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Copyright at American University

This guide is to provide a basic understanding of copyright laws including important exemptions that apply to the American University community.

Scholarly Communication

Definition: The Association of Research Libraries describes Scholarly Communication as  “the system through which research and other scholarly writings are created, evaluated for quality, disseminated to the scholarly community, and preserved for future use. The system includes both formal means of communication, such as publication in peer-reviewed journals, and informal channels, such as electronic listservs.”

The most common form of scholarly communication is the research article published in a scholarly journal. Scholarly journals have been the predominant form for generations owing to their use of a peer-review system to vet the quality of article submissions. However there are many other sources of information researchers depend on to further their research. These include conference presentations and proceedings, white papers, scholarly monographs, and informal relationships with peers. The open access (OA) movement grew out of the desire by scientists to use the internet to remove barriers to sharing their research. This movement led to the creation of online institutional repositories (IRs) for faculty research. At many universities and research institutions, particularly in the STEM disciplines, IRs have been embraced for archiving research articles, pre-prints, post-prints, white papers, data sets, in-progress research, and other scholarly output.

As you might imagine, the OA movement has begun to disrupt the highly-profitable academic publishing business and many publishers have lobbied hard to stanch the movement.

And on this side of the ring is ...

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), under the aegis of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), is an alliance of academic and research libraries dedicated to fostering a culture of open access in scholarly communication. Their efforts include advocacy, education, and incubating publishing models that leverage open access for the benefit of research and scholarship. The SPARC website  is rich with information on open access, open education, and open data. It also includes links to national advocacy efforts and other initiatives related to open access. A few particularly useful webpages are included in the left column of "useful links".

Words of Warning

Title 17, chapter 2 of the U.S. Copyright law covers ownership and transfer of copyright. It's important that authors understand their ownership status of their copyrights when they submit work for publication.

A Copyright Transfer Agreement (CTA) is an agreement that conveys full or partial copyright from an author to a publisher of subscription-based content. There isn't a standard form that publishers follow however so an author should review each publisher's policies carefully, with attention to the amount and terms of his/her rights that are to be conveyed  BEFORE signing a publisher's agreement. In many cases a CTA may be prevent an author from re-using text, tables, or data from his/her own work without permission from the publisher.

A serious point of contention regards the widespread movement among universities to create online institutional repositories where faculty are encouraged (sometimes mandated) to deposit their published research, especially if it was funded by federal grants or other funding sources that have their own open-access requirements. Most publishers have reacted to this evolution in the scholarly communication environment in some way. Some provide an opportunity for authors to pay extra for open access in what's referred to as the article processing charge (APC) model; some have liberalized their rules about self-archiving; some have begun publishing open access journals; and some have chosen to fight the movement. Many publishers continue to prohibit self-archiving altogether except for pre-prints - which haven't been peer-reviewd or edited. Some even go so far as to allow self-archiving but only if the author's institution doesn't have an OA mandate for authors to make their published work open-access.

Sherpa/Romeo is a searchable database of publisher copyright and self-archiving policies.  Publisher policies are color-coded by the degree of self-archiving they permit. The four options are: Green - the author can archive pre-print and post-print or publisher's version/PDF; Blue - author can archive post-print (ie final draft post-refereeing) or publisher's version/PDF ; Yellow - author can archive pre-print (ie pre-refereeing); and White - archiving is not formally supported. Note: though the database includes 22,000 peer-reviewed journals, it doesn't cover non-peer-reviewed publications or books, monographs, theses, or conference papers. If a publisher is not listed in the database, the author should do a web search for the publisher to inquire about their self-archiving policies.

OA Gold is a fifth code in the OA schema and that is for open access publishers such as the journals published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS). The latest variation is what's referred to as OA Diamond, a status reserved for those who publish OA journals and don't charge the authors anything.






Open Access (OA)

Definition:  SPARC defines open access as "the free, immediate, online availability of research articles, coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment."

the free, immediate, online availability of research articles, coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. - See more at:
the free, immediate, online availability of research articles, coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. - See more at:
the free, immediate, online availability of research articles, coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. - See more at:
the free, immediate, online availability of research articles, coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. - See more at:

American University does not have a policy on open access for faculty publications and research though the library maintains an online Digital Research Archive (AUDRA) for that purpose. If faculty members are interested in making their research more broadly accessible the DR is a stable online repository that uses the Open Archive Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesing (OAI-PMH). This enables easy discovery on web search engines and harvesting by large indexes of open access content such as OAISTER.

 The OA movement globally has been driven by researchers and funders in the sciences, especially medicine. This is in large part related to the level of funding at stake - federal and private grants, the cost of research, and the cost of journals for starters. The same economics don't apply to the humanities and the social sciences. So while there is a movement among these scholars to make their work available, there isn't funding on the same scale available to support a similar transition to OA Gold publishing.

Worth a look

The Open Access Button ( was developed by students in the U.K. and is an interactive tool to report when one's research is hindered by being unable to access an article due to a paywall. In their words:  It's a "a safe, easy to use browser bookmarklet that you can use to show the global effects of research paywalls - and to help get access to the research you need. Every time you hit a paywall blocking your research, click the button. Fill out a short form, add your experience to the map along with thousands of others. Then use our tools to search for access to papers, and spread the word with social media. Every person who uses the Open Access Button brings us closer to changing the system."

Words of Warning

Authors need to be aware of two unfortunate trends that relate to open access publishing. Both concern forms of predatory publishing.

The first is the presence of Open-Access publishers whose ethics have come under question because of phony peer-review, deceptive marketing, and misleading communication with prospective contributors . These publishers charge high fees to authors to publish in journals that are little known or regarded in their fields though may have titles similar to legitimate journals. Charging a fee to publish is a common practice in open access publishing so that alone is not enough to cast suspicion on an open-access publisher. Authors should research the reputation and integrity of any journal they are considering for publication before submitting anything. Fortunately this problem caught the attention of Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, who has made a determined effort to raise awareness of predatory publishers. He maintains a list of potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access journals as well as a list of criteria for determining predatory open-access publishers. Note: Beall isn't without his critics. Read Walt Crawford on Beall's biases, Ethics and Access 1; The sad case of Jeffrey Beall

The second issue is the marketing of open-access content by for-profit publishers without an authors consent. There are a few predatory publishers around the world who harvest files and metadata from open-access databases (especially theses and dissertations) and advertise them for sale on sites such as This doesn't pre-empt the availability of the open-access files though it does undermine an author's intention if his/her goal was free access for all.