Rights and Permissions versus the Scientific Paper


Before you submit your paper to a journal, you should be aware of two items regarding copyright. First, if your paper includes illustrations or other materi­als that have been published elsewhere, you will need permission to republish them unless you hold the copyright. Second, you may need to transfer the copy­right for your paper to the journal (or, for some journals, transfer limited rights while retaining copyright).

Copyright is the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, and sell the matter and form of a literary or artistic work. (Here “literary and artistic” is broadly defined and so includes scientific papers.) Copyright protects original forms of expression but not the ideas being expressed. The data you are presenting are not protected by copyright; however, the collection of the data and the way you have presented them are protected. You own the copyright of a paper you wrote for the length of your life plus 50 years, as long as it was not done for an employer or commissioned as work for hire. If you have collaborated on the work, each person is a co-owner of the copyright, with equal rights.

Copyright is divisible. The owner of the copyright may grant one person a nonexclusive right to reproduce the work and another the right to prepare deri­vative works based on the copyrighted work. Copyright can also be transferred. Transfers of the copyright must be made in writing by the owner. An employer may transfer copyright to the individual who developed the original work. If you wish to copy, reprint, or republish all or portions of a copyrighted work that you do not own, you must get permission from the copyright owner. If you, as an author, have transferred the complete copyright of your work to a publisher, you must obtain permission for use of your own material from the publisher.

Fair use of copyrighted material, according to the 1976 Copyright Act, allows you to copy and distribute small sections of a copyrighted work. It does not allow you to copy complete articles and republish them without permission, whether for profit or otherwise.


The legal reasons for seeking permission when republishing someone else’s work relate to copyright law. If a journal is copyrighted, and most of them are, legal ownership of the published papers becomes vested in the copyright holder. Thus, if you wish to republish copyrighted material, you must obtain approval of the copyright holder or risk suit for infringement.

Publishers acquire copyright so that they will have the legal basis, acting in their own interests and on behalf of all authors whose work is contained in the journals, for preventing unauthorized use of such published work. Thus, the publishing company and its authors are protected against plagiarism, misap­propriation of published data, unauthorized reprinting for advertising and other purposes, and other potential misuse.

In the United States, under the 1909 Assignment of Copyright Act, submis­sion of a manuscript to a journal was presumed to carry with it assignment of the author’s ownership to the journal (publisher). Upon publication of the jour­nal, with the appropriate copyright imprint in place and followed by the filing of copies and necessary fees with the Register of Copyrights, ownership of all articles contained in the issue effectively passed from the authors to the pub­lisher.

The Copyright Act of1976 requires that henceforth this assignment may no longer be assumed; it must be in writing. In the absence of a written transfer of copyright, the publisher is presumed to have acquired only the privilege of publishing the article in the journal itself; the publisher would then lack the right to produce reprints, copies, and electronic forms or to license others to do so (or to legally prevent others from doing so). Also, the Copyright Act stated that copyright protection begins “when the pen leaves the paper” (equivalent today to “when the fingers leave the keyboard”), thus recognizing the intellectual property rights of authors as being distinct from the process of publication.

Therefore, most publishers now require that each author contributing to a journal assign copyright to the publisher, either when the manuscript is submitted or when it is accepted for publication. To effect this assignment, the publisher provides each submitting author with a document usually titled “Copy­right Transfer Form.” Such forms are commonly available on the websites of journals.

Another feature of the 1976 Copyright Act that may interest scientists, both as authors and as users of the research literature, deals with copying. On the one hand, authors wish to see their papers receive wide distribution. On the other hand, they may not want this to take place at the expense of the journal. Thus, the law reflects these conflicting interests by defining certain kinds of library and educational copying as “fair use” (that is, copying that may be done without permission and without payment of royalties), while at the same time protecting the publisher against unauthorized systematic copying.

To make it easy to authorize systematic copiers to use journal articles and to remit royalties to publishers, a Copyright Clearance Center (www.copyright .com) has been established. Most scientific publishers of substantial size have joined the center. This central clearinghouse makes it possible for a user to make as many copies as desired, without needing to obtain prior permission, if the user is willing to pay the publisher’s stated royalty to the center. Thus, the user need deal with only one source, rather than facing the necessity of getting permission from and then paying royalties to hundreds of different publishers.

Because both scientific ethics and copyright law are of fundamental impor­tance, every scientist must be acutely sensitive to them. Basically, this means that you must not republish tables, figures, and substantial portions of text unless you have acquired permission from the owner of the copyright. Even then, it is important that you label such reprinted materials, usually with a credit line reading “Reprinted with permission from (journal or book reference); copyright (year) by (owner of copyright).” Often, information on how to seek permission is posted on the website of the journal or other publication in which the material appeared. If the website does not provide the information, contact the editorial office of the publication.


Traditionally, journals and books have been well defined as legal entities. How­ever, once the same information enters a digital environment, it becomes a compound document that includes not only text but also programming code and database access information that has usually been created by someone (often several people) other than the author of the paper. All copyright law, and all rules and regulations pertaining to copyright, hold true for electronic pub­lication, including material posted on the Internet. Unless the author or owner of the copyright of work posted on the Internet has placed on that work a specific note stating that the item is in the public domain, it is under copyright and you may not reproduce it without permission. Although you need not post a copyright notice for protection of your Internet materials, doing so acts as a warning to people who might use your material without permission. To post such a notice, you need only place the word “Copyright,” the date of the publi­cation, and the name of the author or copyright owner near the title of the work, for example, “Copyright 2015 by Magon Thompson (or Sundown Press).”

The electronic era has brought with it an interest in alternatives to transfer of copyright—in particular, the use of licenses, such as those developed by Creative Commons (creativecommons.org), allowing limited rights to works. Some open access journals use this approach, in which the authors retain copy­right but allow reproduction of their work under specified conditions, such as attributing the work to the authors. If you publish in a journal using such licenses, you will be asked to complete such an agreement rather than a copy­right transfer form. Information about various journal publishers’ copyright agreements can be accessed at the website SHERPA/RoMEO (www.sherpa.ac .uk/romeo/).

As electronic publishing evolves further, additional developments relating to copyright and permissions may well occur. Whether seeking to include material published elsewhere or seeking to publish your own work, look for the latest word from the publishers involved.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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