Prof. explores why movies and academic research shouldn’t be treated the same in copyright law

Nations around the world adopting secondary publication rights in their IP laws could mean academic works end up making bigger impacts on society rather than profits for publishing houses

Douglas Johnson - 5 June 2024

Around the globe, most countries treat academic research the same as movies, books, songs and other creative works when it comes to intellectual property (IP) laws. According to a recent paper by Faith Majekolagbe, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law, this should change. 

Her work began in 2021, while she was a visiting researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition in Germany. She became familiar with the legal and IP reforms in the European Union. One example stood out: Germany’s copyright law offers researchers secondary publication rights. 

Researchers in countries without secondary publication rights often end up signing a copyright transfer contract with big, privately owned publishers, who often put their work behind a paywall, and restrict the researcher from making it available for free elsewhere — or they need to wait for more than a year to do so. Secondary publication rights legislation means that academics can republish the final peer-reviewed (accepted) manuscripts of their works on open-access digital repositories — such as the Social Science Research Network — even after it’s published elsewhere. 

Researchers with secondary publication rights do not need to obtain permission from the publisher or worry about the terms of their publishing agreement with a journal to republish their work in an open digital repository. 

“Academics have very little bargaining power with publishers so oftentimes we just take the contract as it is,” Majekolagbe says. 

Majekolagbe dug into which countries had a secondary publication right for academic research works like Germany’s. In the end, she only found five: Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, France and Belgium. She then researched the impact these pieces of legislation had in their respective countries, and read numerous other reports and academic papers to explore the topic. 

According to Majekolagbe, unlike many types of creative works, academic research is primarily funded by public institutions, such as through government grants.

Secondary publication rights mean that “taxpayers do not pay twice for the same research,” she says. 

Unlike creative works, academics do not receive royalties for their research. Though, she notes, this isn’t the primary motivator for researchers. Rather, they often hope to make an impact or grow their professional reputations. She adds that these goals rely on “mass access” and usage of their research, which is hindered when their work is accessible only to journal subscribers. 

If governments around the world implemented secondary publication rights legislation, it would allow academics to publish their work in closed-access journals (if they wish), while providing them the option to republish the work on another platform where people can access it for free. 

“It makes sense for there to be a mechanism that allows the public to have access to the results of research activities,” she says.