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Scholarly Publishing Toolkit

Scholarly communication support for authors and researchers, with information on Open Access and evaluating publishers.

Publishing Agreements

Your scholarship represents years of hard work, so be an active steward of your intellectual achievement.  Consult this guide before you sign any publisher's publication agreement, and know which publication rights you want to retain. 

What Happens in a Typical Publication Agreement?

You are a copyright owner.  Any work in a fixed, tangible form of expression belongs to the creator (except for a few limited cases, such as works made for hire) and is automatically protected by copyright. This means that, early on, you own the copyright to your articles, chapters, etc.

However, when you sign a publishing agreement, you may be transferring your copyright to another person or entity.  It's important to know that:

  1. Transferring copyright means that you lose some, or all, of your rights because you give them to someone else.  This can adversely impact your ability to use your own work as you wish in the future, such as teaching with it or sharing it.
  2. Publishing agreements are legal contracts.  Just as you would carefully read a contract with a bank or realtor, you should read and understand your publication contracts, and know you can negotiate them.
  3. You do not need to transfer your copyright to a publisher in order for your work to be published.  In other words, there is absolutely no need for a publisher to become the copyright owner of your work.  You can retain your rights.

Publishing agreements are legal contracts. They are negotiable.

What Permissions Does a Publisher Need to Publish My Work?

Copyright is often referred to as a "bundle" of rights.  The UT Libraries' copyright page has basic information about the four rights that make up copyright. 

A copyright owner can give anyone particular permissions to their work.  A publisher needs only the copyright owner's permission to reproduce and distribute the work in order to publish it.  The publisher does not need to be the copyright holder in order to publish your work. Consider this statement from Kevin L. Smith, J.D., and David R. Hanson, J.D., in Copyright and Author's Rights: A Briefing Paper:

"Some publishers use a 'license to publish' agreement instead of a full transfer of rights... Even when publishers initially demand a transfer of rights, many have already-prepared 'license to publish' agreements available if the author requests it."

There are many examples of journals who do not ask for copyright transfer as a condition of publishing with them (e.g., Evolutionary Ecology Research or PLOS Medicine).

How Do I Work with a Publisher to Retain My Rights as an Author?

As a result of many funders' public access policies, publishers are regularly accommodating requests to amend or alter traditional copyright transfer agreements.  And, with several universities passing public access or open access policies at their institutions (Harvard, University of California system), publishers are increasingly familiar with fielding author requests to amend default publication agreements.

So, you aren't the first person to ask for a change in publication agreement terms.

First, consider what you want to be able to do with your work without having to ask the publisher's permission.

What Do You Want to Do with Your Work?

1. You want your work to be openly/publicly available 6 months after publication in the journal ("Green OA").

  • Note that many publishers allow you to make a version of your work available to the public via an institution's open repository after 12 months. You can deposit the work now in an open repository and set a date for it to be released to the public. See the page on Depositing in TRACE for more information.
  • If you want to ask for a shorter 6-month embargo, you need to first retain the right to deposit a version of the article in our institution's repository (TRACE) or your discipline's repository. Your journal may or may not allow you to keep those rights already. Review the copyright transfer agreement before agreeing to it/signing it.
  • You may need to use the "Delayed Access" option from the Science Commons Scholars' Copyright Addendum Engine. (The addendum is applicable to any discipline and specified a 6-month embargo.) Include it when you contact the publisher and/or editor of the journal. Though this is a fairly unchallenging request, know that the typical embargo/delay period lasts 12 months.
  • As opposed to the publisher's final version of the article, you will most likely be allowed to deposit your final manuscript post-peer-review (also known as the final manuscript or post-print). See the page on Depositing in TRACE for more information on versions.
  • Add your final manuscript/post-print (or the publisher's version, if allowed) to TRACE and set an embargo period, if necessary. The article will automatically become public on the date you specify in the embargo field.

2. You want to allow others not just to view but also to reuse your work as long as you are given credit/acknowledgement, or as long as you are given credit/acknowledgement and the reuse is for noncommercial purposes.

  • To do this, look for journals that allow authors to publish under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license or a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (CC-BY-NC) license.
  • Or, use the "Access and Reuse" option from the Science Commons Scholars' Copyright Addendum Engine. (The addendum is applicable to any discipline and is similar to a CC-BY-NC license.) Include it when you contact the publisher and/or editor of the journal.


Set up a consultation with the Research Impact & Open Access Head Librarian, Peter Fernandez for more information.

Free to Reuse with Credit

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Creative Commons License

You are free to reuse original material on this guide if you credit Rachel Caldwell and University of Tennessee Libraries; however, much of the information on this page comes from other sources. Check the permissions you need to reuse any material that comes from other sources.


The author of this page in not a lawyer and the information provided does not constitute legal advice.

Notice: The author of this page in not a lawyer and the information provided does not constitute legal advice.