Team finds way round copyright

February 25, 2000

Two leading academics have come up with what they believe is a legal way of freeing academics from "restrictive" copyright agreements with publishers. They say it would allow researchers to archive peer-reviewed research on the web, with the potential of reaching a much wider audience.

Stevan Harnad, an electronic communications researcher at Southampton University, and Charles Oppenheim, an expert on legal aspects of electronic publishing at Loughborough University, say publishers will find their idea "extremely difficult" to suppress.

The aim is to free academic literature from publishers' interests in subscriptions and site licences. These interests have become confused with academics' primary goal of disseminating their research as widely as possible.

First the author posts a pre-print of his or her paper on the web. Then they submit the paper to a refereed journal. The author makes amendments in light of referees' and editors' comments, then signs the publisher's copyright agreement.

"Such agreements often ask for assurance that the article has not appeared anywhere before. The author can, with hand on heart, give that assurance," said Professor Oppenheim.

The author then posts a note onto the web pre-print, pointing out areas where corrections might need to be made, in effect turning the pre-print into a version of the draft refereed paper.

"If these steps are followed faithfully the author has done nothing wrong, has broken no law and has not signed a contract he or she should not have signed," said Professor Oppenheim.

Academics sign deals because they need to have their papers peer-reviewed for the sake of their research and careers, said Professor Harnad. In the electronic era, authors can focus solely on their ultimate objective - to have their papers refereed with the highest possible level of quality control. "Authors should transfer to their publishers all the rights to sell their papers, on paper or online," Professor Harnad said.

Publishers could informally blacklist academics who take up the idea, but they would get a lot of bad press, said Professor Oppenheim. Publishers could change copyright agreements so they cover papers that are "similar" to the draft refereed version, but could end up in court.

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