Walking in quicksand – keeping up with copyright agreements

As any repository manager will tell you, one of the biggest headaches for providing open access to research materials is complying with publisher agreements.


Most publishers will allow some form of an article published in their journals to be made open access. There is a very useful site that helps people work out what the conditions are for a given journal or publisher, called Sherpa RoMEO*.

In many institutions the responsibility for copyright checking is taken by the repository manager (rather than requiring the author to do it), and usually the workflow includes some or all of:

  • Checking Sherpa RoMEO for local journals
  • Consulting (and adding to) an internal database
  • Looking at the journal/conference/publisher webpages
  • Locating and consulting at the Copyright Transfer Agreement the author signed
  • Contacting the publisher directly for permission if the OA position is not able to be determined using any of these resources.

One problem repository managers face is that publishers sometimes change their position on open access. Often there is no public announcement from the publisher; especially when the change imposes more restrictions on ‘green’ open access. This is where the blogosphere and discussion lists (such as the CAIRSS List in Australia) are invaluable in keeping practitioners on top of new issues in the area.

Some recent cases where publishers set more restrictions on ‘green’ open access include Springer and IEEE.

[*SHERPA stands for Securing a Hybrid Environment for Research Preservation and Access, and RoMEO stands for Rights Metadata for Open archiving.]


The Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is the biggest organisation for these fields. They run many high status conferences and publish the proceedings. Because in this field traditionally authors have been expected to provide camera-ready copy for conference proceedings, it has long been accepted practice for authors to make copies of their work available on their own webpages or in repositories. And until December 2010 IEEE sanctioned that (as long as the repository attached a specific notice).

Then on 1 January 2011 IEEE changed the rules and said people could no longer put up the Published Version. They were still allowed to put up the Submitted Version (preprint) or the Accepted Version (postprint). The policy is on the IEEE website here. While this still allows IEEE works to be made available in compliance with the recent Australian mandates, a recent blog  argues that the re-use restrictions on the Accepted Version of IEEE publications imposed by IEEE means that the works are not open access in compliance with many overseas mandate requirements.


Springer also recently changed their rules. They were previously a fully ‘green’ publisher which meant authors were allowed to make their Accepted Versions available immediately on publication. But this has recently changed.

According to their Self-Archiving Policy: “Authors may self-archive the author’s accepted manuscript of their articles on their own websites. Authors may also deposit this version of the article in any repository, provided it is only made publicly available 12 months after official publication or later. …”

So now there is a 12 month embargo on making the Accepted Version available. It would seem that Springer have altered their position in response to the introduction of the RCUK mandate.

Indeed many other publishers have made announcements in response to that mandate. These range in form across videos from BioMed Central to announcements such as from Oxford University Press to a blog post from SAGE.

There is some argument in discussion lists that the new Springer position is contradictory – that institutional webpages are effectively the author’s website, given the way many repositories are embedded with the staff pages for institutions. This simply indicates the complexity of these agreements and how challenging the interpretation of them can be even for people whose work centres in this area.

And this opens up a new, emerging issue.

Separate publisher agreements

So far this blog has been talking about publisher agreements with authors. But some publisher’s agreements state that if authors are publishing research that results from a funder that has an open access mandate, there are different rules. Two very prominent ones have been Elsevier and Wiley. Generally these different rules require a ‘separate agreement’ between the funder and the publisher. There is more information about separate agreements here.

Follow these links to see the arrangements Wiley and Elsevier have made to manage the RCUK mandate.


Emerald is another publisher which has recently changed its position on open access, in this case only for deposits which are mandated. For these publications Emerald have recently adopted a 24 month embargo. The text on their site says: “if a mandate is in place but funding is not available to pay an APC [article processing charge], you may deposit the post-print of your article into a subject or institutional repository and your funder’s research catalogue 24 months after official publication”.

Emerald say they are prepared to “work in partnership” to “establish Open Access agreements that support mutual interests”. One such agreement is with the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) which permits the deposit of an Accepted Version (post print) with only a nine month embargo.

So if an author publishes through Emerald they are subject to one of three possible copyright agreements depending on whether they are researching using funds that have a mandate associated with the funds and whether they are publishing in an IFLA journal.

Library agreements?

To add to the confusion, it appears there is a third form of agreement relating to copyright permissions beyond the copyright transfer agreement the author has signed and any separate agreement that may be in place as a result of a mandate.

It seems that publishers are now approaching libraries directly over the issue of access to publications. That is, they are seeking to sign an agreement directly with the library.

According to discussions online, it seems that there are two types of clauses attached to institutional license agreements – either a new clause in existing contracts at renewal time, or a separate agreement that serves as an addendum to the contract in between renewals. It is unclear whether these agreements would override the copyright transfer agreement the author signed. Having two agreements adds to the confusion and begs the question: which one is binding?

I am not privvy to what is potentially being agreed to in these new clauses. It is almost a moot point. The issue is that if institutions sign these agreements then the waters are further muddied.

Repository managers then potentially have three processes they have to check:

  1. The author’s copyright transfer agreement – using the workflows mentioned above
  2. They need to know if a particular work is the result of a mandate, and if so determine if it is published with a publisher that requires a separate agreement, and establish whether an agreement is in place
  3. They might also need to be on top of the license agreements or extra clauses their library has with individual publishers.

It is complicated and time consuming.


These changing rules have a potentially profound effect on the rate of the uptake of repositories in some institutions. Repository structures and associated workflows vary dramatically. In some cases the institution maintains one repository for both open access materials and reporting publication databases, others have separate repositories for different purposes.

And there can be big variations in the way publications are recruited for the repository.

In the majority of cases there is an allocated repository manager who takes responsibility for checking copyright compliance of deposited items. But some institutions expect their researchers to do this and to indicate that they have done so when they deposit their papers to the repository. This adds a level of almost insurmountable complexity to what some have argued is a simple matter of a ‘few keystrokes’.

While researchers *should* be aware of the conditions of the copyright transfer agreement they have signed with their publisher, in reality many are not. Often they do not even have a copy of what they have signed. While this oversight can be managed through the use of Sherpa RoMEO (if the researcher is, indeed aware of the service), it is unrealistic to expect an individual researcher to also:

  • know whether their institutional library has signed an external agreement,
  • know whether their work is the result of funding that has a mandate associated with it, and
  • know whether their publisher has a special agreement in relation to that mandate.

These changing copyright arrangements mean that the process of making research openly accessible through a repository is becoming less and less able to be undertaken by individuals. By necessity, repository deposit is becoming solely the responsibility of the institution.

Dr Danny Kingsley
Executive Officer
Australian Open Access Support Group

So you want people to read your thesis?

 After three, four (… seven) years of hard slog, of course you do. There’s a ‘joke’ around that the 4034671172_7a25b8cb4c_monly people who will ever read your thesis (besides you) will be your supervisor, the examiners and your mum. And she will just *say* she read it.

It should not be this way. The reality is that PhD theses (or dissertations as they are called overseas) contain a huge untapped resource of original research that sits hidden unless it is shared.

It is usually a requirement of graduation that a copy of the thesis is held in the university library and is available for ‘borrowing’ on request. This can be by physically going to the library and requesting to see the printed version, or by requesting a copy through interlibrary loan. I can attest, by looking at the borrowing list on the inner binding of many theses held in the library of a prestigious Australian university, that most physical theses are only borrowed once, many never. Comparing the list of requested theses against the total number of theses produced by the university indicates that the majority of theses simply never get requested.

This is a tragedy. More than that it is a massive waste of time and money – yours, your university’s and the taxpayers’.

Sharing your findings

The way the information in a thesis is distributed changes depending on the discipline. In some areas, tending towards the sciences, recent PhD graduates will publish several papers that emerge from the research. That is, if they have enough time after securing (and working as) a post-doc. Indeed, in some disciplines the idea of a ‘thesis by publication’ has taken hold. In these instances, the research does find its way into the academic discourse.

While publication of papers from theses is laudable (and in some disciplines necessary for academic standing), bear in mind that a thesis is usually completed a year or two after the empirical work was originally done. Then the information needs to be rewritten as a paper, which takes time, then submitted to a journal, accepted or rejected, any corrections made before publication, and then there is often a considerable wait before the accepted work is published. By the time these papers appear in the scholarly literature often it is many years after the original research was done. And in some disciplines this means it has lost its potency.

Publishing work as a book

Putting this delay issue aside, if you are in a non-hard science or in the humanities then producing a series of pithy papers based on empirical research might not be an option. It might even be that the expectation is that your work will be later published as a monograph. The idea of this is very appealing. Your name on the cover of a book, royalties and book talks flowing in…. but unfortunately the reality is very different.

For a start, if you are lucky enough to get a contract, it will not be to publish your thesis as it is. It will need a substantial rewrite. The blog It’s a Dissertation not a Book  makes that case. This rewriting process will be on top of the new work you will be expected to do in your job.

And then, once it is published, the number of sales of the book is likely to be in the low hundreds. So the royalties will be very small, if there are any. In some instances the money flows the other way, there is an expected contribution by the author or their institution to the publication process. But possibly worse, the number of people who are then able to read your work is limited to the people who are working or studying at the 200-odd institutions holding your book in their libraries. Around the world.

So what can you do? Well you can make your thesis available open access. But first a word of warning.

Watch out for rogue publishers

If you have recently completed your thesis you may be contacted by a publishing company called VDM Publishing Group or its imprint, LAP Lambert Academic Press with an offer to publish your thesis. This is a German based publishing house, and in Germany there is a requirement that theses be published before a PhD is awarded. In order to service this need there are some publishing companies which ‘publish’ theses for students. But there is no editorial process, they simply print it. While that is fine in Germany the issue is that these companies have expanded their business model to approaching recent PhD graduates around the world.

The problem with publishing your work in this way is you then prevent yourself from ever publishing your work as a ‘real’ edited book. If you are aiming for an academic career this can cause complications in relation to your publication record. A good resource explaining the issues with this is put out by Swinburne University  and the Australian Catholic University also have some warnings.

Making theses more findable

Many Australian universities require that a digital version of their students’ theses be placed in a database within the library called an institutional repository. Indeed the Registry of Open Access Repositories Mandatory Archiving Policies (ROARmap) lists 17 Australian institutions with thesis mandates (out of 39 universities in total). While most institutions are simply requiring deposit in the repository, some mandates actually require the theses are made publicly available – more about that later.

Generally the requirement or not of providing electronic copies or making theses open access is an institutional decision. But in a possible indication of the increased momentum towards open access around the world, Japan has recently introduced a country-wide mandate. As of April this year all doctoral dissertations approved by Japanese universities are required to “be publicly available via Internet”.

Digital repositories have strong metadata which means their contents are easily found by search engines like Google and Google Scholar. All records about Australian theses held in university repositories are also harvested into the National Library of Australia’s search facility called Trove. This string takes you to a pre-populated search for all Australian open access theses available, and you can click back to the original repository to open the thesis.

And there is no doubt open access theses are being consulted in large numbers. The 500+ theses held in the ANU’s Digital Theses Collection are accessed over 10,000 times every month. Think about how much that would increase the chance of your thesis being cited in the published literature.

What is open access?

At its most basic, open access means making work available freely to anyone with an internet connection.

There is a comprehensive page on this site called FAQ about open access which addresses the topics:

  • What is open access?
  • Why open access?
  • Open access journals?
  • Open access and copyright
  • Author concerns about open access
  • Publishers and open access

Here is a simple graphic on the Benefits of open access and another on How to make your research open access.

Having your thesis available in a repository means you can engage your social media networks – you have somewhere to point people. If you are a stats junkie you can watch the downloads add up. Hopefully you will start to see citations to your work appear in the scholarly literature. These are all important ways of demonstrating the relevance of your research in job interviews and grant applications.

But, but….

Over the many years I have had this conversation with PhD students, two questions always come up:

Won’t this open my thesis up to plagiarism?
Response: No. Plagiarism is always a possibility in any environment when you make work available (either in an open access form or by publishing in a traditional journal). But there are academic norms which require acknowledgement of sources.

Having your thesis available in a repository and date-stamped clearly identifies the work as yours, and could actually make it easier to refute a plagiarism case. There have been instances where PhD graduates have specifically made their thesis open access to identify themselves as the author of the work. This has allowed them to demonstrate that others have used their work without attribution.

Won’t this prevent me from being able to publish my work later if I do get a book contract?
Response: No. Making your work available open access in a repository is disseminating your thesis, not publishing it in an academic sense. It does not preclude your work being published as a book. The process of rewriting a thesis for publication involves substantial alteration so usually there is no commercial disadvantage in having the original thesis available. Occasionally publishers will ask the open access thesis be removed from a repository when a book is published, and if the repository has a take-down policy this is unproblematic.

But don’t take my word for it. This Office Hours: Open Access video from Harvard University, answers the questions:

  • Should dissertations be made open access?
  • If my dissertation is publicly available won’t someone steal my ideas? and
  • Can I negotiate with publishers to make my articles open access?

So go and chat to your library about putting your thesis in the institutional repository. Today.

Dr Danny Kingsley
Executive Officer
Australian Open Access Support Group