I'm a grad student getting close to submitting my first journal article (which will be single-authored). My understanding is that it's standard practice for authors to transfer the copyright of their paper to the journal in which it is published. I want my article to be published in a journal, but I don't want to transfer the copyright -- I want the article to be in the public domain. How will editors to behave towards such a request? Also, when should I bring up the topic: when I submit the article, or after it's accepted and I'm asked to sign a copyright transfer?

Some grants apparently have a stipulation that articles written as part of the grant research must be released into the public domain (e.g. grants funded by the US government). In this case, authors presumably sign a consent to publish, instead of a copyright transfer. Hence, there's at least some precedent for what I want to do, though I want my article in the public domain purely because of my personal views on the ethics of copyright.

I couldn't find too much information about this topic by googling. Oleg Pikhurko has a page discussing his attempt to have his articles revert to the public domain after a period of years, as opposed to instantly. It didn't work out particularly well in his case.

I'm not sure how much I'm willing to have my ethical ideals damage my career (e.g. by having publications delayed and/or being banned from submitting to journals).

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    $\begingroup$ Yes -- I really do mean public domain (I thought about using the GFDL, but decided against it). The reasoning is that plagiarism is a breach of academic ethics and can be taken care of in an academic setting -- there's no reason to involve copyright law. Apart from plagiarism, I'm quite happy for anyone to do anything that they want with the papers I write. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 14, 2011 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ I would like to echo Matthew Daws advice below and encourage you to put aside (temporarily) your ethical ideals, which will do you little good if you don't succeed as a mathematician. Find out what journals are suitable for your paper but have the strongest reputations. This should be your priority until you have a established yourself as a mathematician. Then you can help campaign for your ethical ideals. $\endgroup$
    – Deane Yang
    May 14, 2011 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ I once "forgot" to return the copyright form to an Elsevier journal. They went ahead and published the article, assuming that, because I'd submitted it, I had implicitly given them permission to publish it. They put their own copyright notice on it, which was probably illegal. I believe I still own the copyright. $\endgroup$
    – mephisto
    May 14, 2011 at 23:49
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    $\begingroup$ I find the advice to put aside ethical ideals (potentially) insulting, like suggesting that a vegetarian eat meat because it's easier. $\endgroup$ May 15, 2011 at 2:26
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    $\begingroup$ Dylan- Or perhaps it's like asking a vegetarian to eat off plates that meat was once served on. The author didn't really give a strong indication of just how deeply held his objection to copyright transfer is, so I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest different approaches to putting his ideals into practice. $\endgroup$
    – Ben Webster
    May 15, 2011 at 8:48

5 Answers 5


Most journals in math allow you to publish a version of the paper which was previously posted to the arxiv.org. They ask you often to take the copyright for the published version which just slightly differs from the arxiv version. So there is not much difference between having it public or having a slightly different version public. Some journals, on the other hand are free anyway and forever in their public versions, e.g. Theory and application of categories. If you choose a journal carefully you solve most of your concern. Some publishers are notorious of being nasty, expensive, proprietory, nonresponsive to author needs etc. You do not want to publish in expensive envelopes of crap, like Elsevier's Chaos, solitons and fractals used to be.

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    $\begingroup$ I absolutely agree with the sentiments here. BUT... I think it should be said that for someone just starting out in their career, a lot of people will look at where you publish as a quick way to judge the quality of your work. The best journal for your work might not be free to access, and you need to think about this. $\endgroup$ May 14, 2011 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ But, definitely use the arxiv! I don't see any downside to putting a preprint on the arxiv; and it might lead to more people reading your work and hence more recognition. $\endgroup$ May 14, 2011 at 13:26

I would not advise you to give up your ethical ideals. Frankly, I find it offensive that any publishers expect me to assign to them the copyright in an article that I have written.

I think there are also some practical reasons to retain copyright, although they are not as pressing now that we can put our papers on the arXiv (which you should, in my opinion, always do). Kevin's addendum form mentions some of the important rights that some copyright transfer forms might take away from you: the right to create derivative works, use portions of the article in other work, and distribute the final version on the web.

The best solution is, obviously, to publish in journals that always allow the author to retain copyright. Such journals often also have other desirable features, e.g. they make their published articles freely available online, rather than charging huge sums of money to university libraries for subscriptions. Furthermore, publishing good work in these "friendly" journals helps to build up their acceptance in the community, so that future authors will feel less pressure from career considerations to publish in "unfriendly" journals.

Of course, right now it is still the case that some of the "best" journals (in terms of building up your publication record) are "unfriendly". How far you are willing to compromise between ethical ideals and career considerations is a personal decision. My personal choice so far has been to publish in any journal, but insist on retaining copyright. I've had more luck with this than Pikhurko did so far; out of two publications in "unfriendly" journals, in both cases the publisher was willing to allow me to retain copyright (although they have a bit of trouble actually putting the correct copyright notice on the article).

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    $\begingroup$ This is very useful information. If the "best" journals are willing to bend on this, then your approach sounds very good to me. $\endgroup$
    – Deane Yang
    May 16, 2011 at 4:38
  • $\begingroup$ And of course the traditionally considered 'top journals' have the strongest bargaining position (and probably the most to gain, however little) for keeping things the way they are. Let me know if anyone finds a solution to this! $\endgroup$ Apr 19, 2021 at 21:40

I'm surprised nobody has pointed this out, but you seem to be confused about the NIH Public Access Policy. It does not require that authors keep their copyright (journals would not have accepted such a policy, I'm sure), but that they make their article freely available on PubMed within 12 months of publication. There has been discussion of NSF having a similar policy (which would be great), but this would mean little change in the situation for mathematicians, as it would just be a requirement for people to put their work on the arXiv, which anyone with any sense does anyways.

I honestly would be very curious what would happen if you tried to negotiate with the journal on the copyright issue, but I'd doubt you'd get far. (EDIT: Of course, as was noted above, some journals don't require authors to transfer their copyright, in which case things are fine.) At the end of the day, this just absolutely the wrong point on which to pressure a journal (and in my opinion, not a very important criterion when choosing what journal to publish in). They don't need your article; no offense, but I doubt replacing your article with the next one they would rejected is going to cause publishers any worry. Like Matthew, I think approaching the problem from this angle as a graduate student could only be cutting off your nose to spite your face; the opportunities for damaging your career completely outweigh any societal gain. I'll admit that the idea handing the copyright for a paper to a journal rankles a bit, but it certainly has yet to make the least difference in my life, and I don't anticipate a time when it would. Anyone who wants my papers can get from the arXiv, and they'll continue to, at least until Skynet becomes self-aware.

The papers it's very annoying that publishers own the copyrights to are the old ones, since that actually does limit access to them, but that milk is already spilt.

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    $\begingroup$ @Ben - You say "They don't need your article..." This is not correct. Once the article has been refereed, accepted, revised, and proofed the editors really don't want to throw away the work. It isn't easy getting an article all the way from submission to print! For evidence of this see Pikhurko's emails with Kano, especially when the latter says "Also if you don't agree to the decision of the publisher, we dot not want to deal with your papers any more because it is just a meaningless work for us." $\endgroup$
    – Sam Nead
    May 14, 2011 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ continued - After this fairly nasty threat, a long email exchange, and then caving, I'd say that Kano at least doesn't want to lose Pikhurko's article... $\endgroup$
    – Sam Nead
    May 14, 2011 at 23:54
  • $\begingroup$ Sam- I'm not really sure why you think Pikhurko's experience contradicts anything I say above. No one on the journal end of things made any suggestion of making concessions, and eventually Pikhurko caves. I didn't mean that the publisher is literally indifferent to whether they publish one article as opposed to another, just that they don't need any one article so badly that you have any leverage over them, which is exactly what you see in those emails. $\endgroup$
    – Ben Webster
    May 15, 2011 at 2:07
  • $\begingroup$ Negotiating with publishers is always possible, and what mileage one gets out of that would certainly depend on the publisher in question. But for a single article in a single journal, I would be very surprised if they went much further than what they already routinely offer. $\endgroup$ May 15, 2011 at 2:40
  • $\begingroup$ In a recent paper in a Springer journal, I wrote (after seeing the first proofs, which contained a copyright line, before replying to their request that I sign a copyright agreement) something to the effect "Of course the copyright line in the proofs is wrong. It should read 'Copyright, the authors 2011'." Eventually it worked. And as Noah has pointed out: if at the end of the day it doesn't work, you can just walk away and just list the paper as 'Accepted at Journal XXX, DD/MM/YY', a perfectly good CV line. $\endgroup$ May 25, 2012 at 5:43

Not all journals request copyright transfer, check journals' websites for their sample copyright forms. It actually depends more on the publisher rather than on the journal. For example, I recently signed a copyright form for one of the journals published by Mathematical Sciences Publishers. All my obligations are: (1) I don't sue them for publishing my paper; (2) If I publish it elsewhere later, I must acknowledge the prior publication in their journal. I don't think it prevents me from placing the paper to public domain later, although I doubt this would be a good idea.

Having said this, I'd like to note that journals are irrelevant to the issue of disseminating your work. Just place it on arXiv before you submit it to a journal. Journals refusing to publish arXiv'ed papers (are there any such journals in math?) can be safely ignored and deserve to be ignored. If you care about legal matters, arXiv has an option of publishing under a Creative Commons Attribution license, which is almost the same as public domain for all practical purposes.

  • $\begingroup$ Now that I understand how the arXiv interacts with (most) journals, copyright transfer for the final version of the paper doesn't seem like such a big deal. All I really care about guaranteeing that my work is freely accessible. I also didn't realize that the arXiv had a Creative Commons option -- that's nice to know. $\endgroup$
    – John
    May 14, 2011 at 22:52
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree that a Creative Commons Attribution license is almost the same a public domain. Public domain means that anyone can take whatever they want from you work and use it in any way they want without attribution. $\endgroup$
    – mephisto
    May 14, 2011 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ @John - The arXiv also has a public domain option, which I strongly urge you to use. $\endgroup$
    – Sam Nead
    May 14, 2011 at 23:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Sam - placing to public domain may have unwanted consequences for the author. @mephisto: it does not quite work, the meaning of "public domain" is different in each country. There are countries where the law just does not have the option of public domain by author's will. $\endgroup$ May 15, 2011 at 7:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Sergei - Notice that the original poster said "I'm quite happy for anyone to do anything that they want with the papers I write." The only thing John doesn't want to allow is plagiarism. But he correctly points out that plagiarism is an academic offense, not a legal one. Also, could you provide links for your comment about countries without a public domain option etc? $\endgroup$
    – Sam Nead
    May 15, 2011 at 9:48

I certainly support the suggestions above to put your work on the arXiv and to publish in journals which allow you to retain the copyright. But if, for some reason, you find yourself publishing in a journal which insists on you signing a copyright release form, another option is to attach the following addendum to the form. (Sorry about the bad formatting.) Many people have been using this addendum for many years with many journals, and so far as I know no journal has ever objected. Note in particular the last clause, which allows you to maintain a (free) version of the article on your on web page.

Date: [month, i.e. March] [day], [year]

Title: [Fill in Title]

Authors: [author1], [author2], [author3], [etc.]

Addendum to Consent to Publish/Copyright Agreement

The above-mentioned authors explicitly reserve the following rights:

All proprietary rights other than copyright, such as patent rights;

The right to use all or part of this article in future works of their own, such as lectures, reviews, textbooks, or reprint books;

The right to make copies for the authors’ own teaching use;

The right to use figures and tables in future publications, provided explicit acknowledgment is made of their initial appearance in this journal; and

The right to post this article on the web, including in particular the personal web page of the authors and the web pages of their institutions/employers.

[Your name] [Your title]

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    $\begingroup$ This is good, although these are also pretty minimal rights. I'd want to add at least something that allows other people to redistribute the article (eg, to use in a course). $\endgroup$ May 16, 2011 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ Publishers have woken up to this trick; Elsevier in particular expressly rule out addenda unless they agree with it in writing. But try it anyway! $\endgroup$
    – David Roberts
    Apr 20, 2012 at 3:51
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    $\begingroup$ I guess that's another good reason not to publish in Elsevier journals. $\endgroup$ Apr 20, 2012 at 4:03
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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't know about Elsevier, but I've successfully overcome resistance to a copyright addendum from Springer, by being persistent and obnoxious. The more of us that are persistent and obnoxious about this, the easier it will get for everyone else. $\endgroup$ May 25, 2012 at 5:39

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