Copyright for Chemists: How to Free Your Supporting Information

March 01, 2013

StadiumThe previous article in this series addressed the question of who owns your papers after publication in chemistry journals like those operated by the American Chemical Society. The answer is very clear: in most cases the publisher owns your paper and you are restricted in what you can do with this important public record of your research.

But here's another simple question: who owns the supporting information for your paper?

In many cases you, the author, either jointly own supporting information or have unlimited rights to it. This article explains how to make the most of those rights.

Why Supporting Information Matters

Supporting information is a strange, magical beast in chemistry. During manuscript preparation, the compilation of supporting information is often regarded as a necessary, unpleasant chore. Yet after publication, the content of a well-written supporting information package can become far more valuable than the published paper itself.

Chemists value the ability to repeat, modify, and adapt an experimental protocol almost as highly - if not more so - than the ability to read the author's summary and interpretation on the subject.

For proof, look no further than BlogSyn, for which the reproducibility of synthetic organic procedures plays a central role.

ACS Publications and Supporting Information

The transfer of rights to your publication begins and ends with a copyright transfer form. The ACS copyright transfer form (Journal Publishing Agreement) has this to say on the subject of supporting information:

2. Supporting Information: The copyright ownership transferred to ACS in any copyrightable* Supporting Information accompanying the Submitted Work is nonexclusive. The Author and the ACS agree that each has unlimited use of Supporting Information. Authors may use or authorize the use of material created by the Author in the Supporting Information associated with the Submitted or Published Work for any purpose and in any format.

*Title 17 of the United States Code defines copyrightable material as “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” (Chapter 1, Section 102). To learn more about copyrightable material see “Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright” on the Publications Division website, at http://pubs.acs.org/page/copyright/learning_module/module.html.

Transfer of copyright ownership is "nonexclusive" for supporting information in ACS Journals. Not only that, ACS explicity states that authors may use their supporting information for "any purpose".

In sharp contrast to your paper, the ACS is explicitly telling you that the rights to supporting information are jointly shared between you and the ACS.

I am not a lawyer, but the English seems clear: authors of ACS Publications can do anything with their supporting information after publication - even re-publish it elsewhere. Authors jointly own copyright to their supporting information thanks to the "nonexclusive" transfer being made in the JPA.

Republication of Supporting Information

Unlike your paper itself, supporting information for ACS publications can be posted to any website, included in any book, reworked into any product for sale, translated into any language, included in any database, and given to anyone else to use. Not only that, but you can give these rights to others.

Re-publication of your supporting information ensures that regardless of what happens in the near or distant future to the publisher of your paper, the hard-won record of your experimental procedures will continue to be available to all.

If this sounds like a good idea, your next question may be - republish where? There are many options, but one of the best is a free service called Figshare.

Figshare

Figshare is a service dedicated to the publication scientific information and is backed by Digital Science.

I recently used Figshare to publish a copy of a presentation I made on balancing chemical equations. Notice that the link I used is a DOI - the same linking system used for all other scholarly communications.

In fact, the entire Figshare system is designed to replicate and extend services currently offered by many journal publishers, including:

  • Integrated search
  • Search engine discoverability
  • Unambiguous author identification through ORCID
  • Aggregation of articles by author
  • Tagging
  • Comments
  • Usage statistics

Furthermore, by republishing your supporting information to Figshare, you're explicitly granting the scientific community broad re-use rights - something ACS fails to do.

Although copyright transfer agreements prevent re-publication of articles published in many chemistry journals, some publishers do allow authors to republish supporting information. Doing so through a service like Figshare is an excellent way to promote your hard work and better enable the research of others.