Also, is a grad student who is being funded by an NSF grant considered to be "employed by the U.S. government"?

I ask because I'm submitting a paper, and I have to state whether or not all authors are "employed by the U.S. government".

  • Based on @jamesT's answer, i think you need to clarify your question. What do you mean by US government? Federal or state?
    – Nobody
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 11:41
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    @scaaahu I'm actually not sure how to interpret the question. I was just asked to state (yes or no) whether or not all authors are "employed by the U.S. government". jamesT's interpretation sounds plausible, but I'm not sure.
    – littleO
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 11:45
  • Does your work email end in .edu or .gov?
    – Sun
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 16:53
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    The government funds people to buy hybrid cars--are they employees?
    – Nick T
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 18:37
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    It is hilarious (and a bit sad) to see copyright transfer forms that just ask whether the authors are "government employees". Without specifying that they are actually interested in just the U.S. government. Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 19:50

6 Answers 6


The reason this question is asked by journals is that except in some limited cases, the US government may not, by law, hold the US copyright in a work created by its employees, and, therefore, cannot transfer it to the publisher of the journal as is traditionally done in most academic publishing agreements. As such, the journal can't ask those authors who are US government employees to sign the copyright transfer and must use a different agreement. If one or more of the authors is not a US government employee, then those authors will still need to make the transfer.

Employees of US state governments, which includes most public university employees in the US, do not have this limitation, and can make the copyright transfer or other licensing arrangement that the publisher requires.

  • I think you are right. The link provided by you says clearly that "a work prepared by an officer or employee of the federal government as part of that person's official duties.". I deleted my previous comment.
    – Nobody
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 12:34
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    Having recently finished an internship for a military library in the United States, I can confirm that this is true. All papers published by employees of the United States federal government cannot be copyrighted and are thus in the public domain.
    – Evan Lynch
    Commented Sep 28, 2014 at 17:11
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    ... As should all research supported by public funds (including corporate R&D receiving federal research grants or subsidies).
    – L0j1k
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 9:19

The question is really asking about employees of the federal government. At least, whenever I've seen a question like this, that is what they wanted to know; and this is the usual meaning of the words "U.S. government" in the American context.

As a rule, if you don't know whether you're a U.S. government employee - then you're probably not. An easy way to find out if your coauthors are government employees is to ask them.

The federal government does operate a handful of academic institutions (e.g., the Naval Postgraduate School) and there are other federal employees who publish regularly (e.g., scientists at NASA). There are lots of U.S. institutions which are run or chartered by state governments, and this category represents the majority of "public universities" in the country. Whether or not professors there are considered employees of the state - in most cases they probably are - they are still not federal employees. (Well, unless they happen to be on temporary assignment to NSF as a program director, or something.)

As stated in the sibling answer by Oswald Veblen, receiving money through a federal grant does not make you a federal employee.

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    This may be worth emphasizing, for people not from the U.S.: in the U.S., the term "U.S. government" refers to the federal government only. So, for example, the government of New York state is not part of the U.S. government. Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 13:33

No, grad students and faculty with NSF funding are not employed by the U.S. government. NSF funding is sent directly to the school. The school then employs the researchers itself and pays them using those funds.

  • 2
    I don't think that is right. Universities are state entities, which makes them state employees.
    – David Hill
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 11:15
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    @scaaahu, most public universities in the US are run by the governments of its states. As such, their employees are employees of the state government not the US government itself.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 11:54
  • NSF graduate students are certainly not employees of the NSF (the NSF doesn't pay payroll tax), but unless you're also teaching I don't think they're employees of the university either (the university also doesn't pay payroll tax). Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 13:20
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    @Noah Snyder: I believe that, even if the graduate student has a 100% research appointment, in almost all cases they are still "hired" by the HR department of the school. The question whether payroll taxes are withheld is somewhat separate. For example, when I had an NSF fellowship once, I had to pay "estimated taxes" myself because the university did not withhold income taxes. But I was certainly a university employee. Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 13:30
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    @OswaldVeblen: More precisely, graduate students directly funded by the NSF (through the GRFP) are typically not considered employees by their university (e.g. no one gives them a W2). Students hired by their professor and paid with an NSF grant are quite different. I think we miscommunicated, I'm talking about the former and perhaps you're talking about the latter? (Also income tax and payroll tax are completely different things.) Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 21:40

In almost all cases, no, they are not. The vast majority of public universities in the U.S. are owned and operated by the individual state governments, not the U.S. federal government. Within the U.S., the state governments are considered to be entirely separate legal entities. In most (but apparently not all) cases, employees of state-owned universities are considered employees of that particular state. The exceptions where a public university professor actually would be a U.S. federal government employee are professors at the handful of universities actually owned by the federal government, such as the various military academies, as well as dual-employees of both a university and some part of the federal government, such as a federal government research institution. One of my advisors, for instance, is an employee both of my university and of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, so he's an employee both of the State of Tennessee as well as of the U.S. federal government.


It is not clear that public university/college employees are officially considered state employees by the respective states. In Minnesota, for example, the University of Minnesota faculty are, apparently, not considered to be state employees.

Among other aspects that make this seem reasonable, the fact that the state supplies only a small fraction of the funding contributes.

  • This seems to vary from state to state, in my experience. Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 13:31
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    Certainly at UVA, we count as VA state employees. I get emails from the governor in his capacity as my boss regularly (I'm not kidding). Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 13:44
  • @BenWebster, I can't tell whether I'm jealous or not! :) Does this situation have the effect of even-more-politicizing policy about the university? Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 13:55
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    All employees of Tennessee public universities are also considered to be state employees.
    – reirab
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 19:15
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    This seems to vary even within a state. As a faculty member in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, I am certainly considered a state employee. Salary negotiations go through MN House of Reps and my W2 tax forms say "Employer: State of Minnesota." I don't have an external grant.
    – Aeryk
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 19:18

The department secretary or perhaps a grants officer at your university should be able to give you guidance on these sorts of things. Aside from the particular problem of federal employment, you might have to credit grants and authors in a way that the journal doesn't require or track.

As a graduate student, the department secretary should be your best friend. They know how everything works where the academic staff might not (because they rely on the administrative staff).

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