Following up on Biology Open journal’s not-quite-open CC-BY-NC-SA licence

March 27, 2012

A few weeks ago, I noted that the new journal Biology Open, which had just published its very first issue, had made the unfortunate choice to use the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) license.  Although this licence does offer a lot of freedom, it’s too restrictive to be properly described as “open access”, a term originated in 2001 by the Budapest Open Access Initiative which defined it as follows:

By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

I wrote to the editors, as I noted last time, and received a polite reply from Rachel Hackett, the managing editor.  After a little more back and forth, she sent me the following statement from the Company of Biologists with permission to publish it on this blog:

“The Directors of the Company of Biologists, who are active scientists, reviewed the licence under which Biology Open publishes its articles both before and after launch.

We are aware of the implications of the different licence types and it was decided that the CC BY-NC-SA licence was appropriate to ensure that the rights of both author and publisher are protected. Those wanting to use our content for commercial purposes can still ask us for permission.

The Company of Biologists is a not-for-profit Charity that finances journals, supports meetings and awards travelling fellowships.”

So there are a few things to say here:

1. It’s their journal, and of course they have every right to publish it under whatever terms they want.

2. It’s a pretty open licence, allowing the articles to be freely read by researchers and to become input to further (non-commercial) research.  So credit is due, and I hope no-one at Biology Open feels I’m picking on them.  But:

3. It’s a missed opportunity.  Heather Piwowar said this rather well in a recent comment: “We do basic research not only to know more, but to do more”.  Non-commercial licences impede the use of research, and that’s not to the benefit of wider society.  (I won’t labour this point now, because I’ll have more to say on non-commercial clauses in a subsequent post.)

The upshot here is that, because no-one really knows what “commercial” means, there will be a chilling effect on using Biology Open papers for anything other than human reading.  For example, consider a company wanting to run text-mining software across a corpus of papers to discover chemical reactions.  They will know they can do this with, say, PLoS articles (which are CC BY), but will have to skip Biology Open if they want to stay on the safe side.  No-one gains by this exclusion — certainly not the journal or its publisher.

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4 Responses to “Following up on Biology Open journal’s not-quite-open CC-BY-NC-SA licence”


  1. [...] Following up one Biology Open journal’s not-quite-open CC-BY-NC-SA licence [...]


  2. The journal and publisher probably hope to gain: they hope the company will come to them and ask for access, at which point they can charge a fee.

    Unfortunately these fees are not transparent to companies, libraries, or authors.

    In the mean time, uses by all of these players just never happen:
    – companies who want to do some quick playing around: they aren’t sure if it is worth it yet
    – companies who can’t afford to pay upfront
    – companies who can’t afford the effort of entering into contracts with 5-10 publishers to get the job done. Not all companies have 35% profit margins.


  3. [...] I only wish that Biology Open would respond to my similar plea to them, rather than continuing with their destructive insistence on the NC [...]

  4. vaffangool Says:

    A lot of creators who apply the -NC license believe they are aware of its technical implications, and assume that it will act only as a filter against downstream uses that will clearly offend the originator’s sensibilities.

    The myriad practical- and logistical consequences of the -NC license never fail to surprise them:

    * License holders underestimate risk aversion; mere nominal possiblilty of -NC being invoked obviates development resources;
    * Potential users will substitute non-NC alternatives or develop their own;
    * Uncertainty never eliminated; license holder can invoke after giving (explicit or implicit) blessing–exposure to extortion;
    * Intermediate steps precluded by the license prevent possibilites from even materialising;
    * Risk of innovation being torpedoed by license holder increases exponentially as project aggregates -NC technologies;
    * Even developers willing to assume risk are serverely constrained in number of -NC exposures it can track.


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