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Understanding your rights: pre-prints, post-prints and publisher versions

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Recently, Elsevier has come under fire for exercising it’s rights under copyright law by asking various platforms to remove copies of articles published in its journals. This has angered authors, who don’t always realize that they signed away many rights when they signed a publication agreement.

As authors examine their copyright transfer agreements to figure out what they are allowed to do, two of the big questions that will impact what they can legally do include:

  1. What version of your article do you want to post online?
  2. Where do you want to post it?

Today, I’ll talk about the first question.

Publishers often make distinctions between three primary versions of a manuscript: the pre-print, the post-print and the publishers version.

Pre-print – A pre-print is the original version of the manuscript as it is submitted to a journal. While the authors may have sought help from their colleagues in selecting data analysis techniques, improving manuscript clarity, and correcting grammar, the pre-print has not been through a process of peer review. It typically looks like a term paper – a double spaced .doc file with minimal formatting.

Post-print – A post-print is a document that has been through the peer review process and incorporated reviewers comments. It is the final version of the paper before it is sent off the the journal for publication. It may be missing a final copyedit (if the journal still does that) and won’t be formatted to look like the journal. It still looks like the double spaced .doc file. Sometimes, the term “pre-print” is used interchangeably with “post-print,” but when it comes to permissions issues, it is important to clarify which version of a manuscript is being discussed.

Publishers version/PDF – This is the version of record that is published on the publishers website. It will look quite spiffy, having been professionally typeset by the publisher. Library databases will link to this version of the paper.

Generally speaking, publishers are more likely to be okay with authors posting copies of pre-print versus other manuscript versions. But each journal is different, and authors need to be aware of what they can do. The copyright transfer agreement is the best place to find this information.

If you no longer have your copyright transfer agreement, or if you are checking into your rights before you publish (good for you, btw), you can check SHERPA/RoMEO to find out what you are allowed to do with your paper.

SHERPA/RoMEO collects information about the permissions related to online sharing (“archiving”) of your article for most publishers and journals. Journals and publishers are classified according to a color scheme, and additional restrictions are listed.

Color classifications used by SHERPA/RoMEO to help authors determine permissions

Authors who wish to publish a copy of their articles will want to look for journals classified as green or blue, then check on any additional restrictions.

For example, I wrote an article a couple of years ago about assessing information literacy in first-year students. The journal is a “green” journal and my copyright transfer agreement gives me permission to share the post-print of my article, but not the publisher’s version. I also have to make sure that I include the final publication information inside the post-print, and link to the publisher’s version using the DOI. The PDF I posted uses standard MS Word formatting, and I include the required information:

Post-print of my article

In addition to limits on what you can share online, journals also place limits on where you can share it. I’ll talk about those issues in my next post.

Of course, you can avoid all of this confusion by publishing in an open access journal where you retain the copyright for your work. See the Directory of Open Access Journals to find one in your discipline.

Bonnie Swoger About the Author: Bonnie J. M. Swoger is a Science and Technology Librarian at a small public undergraduate institution in upstate New York, SUNY Geneseo. She teaches students about the science literature, helps faculty and students with library research questions and leads library assessment efforts. She has a BS in Geology from St. Lawrence University, an MS in Geology from Kent State University and an MLS from the University at Buffalo. She would love to have some free time in which to indulge in hobbies. She blogs at the Undergraduate Science Librarian. Follow on Twitter @bonnieswoger.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





Rights & Permissions

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  1. 1. MikeTaylor 3:46 am 12/17/2013

    Thanks for this, Bonnie, very level-headed and helpful.

    And yet …

    I can’t read a phrase like “what you are allowed to do with your paper” without raging at the stupid, stupid situation we’ve allowed ourselves to get into.

    Link to this

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