith

    lecturer in social sciences at Victoria University

    what a fabulous initiative. Perhaps the next step is for the universities to return the journals from the major publishing houses to the university presses. The costs of editing, typesetting etc can be covered by the saving from outrageous subscription fees. The journals can then be published open-access, and the public knowledge generated with public funding can be returned to the public.
    Quality standards of peer-reviewing can be maintained without the lapse into vanity publishing.
    Mat's problem virtually goes away, for the articles can be reproduced in unit readers with no need for the copyright police. The universities then reap further cost-efficiencies by no longer needing to expend valuable resources policing copyright.
    A win for researchers, a win for university libraries, a win for the public good.

  8. Stevan Harnad

    logged in via Twitter


    1. First, congratulations to Princeton University (my graduate alma mater!) for adopting an open access mandate: a copyright-reservation policy, adopted by unanimous faculty vote.

    2. Princeton is following in the footsteps of Harvard in adopting the copyright-reservation policy pioneered by Stuart Shieber and Peter Suber.

    Read more
  9. Wally Week

    Bicycle Engineer

    To me this problem with journals is quite similar to what happens with universities regarding research positions.

    I work at an Australian university in a research position thanks to an ARC grant. As any other grant, this one has to include an overhead (I think about 30%) that goes to cover administrative and real estate expenses for the university. The moment my grant runs out or it is cancelled, I lose my job.

    So the university does not risk or spend anything. They pretty much act as a broker. All they provide is their branding.

    It seems to me that this model has many similarities with those journals that so many people are against..

  10. Sanford Thatcher

    logged in via LinkedIn

    This story is misleading in at least two ways. First, at the start it suggests that modification of the standard contract will require changing the contract from an exclusive transfer of rights to nonexclusive. No publisher (that is not already following an open-access model and using a Creative Commons license) will ever accept just a nonexclusive arrangement because to sue for infringement requires that the rightsholder be the owner of exclusive rights and no publisher ever risk being ina position…

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