Explaining “Retaining” – how rights retention contributes to open access and empowers authors, and how we can go further

Both from the economic and ethical perspective, the case for open access is clear. If Europe wants to maximise its research performance and give everyone the opportunity to benefit and be involved, it is time to reform models of scholarly communication.

The political commitment is also there, as underlined in the Council Conclusions of 23 May, which stressed the urgency of progress. As the Swedish Minister for Education, at the Ministry of Research and Education underlined:

If we really believe in open science, we need to make sure that researchers can make their findings available and re-usable and that high-quality scientific articles are openly accessible to anyone that needs to read them. 

Of course, this is not a new topic, and there have been plenty of initiatives already aimed at advancing open access. While it is clear, from this that there is still a long way to go, it also means that there is rich experience to draw on in terms of understanding what can work, and how to maximise the chances of success.

Rights Retention as a Path to Open Access

One path towards open access is author rights retention. A report commissioned by Knowledge Rights 21 and undertaken by SPARC Europe published in July this year sets out the following:

There has been strong interest in recent years in the potential to advance open access through rights retention policies. These are actions that ensure that rather than surrendering all their rights to their work, researchers need only offer a non-exclusive right to publishers to publish.

Crucially, this will allow the researcher – or their host institution – to go on and share their work openly themselves. 

Rights retention also addresses the more fundamental question of why, so often, the researchers who carry out and put their name to work do not own the rights over it. This situation is an artefact, the result of a compromise that saw possibilities for public access sacrificed in order to cover the costs – and support the profits – of the businesses that enabled dissemination of research outputs. And yet, it is one too often supported by pressure to publish, power relations between researchers and publishers, and a lack of awareness of the options available and the consequences of signing away rights.

Funder, institution or publisher-led?

A major boost for the idea of rights retention came through cOAlition S, a coalition of national and international research funders. In addition to its Plan S (focused on the rules imposed on those receiving research funding from participating funders), cOAlition S also looked to make the retention of rights part of its conditions for offering grants. 

However, as the SPARC Europe report underlines, seemingly the most promising area of growth in rights retention policies is with institutions themselves. This makes sense – institutions are closer to researchers and their needs, and better able to support and protect them. 

The report highlights the rapid growth of rights retention policies, notably in the UK, noting that institutions there benefit from a strong and growing peer network, and an already well-used set of legal arguments to do this. In Sweden and Norway, similarly, there is growing interest and take-up of such policies.

Nonetheless, the question of researchers’ own interests and attitudes remains a live one. Beyond residual hesitation amongst some to publish their own work openly, there is a need for a positive and trusting relationship when it comes to whether the institution or researcher themselves retain their copyright.

The most positive examples, it seems, come when the institution is empowered to impose terms on publishers, but in turn also makes clear that they are acting in the researcher’s interests, and it gives the latter freedom in using their own work.  

Meanwhile, the report also updates previous work into the approach taken by publishers in their contractual relations with authors. The study finds that not so much has changed in the past two years, with publishers often trying to define a position on rights retention, either by saying nothing, or trying to find alternative ways of achieving the same objectives. 

Furthermore, differences in the (open) licences applied to works also remain, despite most institutions calling for CC-BY as a standard, creating ongoing inconsistencies.

Extending the spread

Achieving open access, as part of a broader drive for open science across Europe, will likely require a combination of change – not just in terms of the laws applied by governments and policies of funders and institutions alike, but also in the cultures, practices and attitudes of the research sector.

Rights retention implies a combination of these factors. While, as highlighted, institutional policies appear to be the most promising way forwards, these are built on work to get researchers themselves to take action by not signing away their publishing rights or agreeing to exclusive licences with publishers. This can, in turn, require work to ensure that researchers need to see the benefits of open licensing.

Governments too can potentially play a role, not just in supporting this shift within the sector, but also in making sure that they provide the right legal settings for rights retention policies to thrive. For the present, as the report underlines, the situation is more clearly favourable to rights retention in some countries than others. More work needs to be done to see which jurisdictions can provide favourable conditions for institutions and researchers to more easily exercise rights retention. But one thing is certain, every researcher should have the right to retain their publishing rights since they are the copyright holder, and that they have the knowledge and confidence to exercise it.

Finally, returning to institutions themselves, it seems that a key contribution comes from building peer networks, making it possible to commission legal advice, as well as share ideas and experiences of introducing policies. The example of the UK, where such policies appear to be snowballing, is illustrative. 

As the report highlights, rights retention is a promising area of development in open science, making a real contribution to making openness the norm. It complements other approaches taken – mandates provided by funders, the development of new business models, and legislated secondary publishing rights – in helping to move up a gear in achieving the goal of high-performing, inclusive and collaborative research. We look forward to working with partners across Europe to accelerate its spread.