Culture clash: Elsevier, and copyright

Could academics have taken steps to avoid Elsevier’s takedown notices? (Image c/o Horia Varlan on Flickr.)

Last week the academic publisher Elsevier issued several thousand takedown notices to the website, requesting that they remove PDFs of academic articles that authors had uploaded to the site. While this may have turned out to be another PR disaster for Elsevier after the Twitter backlash, it’s worth remembering that they are acting within their legal rights and are exhibiting perfectly rational behaviour from the perspective of the system they operate within. (Elsevier have issued a response.) is a platform which acts as a social network for academics who can share articles by uploading PDFs to add to their profile. Whether this practice is legal or not depends on a case by case basis on the policy of the journal and/or publisher of the original article, and whether the author signed a copyright transfer agreement with the publisher.

If authors want to retain control of their copyright in order to allow their work to be more widely shared there are several options, including:

1) publish in an open access journal;

2) if publishing in a subscription access journal, make sure you have permission to archive a copy (if not the final publishers’ version then at least a pre-print) in an open access repository;1

3) negotiate terms with the publishers.

This third point is something which I’d like to see more authors take advantage of – authors all too often don’t negotiate the details of their contract but simply sign the agreement they are presented with. Authors may not necessarily get exactly what they ask for if they negotiate, but it’s certainly worth asking. Traditional academic publishers typically ask authors to sign a copyright transfer agreement which legally transfers the copyright of the work to the publisher. These agreements often include clauses which allow authors to deposit their work in an institutional repository and also host them on a personal website. does not fall into either of these categories.

An alternative to a copyright transfer agreement is a ‘license to publish’, in which authors retain copyright while allowing a publisher to make their work available.2 This flips the power dynamic back in favour of the researcher. Not all publishers will allow it, but it’s another option for authors to be aware of.

So while I agree with those affected by Elsevier’s take down notices that they should be allowed to share their work freely, it’s important to note that there are steps they could have taken to prevent Elsevier having this control over their work in the first place. Of course, it might be argued that some of the options outlined above are not possible for authors due to pressure to publish in ‘high impact’ journals. However, for many disciplines there are now open access journals with high impact factors, and even if authors decide to go with a non-open publisher, there is still an opportunity to negotiate.

In conclusion: yes, Elsevier’s actions were against authors’ interests and detrimental to the furtherance of knowledge, but they are merely the inevitable symptoms of a broken system. Hopefully their actions will have some positive effect by bringing this issue to the attention of more academics, who will re-think how they deal with publishers and consider alternative routes to publication.

By Stuart Lawson


1. Journal self-archiving policies can be checked at SHERPA/RoMEO.

2. Morris et al., 2013. The handbook of journal publishing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.331.


7 thoughts on “Culture clash: Elsevier, and copyright

  1. For more than 20 years I refused to sign copyright assignment forms with publishers, insisting on giving them a licence to publish instead. Of the hundreds of papers and dozens of publishers involved, only one publisher refused to budge. In all other cases – including, notably, Elsevier – they agreed to my terms and conditions. It really is just a case of calling the publishers’ bluff.

    1. Excellent! That’s good to hear. Anecdotally I gather that a majority of authors don’t do this, but I’ve not come across any actual data. It would be good to know what percentage of authors take the same tack as you because that could encourage others to do the same.

      1. The impression I get is that I am in a tiny minority. Most authors sign the copyright assignment form without reading it, or even if they had read it, feel obliged to accept the terms. First time I replied to Elsevier that I wasn’t willing to sign an assignment form, they replied “Sorry, you have no choice”. I then replied “In which case, I will take my manuscript to another publisher”. They then sent me a pdf licence to publish! They tried the same approach the second time, too. But thereafter they had got to know me and sent me the licence to publish at the outset. (Incidentally, I DO sign assignments for book reviews I write, as they are not “proper” research outputs and I am not fussed about not being able to repost them.)

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