cOAlition S Rights Retention Strategy, or, the Embargo wars

[five minute read]

Tensions surrounding scholarly publishing and the academic book market, already fraught, are increasing. Plan S has surfaced one area of stress, that relating to the rights of researcher-authors and their institutions over the research articles that they produce. Under a traditional subscription/’paywall’ model, authors transfer essential copyrights in articles to publishers, which then enjoy exclusive rights to reproduce and disseminate the article. ‘Green’ open access, where the author’s final manuscript is made open access in a repository such as RADAR, works within this model. But where most publishers require a post-publication embargo period of twelve months or longer before the manuscript is made open under green, as of 1st January 2021, authors funded by any cOAlition S signatory must make all outputs resulting from that funding openly accessible immediately upon publication.

Because publishers are reluctant to alter their embargo policies, cOAlition S introduced its Rights Retention Strategy (RRS).

Emanating from the first of its Principles, that authors and institutions ‘retain copyright to their publications’, the RRS enables authors to meet their open access obligations when it is impossible to publish the ‘version of record’ as ‘gold’ open access. The strategy requires that authors submit manuscripts to publishers under notice that the research was funded by a cOAlition S signatory, and that the author has applied a Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC BY 4.0) to the manuscript, allowing it to be distributed and reused freely.

To learn more about this significant initiative, we encourage researchers to review the recording of a one-hour ‘myth-busting’ webinar on the Rights Retention Strategy, hosted by Jisc on Tuesday, 5th May 2021. Details of the webinar — including a video recording and transcript — are available at:  https://www.jisc.ac.uk/events/plan-s-rights-retention-strategy-myth-busting-webinar-05-may-2021

Naturally (if disappointingly), a large number of publishers (under the trade association STM) issued a statement critical of rights retention.[1] The statement argues that provision of a free manuscript, simultaneously with the publication of the version of record, undermines publishers’ financial viability.

At the forefront on this issue, the Wellcome Trust, responded unequivocally to the STM statement:

We are disappointed that some publishers are implementing processes that seek to discourage our researchers from exercising their right to make their Author Accepted Manuscript (AAM) open access. We urge these publishers to stop these practices and instead focus their efforts on developing Plan S-aligned publishing options


Meanwhile, the Rights Retention Strategy sits alongside other international policies challenging the right of publishers to impose embargoes entirely at their own discretion. The Dutch university library sector, as represented by the consortium VSNU, introduced its ‘you share, we take care’ policy at the beginning of 2020. The ‘Taverne Amendment’ to the Dutch copyright law allows that ‘The maker of a short scientific work, the research for which has been paid for in whole or in part by Dutch public funds, shall be entitled to make that work available to the public for no consideration following a reasonable period of time after the work was first published, provided that clear reference is made to the source of the first publication of the work’. Dutch libraries took the initiative, defining ‘a reasonable period of time’ as six months. When authors receiving funding from the Dutch government make their manuscripts open six months after publication, VSNU collectively assumes responsibility for mounting a defense to any legal action brought by publishers. During the pilot stage, this resulted in a tripling of open access for participants. [2]

In February 2021, the copyright group in LIBER (the Association of European Research Libraries) revised its proposal for a ‘model law’ enabling a ‘secondary publisher right’ for all research funded by governments or charities. Such laws ‘make a bold step to propose a zero-embargo period for lawful self-archiving on open, public, non-for-profit repositories’, by entitling ‘[t]he author of an article in a research periodical, their employer or research funder … to make the work in any of its forms available to the public via any open access repository immediately after its acceptance, including any third party content such as images, tables, etc., contained therein necessary for the understanding of the article’. The model law further requires that every version of the article acknowledge its public or charitable funding, and, significantly, also requires that ‘clear terms of use’ (e.g., a Creative Commons licence) be provided so end users can confidently reuse research content. Six European nations have already codified such laws: France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, and Spain. LIBER advocates that secondary publishing rights be enacted in the other countries it represents, and also at EU level. Read the LIBER press arguing for the importance of legislation at: https://libereurope.eu/press-release-model-law-zero-embargo/

So where does this leave us? 

UKRI is a member of cOAlition S. Exactly how it will require recipients of its funding to enable immediate open access still remains unspecified, however. After a protracted formal review closed at the end of October 2020, ‘UKRI is currently in the final stages of reviewing its open access policy and will then be undertaking a review of open research data and software policy and practice. These activities will support the formation of new UKRI materials’.[3] So while we are left waiting to see how emphatically UKRI embraces the core principles it has signed onto, it is essential for any recipients of direct UKRI funding to remain tuned for updates.    

In addition to ensuring that they meet the open access requirements mandated by their funders, authors should also consider for themselves whether they are content with the publication agreements imposed by their publishers. Rather than transfer all of their copyrights to the publisher, authors might reasonably wish to retain certain rights, such as those to distribute copies of their work to students or colleagues; to post their work on their institutional repository or other website; or to authorise adaptation, translation or remixing of their work. One resource available to authors is the Author Addendum drafted by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), which provides a document that researcher-authors can return to publishers along with the publication agreement.

To conclude, publishers clearly perform valuable work, in terms of eliciting contributions to advance scholarship, facilitating peer review of new research, and ultimately establishing and disseminating the formal ‘version of record’. This work incurs costs, and commercial publishers (as commercial entities) have the right to generate profits. But it is crucial to note that the actual production of scholarly content is not among these costs. Typically funded by public or charitable funds, researcher-authors around the world create articles both to further knowledge and to advance their careers, and then provide these articles freely to publishers. Publishers then sell this content back to libraries, also generally funded by the public. This unsustainable model is under threat, and will eventually fail unless publishers accept, or are forced to accept, their responsibility to correct their excesses. Because if the author’s unformatted final manuscript can undermine the financial value of the version of record, as argued by publishers, it is reasonable to question exactly how much value publishers in fact add to these outputs and how necessary is their role. Under a publication regime that remains unfairly skewed toward commercial interests, we encourage researcher-authors to exploit every opportunity to bring their important research to as many readers as possible, quickly, freely and without restriction

[1] https://www.stm-assoc.org/rightsretentionstrategy/  

[2] https://www.ukri.org/about-us/policies-standards-and-data/good-research-resource-hub/open-research/

[3] https://www.uu.nl/en/news/pilot-you-share-we-take-care-results-in-more-open-access-publications

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