Making Scientific Research and Data Open Access: Intellectual Property Rights Guidelines

The following section aims to provide researchers with guidelines on how to handle copyright. The main goal is to make researchers aware of the responsibilities that follow out of copyright. These requirements mainly arise when using other people’s material during the creation of a scientific work. Before uploading scientific material to the OpenScienceLink portal, the researcher must take into account his responsibilities under relevant national copyright law.

With regard to the re-use of material that has been originally published on the OpenScienceLink portal, we refer to the guidelines concerning our licensing practices. Content uploaded to the OpenScienceLink platform is licensed to platform users under the Creative Commons 4.0 – BY-NC-SA license. The two main consequences of this license for the researcher are:

  1. When uploading material via the OpenScienceLink portal, the author agrees that his material will be shared to others under the CC.04 BY-NC-SA License.
  2. Material originally published via the OpenScienceLink portal can be re-used under the conditions of the CC.04 BY-NC-SA License.

The use of scientific articles via external databases accessible via the portal is not captured by this license. For instance, GoPubMed enables the access to articles from the Lancet and Open Access journals. In order to re-use these works, the licensing conditions of those journals, and of the authors that have written the articles therein, must be taken into account.

The following section does not only provide information to the researcher as to which material he can use. It also informs him concerning his rights. Nevertheless, whilst still retaining his exclusive rights, when uploading material via the OpenScienceLink portal, the author agrees to publish his work under the aforementioned creative commons license. Therefore allowing others to use his material under the conditions of that license.

What is Copyright?

Copyright aims to protect the rights of authors by ensuring that they receive recognition, payment and protection for their works. A copyrighted work could include a production in the scientific domain, regardless the mode or form of its expression. However, to enjoy copyright protection, works must meet the criteria for copyright protection: the work has to be “an original expression”, i.e. it must be the result of the free and creative choices of the author. In principle, scientific publications, including data papers, will enjoy copyright protection.

What rights are granted to the holder of copyright?

Copyright grants the right holder several exclusive rights with regard to the actions that can be performed with the copyrighted work. As a researcher building upon other people’s work, the exclusive rights of the original author must be respected.

  • The reproduction right: the exclusive right to authorize or prohibit direct or indirect, temporary or permanent reproduction by any means and in any form, in whole or in part. This right also includes the right to adapt.
  • The communication to the public right: the exclusive right to authorise or prohibit any communication to the public of  the copyrighted work, by wire or wireless means, including the making available to the public of this work in such a way that members of the public may access them from a place and at a time individually chosen by them.

Due to the exclusive nature of copyright, the reproduction and public communication of protected works requires the permission of the right holder.

Do Bare Facts – Research Data enjoy copyright protection?

Bare facts do not enjoy copyright protection: they belong to the domain of knowledge, which is a public good.[1] Consequently, biomedical research data per se do not enjoy copyright protection as well.

Research data may still be copyright-protected if they have been expressed in a tangible form with a sufficient level of originality. The latter however does not protect the data as such, but rather the work in which the data has been incorporated.[2]

Do Metadata enjoy copyright protection?

When metadata refer to descriptions of biomedical data using standardised keywords and terms, they are unlikely to be protected by copyright due to a lack of creative freedom in the choice, sequence and combination of the terms. However copyright in metadata cannot be ruled out.

Nevertheless, the purpose of OpenScienceLink - as well as most other open access initiatives - and the basis for its selection of data and services is the creation of a repository of well-structured and semantically linked datasets. The role of metadata herein is crucial and descriptions should be based on existing and established domain ontologies.[3] Indeed, any freedom in the description and definitions of terms may lead to less discoverability of the data and should therefore be avoided.

Do datasets enjoy copyright protection?

Scientific datasets are unlikely to attract copyright when they are the result of research. This can be concluded from the fact that the level of freedom required for a researcher to express his creativity is fairly limited.

However it is the researcher who ‘Has to make sense of the data that have been collected by exploring and interpreting them’.[4] When a researcher has sufficient freedom and made personal choices in how to present the results of his data collection activities the resulting dataset will be protected under copyright.

Does a database enjoy copyright or any other protection?

A database may enjoy copyright protection when it is considered ‘original’, i.e. when it is the author’s own intellectual creation by reason of the selection or arrangement of the contents. A database selection or arrangement, which purely depends on technical factors or aims to achieve accuracy and exhaustiveness, will also not be protected by copyright. Scientific databases, which constitute bare facts and therefore limit creative freedom, are generally not considered to fall under copyright protection.[5]

The creator of a database may also enjoy a sui generis right for the investment he has made when creating the database (see section What is the Database Rights?)

What are the exclusive rights of the original database’s creator?

The author of the database has the exclusive right to carry out or authorise the:

  1. Temporary or permanent reproduction by any means, in any form, in whole or in part;
  2. Rights of adaptation, translation, arrangement and any other alteration;
  3. Any form of distribution to the public of the database or of copies thereof (subject to Community exhaustion); and
  4. Any communication to the public, display or performance to the public;

Scientific datasets and works originally provided to the OSL platform are licensed under the CC.04 – BY-NC-SA license. This license allows the re-use of the works within the OSL repository under the conditions of the license (see section Making Scientific Research and Data Open Access – Licensing Guidelines).

Who owns copyright?

In general this is the author or creator of the work. However there are a few instances where permission needs to be obtained from other parties. It depends on national legislation how this permission should be given and from whom.

1)Joint ownership

If a work has two authors there is joint copyright for both authors. When a research project has multiple researcher’s institutions there is joint copyright for all researchers/institutions

If research material is derived from existing data enjoying copyright and the newly created work also enjoys copyright there is joint copyright.

2)Works created in the course of employment

The vast majority of scholarly works is made in the course of employment either with a research institution, an enterprise or with universities. In some countries copyright in works created during the course of employment will vest in the employer.[6] However since this may differ, it is important to always consult national copyright regulations. Academic institutions and funding bodies may waive copyright in research materials and publications and assign ownership to the researchers. But the opposite might also be true: the rights of the researcher may be assigned to the research institution. It is therefore very important do check with your institution or funding body what applies to you.

It is important to check the copyright policy of your institution.


[1] Joris Deene, ‘The Legal Status of Research Data (Copyright, Database Right)’ (June 2015).

[2] Joris Deene, ‘The Legal Status of Research Data (Copyright, Database Right)’ (June 2015).

[3] (D4.1 Opensciencelink consortium, 2015)

[4] In quantitative research, data analysis often only occurs after all or much of data have been collected. However, in qualitative research, data analysis often begins during, or immediately after, the first data are collected, although this process continues and is modified throughout the study.

[5] Lucie Guibault and Andreas Wiebe (Eds.)  Safe to be open, Study on the protection of research data and   recommendations for access and usage

[6] In some countries, e.g. Belgium, a transfer of rights in the form of an explicit agreement between an employer and employee may be necessary for the employer to obtain copyright.