Oct 10

Journal copyright for figures - why it takes aaaaages

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The difference red-tape laden copyright processes can make to a happy scientist

Some time ago now, in a weak moment, Ralph and I agreed to write a review article on optical gas sensing for the journal Measurement Science and Technology, an IoP journal. This is a huge field and to do it justice we have written a rather large article with over 400 citations and 60 figures. It has been through peer review and is reaching the final stages of preparation, one of which is to get copyright permission to reproduce images from other peoples’ publications. Standard practice is that the authors have to do this, ie me.

A review article is essentially a pointer to the latest work in the field, with the odd bit of comment and explanation. Illustrations help the reader, make the paper more interesting and are likely to attract greater interest than the text. This means readers might go on to cite the source article in their own work, increasing impact factors of the source journals etc.

So you might think it was an advantage to have your work in a review article. Well, somebody needs to tell this to the IEEE, who want to charge a fee of £45 for each figure. None of the other publishers I contacted wanted a fee – not even Nature!

Having nothing better to do with my time ;-), I looked for alternative images. For the first offending image I found the same picture, by the same author, in a journal by a different publisher (Elsevier). For the second I found a similar image from a different author, also published by Elsevier, which told the same story. So it’s in with Elsevier (and their membership to Rightslink), out with IEEE. Despite their recent poor publicity, this is something that I think Elsevier have got right.

My second problem is also a result of journal copyright policy. Generally, authors sign over the copyright in their work to the journal when their article is in press. One advantage of this (for me) is that I only have to contact the publisher, as the copyright holder. However, one organisation (SPIE) also required me to contact the authors directly for their permission as well. Let’s look at the consequences of this policy in my stats:

1. Optical Society of America (OSA). I used 10 figures all from different articles, sent one email and had one reply. Job done, and thank you very much.

2. SPIE, the International Society for Optics and Photonics (a rival organisation to OSA). I used 8 figures from different articles and have now sent 20 emails over a period of 5 weeks. As SPIE don’t routinely provide email addresses for the corresponding authors, I had to Google several authors and failing that phone their company receptionists to find them (international calls). In the end I redrew one of the images and SPIE have finally given permission where I have struggled to make contact with all the authors. Actually this process resulted in one organisation giving me new (and otherwise unpublished) data for the article, with their blessing.

What do you do then? Well, in order of easiness:

(i)     Draw it yourself from scratch where you can.

(ii)    Redraw any easy line drawings (they will look better that way anyway) – this is OK as long as you still cite them properly.

(iii)   If your publisher (eg IoP) and the publisher of the cited article (eg Elsevier) are both STM signatories, you can rest easy: they have a reciprocal arrangement under STM guidelines and you don’t have to request permission.

(iv)   Think twice about reproducing anything from journals with non-standard copyright policies if you value your money or your time.

Finally, a big thank-you to the authors I contacted who replied promptly and with grace, including the esteemed professor who I wrongly addressed as “Dr” (big oops) and the professor who sent me a better quality photo than the one I had cut and pasted from a pdf of his paper.

The article will be published in due course and you can see what’s in it then; by reading this you know why some of it is the way it is.

UPDATE: the article is now published.