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Extensively using Google Scholar, I've realized that most of the articles belonging to publishers that limit access to material (i.e. ACM, IEEE, Elsevier) also have PDF versions available for free, and these files usually are hosted by universities or other aggregators like ResearchGate.

Is it legal for the university/organization to host a copy of an article, if this has been published on a conference or journal with paid access? Does it matter if the authors of the article belong to that university/organization?

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you've never heard of Aaron Swartz then? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v._Aaron_Swartz –  kristianp Apr 4 at 1:41
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Note: this depends heavily on the country you live in. For example, you may sign over most rights of a work you produced in the US, but you can never do so in Germany (you always keep "copyright"). –  Raphael Apr 4 at 5:58
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up vote 26 down vote accepted

To answer the (original version of the) question in the title:

Are scientific articles of public domain?

the answer is absolutely not, unless the relevant copyright holders declared it so or that its copyright has expired. Note that public domain is emphatically different from open access.

To answer the question in the body:

Is it legal for the university/organization to host a copy of an article, if this has been published on a conference or journal with paid access? Does it matter if the authors of the article belong to that university/organization?

the answer is it depends.

What does it depend on? Very simply, the publication agreement or the copyright transfer agreement or the licensing agreement signed by the author when the article has been accepted for publishing. For example:

As David Ketcheson points out below, a great resource for checking the self-archiving and open access policies of is Sherpa/Romeo.

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The question in the title is ambiguous but a bit more phylosophical: if articles are meant to expand human knowledge, and if universities (therefore everyone) pay for the research, shouldn't the outcomes be available to everyone? –  clabacchio Apr 3 at 12:06
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@clabacchio, there's a lot of debate about this at the moment - "open access" (as Willie Wong mentions) may be the phrase you are looking for rather than "public domain" which has a rather specific meaning in the sense of licensing. It's worth having a read of what's out there at the moment. –  Chris H Apr 3 at 12:40
    
@ChrisH you're right, it's my mistake, I'm not really fond of these technicalities –  clabacchio Apr 3 at 12:47
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@clabacchio: if you're asking if something should be X, then it's a completely different question than asking if something is X, and I'm not really sure if such questions are related. It's not ambiguous, it's very clear - one is about the legal status of such articles and your legal rights regarding them; the other is a 'what would best achieve our goals' type decision relating to values, morality and the ethical duties of various organizations and groups of people. –  Peteris Apr 3 at 22:30
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A general, extensive resource for what publishers allow is Sherpa/Romeo. –  David Ketcheson Apr 4 at 7:44
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To answer the question in the title: free access to an article depends largely on the version. It's almost always fine to post versions on your institutional page. Some journals do have embargo periods, during which you must refrain from doing so.

Depending on the field and journal, authors may post one of the following on their institutional website:

  • published version: article as it appears in the journal
  • accepted version: manuscript after peer review but prior to journal editting/typesetting; typically allowed after the article is published (ex: Nature, Science, The Lancet)
  • preprint: manuscript before peer review (this is almost always allowed)

Many journals encourage disseminating accepted versions, including posting them to repositories like PubMedCentral.

Additionally, some fields make heavy use of preprint servers like arXiv to get work out to the public as soon as possible. This is particularly relevant for fields with long review times (maths, physics, ...).

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Many universities now have institutional open access policies. Most of those policies assert a non-exclusive license to distribute research authored by university employees.

Does the university's pre-existing non-exclusive license remain in effect when a restrictive copyright transfer agreement is later signed?

This has been considered in great detail by Eric Priest in a study published in the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property, Vol. 10, p. 377, 2012. This seems to be the most authoritative work available on the matter. His conclusion is that the non-exclusive license granted by Harvard-style open access policies will remain in effect in such cases, at least under US law. This is based on a careful analysis of section 205(e) of the US Copyright Act, which reads:

(e) Priority Between Conflicting Transfer of Ownership and Nonexclusive License.— A nonexclusive license, whether recorded or not, prevails over a conflicting transfer of copyright ownership if the license is evidenced by a written instrument signed by the owner of the rights licensed or such owner’s duly authorized agent, and if—

(1) the license was taken before execution of the transfer; or

(2) the license was taken in good faith before recordation of the transfer and without notice of it.

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But journals require you to assert that you have the authority to assign the rights... don't they? –  Ben Voigt Apr 4 at 0:58
    
@BenVoigt I'm not sure of the exact legal situation, but note that everybody profits if a) high-quality research is published in high-profile journals and b) made publically available anyway. Who would sue? –  Raphael Apr 4 at 5:59
    
... and that is why sometimes publishers will require authors to get waivers from the University when they think there may be a potential conflict between the copyright transfer and the open access policies. –  Willie Wong Apr 4 at 7:43
    
@BenVoigt You do have that authority. A non-exclusive license does not prevent transfer of copyright, and transfer of copyright does not overrirde a non-exclusive license. –  David Ketcheson Apr 4 at 7:43
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