Biology Open journal uses not-quite-open CC-BY-NC-SA licence

February 7, 2012

I have just sent this letter to the Editorial Office of the brand new open-access journal Biology Open, which has just published its very first issue.

Dear Biology Open,

First of all, congratulations on launching your new journal.  It is a very welcome addition to the field.

Unfortunately, the utility of articles published in Biology Open under the current circumstances will be less than it should be.  As stated on your Open Access Policies and Fees page, “All articles are published under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) license”.

Although in many respects this is an open licence, it does not conform to the the most widely accepted definition of Open Access, that of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), which reads 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.”

You will recognise this as the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) licence, unencumbered by the non-commercial and share-alike clauses.  Although these additional clauses are intuitively appealing, they typically have unintended consequences that hamper the reusability of information published in this way — for example, it is not in general possible to text-mine NC documents without complex negotiations.  It is for this reason that other open-access publishers such as PLoS and BioMed Central have elected to use a CC-BY licence.  A fuller discussion of the pros and cons of the NC clause can be found in this recent paper in ZooKeys.

For these reasons and to facilitate the greatest possible value of the articles published in Biology Open, I urge you to consider changing the journal’s licence to CC-BY.  Now would be the time to do it, very early in the journal’s life, when it should not be too difficult to contact the authors of existing articles and request their permission to relicence under the more permissive regime.

In closing, I congratulate you once more on the publication of the first issue of your new journal, and wish you the very best as it grows and develops.

Dr. Michael P. Taylor
Research Associate
Department of Earth Sciences
University of Bristol
Bristol BS8 1RJ

I feel like a bit of a jerk sending a criticism when they’re just up and running, but I think it’s the best thing in the long run.  I will let you know what they say if/when they reply.

Update (28 March 2012).  They did: read all about it.

12 Responses to “Biology Open journal uses not-quite-open CC-BY-NC-SA licence”

  1. well, I have mixed feelings about this. If a journal goes “too open” it runs the risk of rip-off publishers in certain developing countries printing the articles as books, scamming readers all over the world.

    On the other hand, you can use any license you like, if the legal system of those said countries doesn’t improve, it won’t matter.

  2. As an artist, I enable my artistic works available under a CC-BY-NC-ND license. This is to ensure that someone cannot just take my image and claim it for profits when I gain nothing. This ensures theft can be prosecuted. A CC-BY is great when you have nothing you want to claim as yours, such as scientific results of testing, etc, or objects intended for the public domain. But the work of an artist within said work would be covered within that context, meaning an illustrator may unwittingly release the rights to his property for publication under potentially deceptive purposes. For my skeletal arts, they are practically in the public domain, save that I us a CC BY-SA license for them, instead, meaning I only require attribution and same-license versions to be produced from them … but can even enable others to profit off them! This ensures that my artistic and intellectual properties are protected for the purpose of income, while still enabling the ability of others to use or share.

    The NC-con commercial bit there is the critical element of the license, as a pure open access format literally deprives any author of any right, but any pirate/thief is not bound legally to the SA-share alike aspect of the license.

    I’m thinking that the papers themselves should not be on any one single license, but that images held under different licenses from the text. In an open, “free” share system of information, the text is the one that really matters, not being someone’s personal property with an intellectual-property rider that is signed over to the public domain. Images used therein should not be held to the same low, low bar.

  3. Andy Farke Says:

    Depends on the image, Jaime – there are images, and there are images. Photographs of specimens are not the same as artists’ reconstruction of specimens are not the same as CT scans of specimens are not the same as life restorations of specimens.

  4. Excellent, good job Mike – you’re doing the right thing. I hope they listen. It’s in their own best interest.

    Interestingly, their namesake journal ‘Open Biology’ (a new Royal Society journal; gets it right and uses the CC-BY licence.

  5. ech Says:

    I think I understand some of the reasons why NC is problematic. Why does SA end up being a problem when applied to academic papers?

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    ech, I think that SA is much less problematic than NC; it’s a clause that absolutely has its heart in the right place, and I have tried to use it myself in the past. (When I release software, I always favour the GNU GPL, which is pretty much equivalent to CC-SA.)

    Suppose I text-mine 50,000 papers, of which 49,999 are CC-BY and one is CC-SA. Because of the viral nature of SA — it infects derivative works — whatever valuable information I get out of my analysis has to also be CC-SA. I can’t sell it. (To be precise: I can sell it, but whoever I sell it to is at liberty to further distribute it as CC-SA, so I might only sell one copy.)

    Now it’s open to debate whether this is a bug or a feature. For software, I think it is a definite feature (though I should note that not everyone agrees). This is because when you build software using other people’s components, you use only a few, and you can and should stop and think through the licence implications. There are known cases where, because a software library was GPLd, a program that used it was also released under the GPL where it would otherwise have been proprietary — which is a big win.

    But when dealing with large corpuses, I fear that by far the simplest approach will be just to omit any documents with the SA clause. That is what many, maybe most, analyses will do. And the world will be poorer for it.

    On the other hand, those analyses that do incorporate SA’d inputs and which therefore have to CC-SA their outputs will make the world richer. Which effect will be stronger? My guess is, the former; but it’s only a guess.

  7. Andy: I meant to qualify images in general initially. I do understand that photographs and, say, artistic reconstructions carry different essential copyright elements with them: artistic compositions in general should always have a BY-NC attached them, potentially omitting the “SA”, while artistic reconstructions, such as skeletal diagrams or life-reconstructions should certainly have either BY-NC when the artist or author wishes to retain copyright, or BY only when the artist is making them “freely” available save for attribution. Note that the SA element is merely to ensure my name follows the reconstruction should someone modify the work … it is still, underneath, based on my intellectual property.

    There is a sense, I fear, that aiming for a true, full CC-BY only world will take out any attempts at claims of “rights” or “property” in the objects being traded around, digital or otherwise. This may be a feature of the intention, of a Marxist collective-ownership quality to research work (which seems fair, save for attribution of the guys who think the stuff up!), but it flies in the face of we artists who still wish, or attempt to, make a living off our work and also contribute to the research ourselves. A single license doesn’t fit all.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    It’s certainly emerging here (and has done in other contexts as well) that the licensing needs of artists are different from those of artists. Or, since several of you function in both roles, perhaps I should say that people’s licensing needs vary depending on whether they’re making art of science. (I am reminded of this observation: “Art is like science in that it attemps to make sense out of an apparently meaningless universe. However, the artist, unlike the scientist, doesn’t want anyone else to be able to replicate his experiment” — Claire West.)

    Still, I hope we’re all in agreement that scientific outputs should be licensed as liberally as possible in nearly all situations.

    BTW., Jaime, be careful not to confuse copyright with licensing. You say that “artistic reconstructions, such as skeletal diagrams or life-reconstructions should certainly have BY-NC when the artist or author wishes to retain copyright.” But you retain copyright in your work whatever licence you provide it under, including CC-BY. You only forego copyright if you explicitly choose to do so, either by assigning copyright to someone else (usually a publisher) or by dedicating a work to the public domain.

  9. That’s actually the point, Mike. In virtually all cases, artists transfer copyright when attempting to get their work published, save for a license agreement that allows the publisher to take a share of the work; then the artist merely garners a royalty from sales and gets to keep the original, which he is free to sell or not on his own whim. In some cases, publishers demand the original, as well. In digital media, this is often quite irrelevant, but for those working in “traditional” media, original and digital versions are very different and need to be licensed separately, if necessary.

    The artist no longer owns the rights to the work being reproduced, the publisher does. You have to do this, largely, for any scientific work in which your art appears as those publishers will not involve themselves with royalties payments. This comes from personal experience. I understand that there is a distinction between licensing and copyright, but it seems this is one critical area in which the two come close indeed. An artist, for example, may not use images based on his work he has “sold” to a publisher commercially, as with selling a license on the work for another publisher, when the first as “bought” the rights — this means the first owns the copyright on the image, and all reproductions, if not the original itself. If, instead, the artist sells a license, he is free to send the image anywhere he wishes for whatever reasons: the publisher bought a “window” of access with very strict terms on THEIR use of the image, while the artist was less restricted. Copyright may be demanded from the publisher in some cases, as when I “sold” a three-year access to National Geographic for some of my images, in which period I was unable to use those images for my own personal purposes.

    Perhaps, though I am misunderstanding. Yes, we artists has a slightly different perspective on this issue than mere text-authors do. This is also different from specimen photographs, though not too different, in which the owning institution owns the copyright on ALL images produced via photography of their property, and to even publish the image, you need a license releasing the copyright (a “window”).

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    This is also different from specimen photographs, though not too different, in which the owning institution owns the copyright on ALL images produced via photography of their property.

    This is not generally true. In the absence on some explicit agreement, photographs are copyright the photographer. Of course, the owner of the fossils can make it a condition of photography that they own copyright on the photos — this is what the Natural History Museum does — but that is the outcome of a contract rather than a natural consequence of photography. By contrast, I own copyright on all the photos I’ve taken in the awesome Humboldt Museum in Berlin, which has no such requirement.

  11. […] few weeks ago, I noted that the new journal Biology Open, which had just published its very first issue, had made the […]

  12. […] a codification of its existing practice and intent. I only wish that Biology Open would respond to my similar plea to them, rather than continuing with their destructive insistence on the NC […]

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