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I am a mathematics undergraduate in the USA. Recently I had a paper accepted to a math journal, and in the final steps of the process I had to fill out a “consent to publish” form, in which I had the choice of whether to transfer the copyright to the journal. My question is: given the option to still have the paper published while retaining the copyright, is there any reason to still transfer the copyright?

In this situation I don’t think it matters much, because regardless of which option you choose you still retain the right to post on ArXiv and your personal website, etc. But I’m curious about what is considered acceptable and/or standard, in case I have to make the decision again.

The specific form I had to fill out is that of the AMS, and choosing not to transfer the copyright has the effect of deleting points 3 and 6.

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    In the USA at my National Lab, the government retains copyright not the journal. – Jon Custer Aug 26 '20 at 18:42
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    Hmm. I've only met such a choice with the option to retain copyright coupled to substantial service fees. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 27 '20 at 18:24
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    @JonCuster technically copyright does not apply to works of the US Government because the works cannot be copyrighted (link here for my agency. Although, some DOE national labs are contract labs (e.g., Sandia), which are slightly different than direct federal employees writing the documents. – Richard Erickson Aug 27 '20 at 20:38
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    @RichardErickson - indeed that is true, which is why the copyright can't be assigned to the journal. I'll also note that all DOE labs (including Sandia) are GOCO - government owned, contractor operated. – Jon Custer Aug 27 '20 at 20:43
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    @JonCuster To be clear, I agree with your posts (tone is hard online), Also, thanks for sharing about the DOE labs. For some reason, I thought some were non-contractor run. – Richard Erickson Aug 27 '20 at 21:05
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To expand a little on user2768's answer, the text provided by the publisher normally explains the benefits and implications of the different options quite well.

  • If you choose to retain your copyright, you are only giving the publisher permission to publish and sell your work, but all rights to your work remain with you. You are in principle free to give other publishers permission to print your work, but there still may or may not be a rider about exclusivity (for a specific time or forever) in the copyright agreement even if you choose to retain the rights to your work.

  • If you choose to transfer your copyright, the publisher becomes the owner of this piece of text, similar to if you had written a book through a contract with them. You cannot simply turn around and sell or give away the same work to another party.

The (theoretical) incentive for you to transfer is that if the copyright is with the publisher, the publisher has the legal opportunities and incentives to protect their intellectual property, for instance by taking legal action against plagiarized versions of your manuscript. If you retain your copyright, the publisher basically can't know whether you have given another publisher permission to reprint your work, and they also don't really care since it's your work, not theirs.

However, in practice a publisher is only willing to protect your work to the extent that they suffer actual financial damages. For instance, if an obscure spam open access publisher publishes a plagiarized version of your article, you may be very annoyed but the publisher is unlikely to take legal action (or at least none that goes beyond sending them an unfriendly email), since the actual financial damage for them is very, very limited. In that light I agree with you that for most people retaining their copyright is probably the more natural choice.

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    A spam publisher is unlikely to republish just one paper chosen at random, and the damage to the reputation of the original publisher is certainly significant if all their publications are being pirated. (Why would you submit papers to reputable journal A if they are going to appear in spam journal B?) There would be financial damage as well, since people are not going to buy subscriptions to the reputable journal if they can get all the content free from somewhere else. – alephzero Aug 26 '20 at 23:50
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    @alephzero Spam journals don't normally republish anything directly, since they don't make money off of selling papers. However, they don't check nor care if one of their paying authors simply submits your papers with tiny modifications. – xLeitix Aug 27 '20 at 6:30
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    (+1) if an obscure spam open access publisher publishes a plagiarized version of your article...the publisher is unlikely to take legal action That depends on the agreement. I have to confess I rarely scrutinise copyright agreements, but I know they can be written such that the publisher has a duty to protect authors' work. I wonder if any publisher includes such a clause... Perhaps doubtful! – user2768 Aug 27 '20 at 9:38
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    @user2768 I don't know, but we tried to make IEEE actually protect their IP as promised in two separate cases, both times without apparent success. Essentially, the thanked us for the info, remarked that they would be unable to further comment on this for legal reasons, and the plagiarized article remained online. We concluded that they decided that this simply wasn't worth going after for them. – xLeitix Aug 27 '20 at 9:45
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    Thanks everyone for the answers and comments! I also found the comments of Paul Garrett and Marc Glisse useful: "Do you really want to have to ask permission to reuse your own figures when you later collect your work into a phd thesis, or write a book on the topic, or just write a later article that could use that figure for background?" In my case this is probably the most relevant reason not to transfer the copyright, since reusing some material in future papers is a likely scenario and I want to minimize the chances of that being a problem. – Mike 691 Aug 27 '20 at 12:25
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given the option to still have the paper published while retaining the copyright, is there any reason to still transfer the copyright?

There are benefits of a publisher holding the copyright, e.g., they can enforce copyright, whereas you likely cannot.

When royalties are involved this is particularly useful. When they aren't, it can still be useful, e.g., the publisher can handle instances of plagiarism. (Perhaps readers can list other benefits below, or write their own answers.)

I suspect plagiarism is rare, so I see little benefit in giving-up copyright, and I'd personally keep the copyright.

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    But unless you get royalties, why would you care? - Papers authors are (with very few exceptions) not paid for their publications. – DetlevCM Aug 27 '20 at 5:25
  • @DetlevCM Why give-up something for nothing? Beyond academic publishing, there's an advantage of giving up copyright: You get royalties and the publisher enforces. For academic publishing, I see no advantage to giving up copyright. (I should make that clearer in my answer.) – user2768 Aug 27 '20 at 9:26
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    I see no advantage to giving up copyright Should be: little advantage – user2768 Aug 27 '20 at 9:35
  • I checked the edit history to make sure I read what I thought I read :D (on the phone the night before commenting on a computer in the morning). - If you are given the choice, of course you can retain it. Though realistically you don't gain a lot by retaining it. Where people mention plots, these can be easily recreated in a slightly different format for example. I guess this can become an eternal debate quite easily about the access to knowledge (especially if it is funded by public research grants...) - I'd rather not go down that route right now... – DetlevCM Aug 27 '20 at 16:11
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In and of itself, the only advantage to giving up any part of your copyright would be altruism; virtue signalling, if you must.

Of course it's true that publishers and agents have more resources available for defending copyright and so what?

All decent publishers, agents, etc, will be happy to negotiate terms for using their resources to defend your rights. Who won't, isn't the right publisher, agent, or what.

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  • @paul garrett Sorry you missed both the point of "altruism; virtue signalling, if you must" and the meaning of virtue signalling. Either those, or could you explain in a lot more detail? – Robbie Goodwin Aug 27 '20 at 22:46
  • ... [cont'd], and, often, it's worse than that. So there's no virtue of any sort signalled (to anyone who understands how things work... which is maybe an issue you had in mind?) by giving up copyright... IF, especially, the alternative is that by retaining copyright one makes the thing freely available on the internet, maybe with some free-use requirements/recommendations. I put all my stuff on-line... Made a bad choice c. 2000 and regretted it since... :) – paul garrett Aug 27 '20 at 23:08
  • Paul I'm glad you noticed that's not worth discussing and sorry someone thought it was. I thought it clear, giving up copyright to anyone, it's not at all that the general public benefits by that, in any way we could not have arranged ourselves... [cont'd] Paul I'm glad you noticed that's not worth discussing and sorry someone thought it was. I think it's fairly obvious, the only reason for giving up copyright is that developers and Users could benefit from open-access software - which hardly applies to text! More… – Robbie Goodwin Aug 27 '20 at 23:14
  • Yes, of course you can make "the products of my labor" available by giving up copyright and that's not what you said, and it's fairly clear the OQ didn't understand that… – Robbie Goodwin Aug 27 '20 at 23:16
  • @paul garrett That's odd. Which is your world, where "giving up copyright" tends to mean "restricting access", please? – Robbie Goodwin Aug 28 '20 at 19:25
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Retaining the copyright as an individual is fairly meaningless. First, you can't afford to deal with copyright violations, and second, assigning the copyright to the journal won't prevent you from using the intellectual property of the paper in any way you like.

On the other hand, if you are employed in industry (or a national lab, etc) and the work reported in the paper was done "for hire", the copyright most likely belongs to your employer and not to you personally, so it is not yours go "give away" in any case.

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    "...assigning the copyright to the journal won't prevent you from using the intellectual property of the paper in any way you like." -- that seems wrong. If you assign copyright, then you would not be able to use the IP however you like since it no longer belongs to you. – Greg Schmit Aug 27 '20 at 0:00
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    @GregSchmit, the IP is not what the copyright refers to, but your objection is still correct, in my opinion, because one cannot re-use the text (which one may have carefully crafted, even optimized...) – paul garrett Aug 27 '20 at 0:01
  • As asked in another comment, unless you get royalties, why would you care about "defending copyright". Once you publish a paper as an author you are "done with it" except for follow up work/responding to reader queries. Citation rules equally apply to documents in the public domain or out of copyright, so it doesn't matter there either. Now a book that pays you as an author royalties would be another matter, however this doesn't apply to papers (in most cases). – DetlevCM Aug 27 '20 at 5:28
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    Do you really want to have to ask permission to reuse your own figures when you later collect your work into a phd thesis, or write a book on the topic, or just write a later article that could use that figure for background? – Marc Glisse Aug 27 '20 at 6:57

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