A publication agreement with a book or journal publisher is a contract between the author and that publisher; it may be either a copyright transfer or a license. The most important point in this regard is that all authors should read any publication agreement before they sign it to determine which way it addresses copyright.
Most publication agreements are transfers of copyright, but most also allow authors to retain certain rights after they have transfered their copyright to the publisher. Authors should look carefully to understand what rights they are keeping, and remain aware that, if not retained, all rights are given to the publisher in a copyright transfer. One important right that authors usually want to retain is the right to use their own work in their teaching, including making copies to distribute to students or to put into coursepacks or online systems. At least as important is the right to use one’s own work in future publications, such as edited collections or proceedings of a conference at which the publication was presented.
The right to use a work in later scholarship brings up another issue — the non-compete clause. Sometimes contracts for book publication will contain a clause saying that the author will not publish something that competes with the book under contract. These clauses can seriously inhibit a scholars right to continue publishing research in the same field. Since most scholars do not want to abandon a whole field of research after one publication, it is important to read agreements carefully to identify and negotiate over any non-compete clauses and to retain rights to use articles in future publications.
Another right that is becoming very important is the author’s right to post her work on a personal web page, in a disciplinary repository or in an institutional repository. Again, many publication agreements are allowing authors to retain this right in some form, but they often restrict what version of the article can be used or when the article can be placed in an open access database. So for this reason also, it is important to read a publication contract carefully.
When a publication agreement is a transfer of copyright, all these rights may be retain, but if they are not specifically mentioned, the author no longer has them. A transfer gives everything to the publisher unless it is explicitly retained. A license, on the other hand, gives only the right of first publication to the publisher, and the author retains all the rights that are not explicitly included in the license grant. Obviously, a license for first publication is the form of publication contract that is most beneficial to the authors, since it gives them maximum flexibility to use their own work after publication has occurred. This kind of contract is not the norm, but some publishers are now willing to accept a license for first publication, so many authors will find that it is at least worth asking.