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Thing 21 Copyright in research and online

This blog has been written by rock legend Richard White. We thought you should know.

Image of a woman working on a picture, using pencil sketch, laptop and paints spread out over a table
‘Artist’ by Oteo, via Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

Image: ‘Artist’ by Oteo, via Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

Copyright works like this: a creator makes a new ‘work’ and he or she automatically has the right to control any use of it except that the law allows others to do certain things without permission, for example to do research or to critique it. These exceptions are key to the academic endeavour. On top of what the law allows, licensing may allow you to use things in specific ways. These include terms of use for websites and subscriptions but increasingly open access licensing is facilitating new ways of doing research, as we looked at in Thing 6.

Note: copyright law is different in different countries but it is broadly similar in many respects. This Thing focuses on copyright as it works in the research setting and generally approaches the topic from the way it works in Commonwealth countries (being all based on UK law).

You are a creator

Remember that you are a creator yourself. This was why I included the picture of the artist at the top of this Thing: in the eyes of copyright a painter and academic author are the same, even though we tend to think of one as more “creative.” Writing a thesis, drawing a diagram, making a data visualisation, etc. – in each case, if you created it you are the copyright holder. As such you decide how other people may use them, whether that is taking an ‘all rights reserved’ approach or going down the open access route. You’ll create all sorts of things as you do your research: notes, documents, images, photographs, datasets, etc. A lot of this is just made in the course of your research but some of it will end up as available online or formally published. Increasingly we are realising that making your work openly available increases impact, more of which comes in the next Thing. (Note that generally employers own copyright in things made by employees but in most academic research contexts the creator owns the copyright. If you are doing research that is commercially-funded or as part of a private company then the funder or company likely owns the copyright – check your contract).

You are a co-creator

Since a lot of research is collaborative, as a researcher you should also think about co-created things, where copyright (and other intellectual property) may be co-owned. You might be a PhD student working with a survey tool you’ve adapted from one developed by your supervisor. You could be a researcher in a lab with a big team that has been gathering data for years. If you’re working with a local community, you might be getting oral histories, recording them as notes or audio recordings. It’s important that everyone involved knows who can do what with all the things you create or co-create. Can you continue to use that survey tool after you finish your PhD? Could you publish the data you personally collected while working for that big lab in an open data repository or take it to your next job? Do you own the copyright in those oral histories, in the transcriptions or recordings or could you publish them online? Ideally these things are clearly set out in employment contracts or in the conditions you have research participants agree to.

The key is to think about what you might want to do with material not just now but in the future and avoid unpleasant surprises for your colleagues or participants in your research. From the outset it’s important to envisage what you might want to do with the stuff in the future; and if you’re working with human participants this is essential right from applying for ethics and how you communicate with your participants about how you will store, use or publish their contributions. It’s impossible to consider all the possibilities in a short Thing like this but talk to your colleagues or your local copyright or research adviser. As we discussed in Thing 6, increasingly we want to – or are even required to – present our work in open ways so that more people can access or even re-use our research. If you didn’t get permission for this when you got ethics approval then you have to go back and get that permission.

You use others’ work: standing on the shoulders of giants

If you are not the copyright holder of something then you need to think about how you can use something or whether you might need permission. Keep in mind that the rules are different depending on what you’re doing with it. For the following I will discuss copying things that are not open access, which I will save for the next Thing.

I am copying a bunch of stuff as working material while doing my research. You copy things when you’re doing your research. You’ll download journal articles, right-click on graphs or images, copy bits of text. You might be using datasets created by others. Perhaps you’re sourcing material from the collections of historical archives. In most cases this kind of copying is fine: there are exceptions in copyright to allow private research and study, one of what are known as ‘fair dealing’ exceptions in copyright. Note that they key word ‘fair’ still applies: it would be ok copy, say, the whole of a government report from 1986 from an archive to study it; but it would never be regarded as fair to copy, say, more than a chapter or so of a commercially-published book if it’s really valuable to you. Of course, copying can also be allowed by the licence or terms of use that apply to something you’re downloading, such as a subscription licence paid for by your library. Check the terms of use!

I want to post some things that aren’t mine online. Increasingly researchers are getting their work, their thoughts, their research processes online. If you created every element then it’s all your copyright. However, often we will want to post elements of others’ work. The fair dealing exception for research outlined above only covers your personal workings and does not allow you to make any of that available in a way that others can access the copy. However, fair dealing provides another exception for criticism and review. Are you using a diagram from another article in a literature review to explain the work that has gone before and how it relates to your work? It’s fine if you’re reviewing it and your text says something about that work and how it contributed to our knowledge of this area. Copying an artistic work to critique it? Yes, as long as you’re only copying what you need for your critique. But say you were using an attractive image on the cover of your thesis: that’s not criticism or review but a decoration, so it’s not likely to be covered by fair dealing. Another common thing you’d need permission for is a widely-used model or research instrument: sometimes these are commercially-licensed tools, where you’d need permission because you’re just using it, not critiquing it. Note again, though, that sometimes these tools are labelled as free to use for research. Check the terms of use!

Publishing your work. You’ll publish articles or books/chapters based on your work. Again, the rules change because publishers are commercial operations. Legally speaking, you could still rely on fair dealing for criticism or review if you were, for example, discussing a chart published in a previous article on your topic. But many publishers have a policy that they won’t rely on fair dealing and will require you to clear permission to get your work published. Students also often ask about the rules that apply to their theses when publishing based on their student research – see the Exploring Further section for more on this.

Do I still own my copyright after I publish?

It depends entirely on the agreement you make with your publisher. Traditionally, academic authors have transferred their copyright to publishers, meaning they now have the rights we have been discussing. This is how we’ve ended up in a situation where research institutions must pay for access to research they authored, reviewed and edited. Generally, publishers grant you certain rights to your own work but these are limited. See the first of the Exploring Further tasks below for an example.

Postgrad researchers often ask about how copyright works if they are publishing articles/chapters that will be a chapter in their thesis or about publishing an article/chapter after the thesis has been finished and is already online. See the Exploring Further section for more on this.


● Go to this randomly-selected article and find the ‘Request permissions’ button to the left, which will open a new tab. Choose from the drop-down menus to get quotes for different types of use. If you, for example, say you want to reuse a single figure in your thesis you will find it is free; if you choose to publish in some form or to copy for students you will get a quote for how much this will cost. (This is why you were learning about fair dealing for criticism above, you see! – that’s your statutory right and it’s free.)

● Find something you published online, such as an article in a journal. Who owns that article? Hint: look for a copyright statement or terms of use (sometimes in the footer but doing a CTRL-F for ‘copyright’ or ‘terms’ or similar is quickest). Does it have an ‘all rights reserved’ statement saying the publisher owns the content or does it have an open access licence? What implications does this have for something else you might want to do, such as using it in teaching, making a book, or putting your work on ResearchGate or adapting it into a video?

Exploring further

● Check out an example of the rights that publishers give authors to their work, this one being Elsevier’s sharing policy. Could you, for example, publish a version of an article in your institutional repository? What about posting on social media? Or putting a copy of your work in ResearchGate or (You can usually find the current policy of any other of the big publishers by doing a web search for the publisher’s name and “sharing policy” if you’re interested in another publisher).

● For postgraduate researchers: are you wondering about how copyright works when you’re looking to publish while doing your thesis or after you’ve finished? Read this guide on the MIT library’s website about the policies of each of the major publishers. Short version: you own the copyright in your thesis (the bits you made at least) and publishers don’t consider a thesis prior publication. So in most cases you’re free to use your thesis content for publication or to formally publish a peer-reviewed piece of work after you’ve finished.

● Think you need to get permission to use something and there is no facility like the one described in task 1? If the rights holder doesn’t have this facility then there are lots of guides online about how to ask for copyright permission, but a plain-English one is provided by the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand.

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Unknown member
Jun 07, 2022

I usually stuck by the copyrights at certain situations while attempting to access some paid articles on databases such as SAGE. I often care about acknowledging others' works such as figures and graphs, but what is ore here is the new information to be considered specifically when one thinks of themselves as the author of that work.


Unknown member
May 31, 2022

Very helpful article - plainly written regarding a complex topic. I really enjoyed playing with the ‘Request permissions’ button on that journal article - never thought to do that before. Thanks.

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