Copyright for Chemists

Here's a simple question: who "owns" your papers after they're published in a journal? The answer depends on the journal. But if you're like most chemists, the publisher owns your article. Period. You are legally allowed to redistribute your article only under terms given by the publisher. Any other use is punishable by law.

Why should this matter? After all, as long as colleagues and hiring/promotion committees can access your articles, that's all that really matters - right?

Re-Thinking the Permanence of Journals

Although it may seem impossible, your favorite journal's days may be numbered. Over the last several years, a number of factors have been lining up against the traditional subscriber-pays journal publication system and the publishers who make their money from it:

  • Library budgets frozen or shrinking. Academic libraries have been under mounting financial pressure. This matters to publishing chemists because the vast majority of those reading journal papers do so through an institutional subscription.
  • Journal prices rising. A recent case involving SUNY Potsdam and the American Chemical Society brought the consequences of escalating journal costs into sharp focus. A few years ago, the entire University of California system threatened to boycott Nature Publishing group over unreasonable price increases.
  • Government stepping in. The White House recently announced an extension of its policy requiring authors of federally-funded research to make copies of their papers freely available. The American Chemical Society and others have previously argued against such policies, citing fears over loss of control. The prospect of researchers everywhere bypassing paywalls via government repositories no doubt contributes to the anxiety of organizations like ACS that generate large sums from journal subscriptions.

Note that a journal can remain operational yet still "go dark" to large groups of chemists due to conflicts with libraries. Alternatively, reduced revenues as a result of canceled subscriptions and/or government policy changes can force a journal to go out of business altogether. Either way, the effect is the same: hard-won records of scientific progress cease to be available.

What would you do if one or more journals containing your papers went dark?

Copyright Transfer Agreements

The United States and many other countries grant authors of works such as scientific manuscripts many rights over how and when their works are copied and used by others. These rights are granted the instant the work is created - there's no need to register it with a government office.

As a not unusual example, ACS Publications maintains a strict policy of requiring transfer of most of these rights from an author to ACS as a condition of publication. This transfer is secured through the Journal Publishing Agreement (JPA).

The purpose of the JPA is to transfer copyright from author to the journal. Upon acceptance, the manuscript, the published, article, and all content becomes the property of ACS. To be fair, ACS does grant some rights in exchange. However, many uses of the article by the author are prevented. For example:

  • Posting the final article to a personal website or repository for any reason other than to comply with an academic funding requirement
  • Posting manuscripts or substantial extracts of final articles to a site using subscriptions or displaying advertising
  • Publishing a book reusing lengthy quotes or figures
  • Re-submitting a published article for publication in another publication or collection
  • Re-using figures for a review article
  • Forwarding figures, tables or lengthy text to news organizations.

It should be clear that the options for an author wanting to promote lasting access their work are limited when copyright is given to the publisher.


Fortunately, chemists who are uncomfortable with the limitations of copyright transfer agreements have several options today. One of the best is to publish in journals that don't require copyright transfer agreements. These journals obtain the rights to publish by non-exclusively licensing papers from authors.

The Directory of Open Access Journals maintains a list of dozens of chemistry journals that are likely to not require copyright transfer agreements. Authors remain free to further license and distribute their work in any way they see fit. Specific examples include:

Copyright transfer is at best a questionable requirement imposed by many journals as a condition for publication. For authors concerned with the long-term availability of their written work, publishing in journals that don't require copyright transfer may be a better option.