Intended for healthcare professionals


Giving something back to authors

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 01 January 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:6

Some changes to our copyright agreements

  1. Jane Smith, deputy editor
  1. BMJ

    For centuries scientific publishing has worked on a bizarre economic model: the real producers of the raw material, the researchers, have received no direct payment for their work. In return for publication they have received exposure, “findability” for their work (thanks to bibliographical databases provided by others), and the “imprimatur” of peer review. Since peer review is an imperfect process,1 exposure and findability are probably the more important benefits. For their part publishers have largely borne the costs of funding peer review systems and of providing the exposure and in return have controlled all the rights to their authors' work and taken all the cash. That has been as true of professional association publishers as it has been of commercial ones: the professional associations can argue that their surpluses have helped to support the work of the associations and their members, but individual researchers have not received any direct monetary reward for their labours. The BMJ is now proposing to share some of the cash from commercial reprint sales with its authors. We also hope that we can use the part that we don't share with them to increase something that may matter more to them—exposure.

    This proposal has arisen in part from a closer look at our copyright agreements with authors. Like most publishers we have traditionally asked authors to assign their copyright to us. This has been done so that we can exploit those rights ourselves, and tackle infringements, without having to go back to each author each time. And we have in practice exploited those rights fairly fully—in our local editions, in the studentBMJ, and, most recently, in the eBMJ. We have also made money out of allowing third parties such as pharmaceutical companies to reprint those articles or translate them. In practice we have always allowed authors to use their own material freely in other publications (such as multiauthor books) and for their own teaching and research purposes without charge. However, recently some authors have become resentful of the fact that publishers take all their rights, often don't exploit them well, and then insist that they ask permission when authors want to use their own material themselves.

    We've therefore decided that we will no longer ask authors to assign their copyrights. Instead we'll ask for an exclusive licence. In practice, as several authors have pointed out, this gives us almost the same control as before, but we have also undertaken to allow the rights to revert if we haven't exploited them within a year, and authors will no longer have to ask us for permission to use their material for any non-commercial use. Thus if they want to photocopy their own article for their students or place it as a chapter in a multiauthor work they can do so without asking; similarly, they can post a copy of their own article on their own or their institution's website.

    Commercial users will still need our permission, but we propose in future to share some of the fees for commercial use with authors. We propose to give authors 10% of the revenue from selling a reprint order or a translation right worth more than £1000. We will therefore ask authors to nominate someone, or some organisation—the research group or department—to receive any payments. Orders worth over £1000 represent 93% of the BMJ's commercial reprint revenue. Our reason for not paying out on smaller orders is that the administration costs would be disproportionately high, and our reason for not giving more than a small percentage is that we need the revenue to help fund publication of the BMJ—and not least to keep the eBMJ free. The eBMJ has done more in 18 months to increase our profile internationally, particularly in the United States, than many decades of promoting the print journal. Although we hope that a cut of our reprint revenue might help repay something to the scientific community which we serve and on which we depend, we think we can best keep our contract with authors by working hard to increase their exposure.


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