Nature Publishing Group Requires Faculty Authors to Waive ‘Moral Rights’

March 31, 2014

Faculty authors who contract to write for the publisher of Nature, Scientific American, and many other journals should know that they could be signing away more than just the economic rights to their work, according to the director of the Office of Copyright and Scholarly Communication at Duke University.

Kevin Smith, the Duke official, said he stumbled across a clause in the Nature Publishing Group’s license agreement last week that states that authors waive or agree not to assert "any and all moral rights they may now or in the future hold" related to their work. In the context of scholarly publishing, "moral rights" include the right of the author always to have his or her name associated with the work and the right to have the integrity of the work protected such that it is not changed in a way that could result in reputational harm.

"In many countries, you can’t waive them as an author," Mr. Smith said. "But in the Nature publishing agreement you are required to waive them, and if you are in a country where a waiver is not allowed, you have to assert in the contract you won’t insist on those rights."

Grace Baynes, a spokeswoman for the Nature Publishing Group, declined to say how long the language on moral rights had been included in its license agreement. In comments posted on Friday on the company’s website, Ms. Baynes said that the publisher always attributes articles to authors.

"The ‘moral rights’ language included in our license to publish is there to ensure that the journal and its publisher are free to publish formal corrections or retractions of articles where the integrity of the scientific record may be compromised by the disagreement of authors," Ms. Baynes wrote. "This is not our preferred approach to dealing with corrections and retractions, and we work with authors and institutions to seek consensus first." The Nature Publishing Group will listen to all feedback on its license to publish and has invited Mr. Smith to "have a discussion with us," Ms. Baynes said.

‘Core Academic Values’

Mr. Smith first questioned the details of the Nature Publishing Group’s license agreement on his blog on Thursday.

Calling the moral-rights stipulation "bizarre" and an attack "on core academic values," he wrote that in some countries authors are forbidden to waive those rights. "The United States is something of an outlier in that we do not have a formal recognition of moral rights in our copyright law, although we always assert that these values are protected by other laws," he wrote.

His comments were part of a longer post noting that the powerful scholarly publisher has apparently begun enforcing at Duke a requirement that authors at institutions with open-access policies secure waivers exempting their work from those policies.

About a half dozen faculty members contacted him last week to ask him about waivers after receiving emails from the Nature Publishing Group, Mr. Smith said. Duke’s open-access policy was adopted in March 2010, Mr. Smith said, and the archiving of published work has always been done in compliance with publishers’ policies so as not to unduly burden faculty authors. He has added a note to his office’s website telling faculty members to contact him for a waiver.

While the timing of the publisher’s enforcement of its waiver requirement is "odd," Mr. Smith said, he is most concerned about faculty authors’ signing away their moral rights. He intends to suggest to Duke faculty members that they seek to have the language stricken from their agreements. It could be replaced with a sentence stating that the Nature Publishing Group retains the right to correct or retract an article if the need arises.

"I raise the question ‘Why?’" said Mr. Smith. "Obviously the most fundamental thing authors get when they publish is credit, reputation. If their name isn’t associated with the work, that is completely lost."