More publishers move towards CC-BY licence for OA articles

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Each year, Open Access Week signals a wealth of access-related announcements from companies and organisations involved in scholarly publishing. This year many of the announcements focused on licensing conditions.

At first glance, open access (OA) can seem like a single, unifying concept. However, the reality is different. Even within the gold subset of OA (where publication fees are paid by authors or others) there are many differences, in particular what users can do with content, which has varied between publications and publishers.

However, the past month or so has seen several moves by publishers towards the CC-BY licence. These include the IET, Taylor & Francis, IOP Publishing, Nature Publishing Group (NPG) and Wiley.

The CC-BY licence condition, defined by Creative Commons, allows modification and reuse of content, including commercially, provided that the original author is properly attributed.

A big driver for CC-BY was the position taken by the UK’s Research Councils UK (RCUK) and Wellcome Trust earlier this year. These funders, in agreement with the UK government’s strong OA endorsement in the Finch report, will require all publications from the research that they fund to be made openly-accessible under this licence condition from April 2013.

Announcements of shifts to CC-BY have been welcomed on Twitter and in blog posts. In particular, some researchers are excited about the possibilities of mining scholarly content, without lengthy negotiations to gain permission.

As computational and evolutionary biology researcher Casey Bergman argued in a comment on the Scholarly Kitchen blog, ‘I have no intention of performing misguided, non-attributive text mining. On the contrary, I want to use and attribute text properly, but I want to bypass having to deal with bureaucrats and lawyers who know little if anything about the scientific material and technical issues concerning text mining.’

Some in the industry argue that non-commercial licences already allow data mining, saying that the licence refers simply to the published text and not to the underlying research data. However, in some cases the ‘data’ is the article text itself and the results contained within it, perhaps because of the nature of particular disciplines or of lack of organised open datasets.

Beyond research applications, there are also opportunities with CC-BY to use content commercially such as in developing new products or in industrial-academic partnerships. As Cameron Neylon, advocacy director at PLOS observed in a PLOS Biology editorial, ‘If we restrict their capacity to use our research by restricting commercial use, we limit the chances of partners, commercial or otherwise, finding and contacting us.’

However, there are concerns with the implications of the licence. Because CC-BY allows for commercial reuse of content it could theoretically be published again, behind a paywall, which might seem to contradict some of the aims of open access. And there may be some uses that researchers are uncomfortable with. For example, medical researchers might be unhappy with parts of their papers being used to promote a particular drug.

‘We have come across a number of organisations whose governance  restricts commercial reuse which may make it difficult for them to use a mandated CC-BY licence’ noted Nicola Gulley, editorial director of IOP Publishing.

IOP’s OA articles were originally published under the CC-BY-SA-NC licence, where NC denotes ‘non commercial’. The SA means ‘share alike’, which allows reuse but requires that reuse is under the same licence terms. ‘We originally thought that SA would be good because it guaranteed OA,’ said Gulley. ‘We changed because after discussions with various organisations and other societies around the world we reached the conclusion that SA may not necessarily be enforceable and was proving to be a barrier for some users; for example, if they were re-using the content for an article in a non OA publication.’

Despite the change of licence conditions, Gulley still has reservations about the CC-BY licence. ‘Authors are not always clear what publishing under this licence really means,’ she explained.

Her reservations are shared by Victoria Gardner, open access publisher at Taylor & Francis / Routledge Journals: ‘We had, and still do have, some concerns around CC-BY, especially on the part of authors in social sciences and humanities, where ideas, rather than data, are their currency of communication. We believe that many authors will not be comfortable with the loss of freedom or of retained rights over their work.’

And there could be further challenges: ‘We also anticipate issues for those authors who wish to use third-party material within their papers. It will make permission clearance and rights management much more complex especially in social science and arts and humanities subjects,’ she continued.

For publishers, the change to CC-BY could also bring changes to relationships with authors. ‘Under CC-BY we no longer have the ability to protect copyright and associated author rights on their behalf,’ observed Gardner.

‘It will be interesting to see how it’s going to meet the needs of authors,’ agreed IOP’s Gulley. ‘For publishers, one issue is how to manage plagiarism. CC-BY gives people the right to use content so it would not be copying but it does blur the line on what counts as original, publishable, archival work. Whether we still have rights to defend the author and under what circumstances is a related issue.’

And there are potential implications for publishers that have traditionally made money from reprint sales. as NPG identified in crafting its licence policies. ‘Exclusive commercial rights enable NPG to minimise charges to authors by maximising future commercial opportunities, such as commercial reprints, and use these income streams to help support OA journals,’ noted David Hoole, marketing director at NPG.

NPG offers authors three Creative Commons licences on its titles. The two non-commercial licences have the same article-processing charge (APC), but the APC for CC-BY is higher. ‘This reflects the loss of our exclusive commercial rights on these articles, and the impact on future reprints and licensing income,’ explained Hoole.

Despite concerns, there is a steady move towards CC-BY by publishers. ‘I think there are a lot of benefits for CC-BY, such as more flexibility of re-use,’ said IOP's Gulley.

And it’s not unchartered territory for publishers. Major OA publishers such as PLOS, BioMed Central and Hindawi Publishing already use CC-BY. What’s more, CERN has required CC-BY on papers from its research for a long time.

It remains to be seen how researchers respond as they become more aware of and understand the options. It is also not yet clear what the implications are for collaborations or whether the licence is better suited to some subjects than others.

As Victoria Gardner of Taylor & Francis observed, ‘we have noted that most (if not all) advocates are working in science and technology-related fields (and not social sciences and humanities).’

What’s more, it’s still unknown whether authors can opt out of CC-BY. Some publishers offer a range of CC options. According to Steve Miron, senior vice president of Wiley’s Scientific, Technical, Medical and Scholarly business, ‘Wiley is willing to comply with all mandates but we will give authors a choice.’

And then, of course, should authors be as reluctant as some predict to publish as CC-BY, there’s always the option to publish their research under a subscription model – provided they are not mandated to do otherwise by their funder.