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Understanding Copyright

When it comes to content duplication in publishing, everyone knows about plagiarism. But did you know that plagiarism is also a copyright issue and not just an ethical one? Plagiarism and copyright are often discussed separately, but because they are actually interrelated, this can be quite confusing for authors. Let’s take a look at the basics of copyright in publishing and where overlap with plagiarism comes in.



Copyright infringement involves reprinting an exact text without permission. It is an offense against the copyright holder and is also illegal, so there are potential legal implications if the copyright holder decides that the offense is serious enough to press charges.

Copyright Infringement  vs Plagiarism



Plagiarism is using someone else’s ideas or words and passing them off as your own. You can see how this overlaps with copyright, but is also broader in that it is not limited to exact duplication of text. Plagiarism breaches publication and research ethics and is an offense against the original author rather than the copyright holder, but is not illegal.

If plagiarism involves the use of exact text or images from another source without permission or appropriate credit given, this can also be considered copyright infringement, leading to greater implications once caught.


Copyright transfer

With the traditional model of academic publishing, journals will ask you to sign a copyright transfer agreement before your article can be published. This means that you are signing over rights to the content in your paper to the journal publisher and all future use of the article and its contents are under their control. Authors are usually granted a specific number of reprints to distribute; however, it would be a breach of copyright for an author to post the published article openly on a departmental or social media site as access could exceed the limit granted by the journal. Although you are giving up rights to future use of your article, transferring your copyright to a journal can help provide a central body to efficiently manage and deal with unauthorized reuse of your work.


Creative Commons licenses

Open access is becoming an increasingly available option for journal publishing, and with it comes a significant change to the copyright rules mentioned above. By choosing open access, your article will be published under what’s known as a Creative Commons license. Under these licenses, authors get to keep copyright over their work and make the decision on how the content can be reused. Most CC licenses used in academic publishing allow free reuse of article content as long as an appropriate citation to the original author is given. However, this does not mean that you can disregard proper publication ethics and copy word for word or plagiarize from an open access article – you must still paraphrase and cite the reference or include an appropriate attribution under any reproduced figures or tables.


Appropriate content reuse

This brings us to the biggest area where copyright will be a concern for most authors – the reuse of figures and tables from a previously published article. In order to do this, you need to obtain permission from the original publisher if the article is under a traditional copyright agreement.

Most permission requests will go through the Copyright Clearance Center (some smaller journals you will need to email directly). To obtain permission you will need to submit a request identifying the original article and figure/table you wish to reuse and in what format you wish to reuse it. For example, in an academic paper, textbook, or commercial product. The type of reuse will often affect whether you will be charged for reuse and how much.

Once you have completed the online request, you are free to reuse the item in your new manuscript; however, you must include a statement in the legend of the figure and/or table noting that it has been reprinted from another source, and include this source in your reference list. You should also provide a copy of the permission receipt or email you received to the editor so they can verify that proper permission was obtained.

Note: these steps also apply if you wish to modify a figure or a table. Modifying someone else’s or even your own work can still be considered plagiarism if you don’t give credit to the original source, so it’s important to seek permission that specifically states that you are allowed to modify it, and not just reproduce it, in order for it to comply with proper publication ethics.

Hopefully this has helped make sense of the basics of copyright in academic publishing and how it can overlap with plagiarism. Have you run into any other tricky issues with copyright? Let us know in the comments below.