A loophole in PLOS’s use of the CC By licence
July 3, 2013
Christopher W. Schadt tells a distasteful story over on his blog, about how a PLOS ONE paper that he was a co-author on was republished as part of a non-PLOS printed volume that retails for $100. The editors and publishers of this volume neither asked the authors’ permission to do this (which is fair enough, it was published as CC By), nor even took the elementary courtesy of informing them. Worse, the reprinted copy in the book doesn’t have a reference to the original version in PLOS ONE.
It’s clear the editors of this book have (to put it mildly) been rather rude here. But what they’ve done is possibly legal and in accordance with the terms under which the article was originally published. The CC By licence requires attribution, and sure enough the work is attributed to the correct authors.
But does CC By require that the original publication also be credited? Not exactly. The terms of the licence say that the work can be reused subject to this condition:
Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).
So the author could specify (and PLOS should probably specify in the published form of their articles) that the manner in which the work should be attributed requires not only authorship to be recognised but also the original publication in PLOS to be cited.
But the current PLOS wording on this is unfortunately a mess. Schadt’s article, like all PLOS ONE articles, says:
Copyright: © 2010 Reganold et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
This is probably intended to say that attribution must mention both author and source (i.e. citation of original publication). But what this wording actually does, wrongly, is state that this is what the CC BY licence intrinsically requires.
So PLOS have a bit of work to do to tidy this up. And they are not alone in this. PeerJ uses the exact same form of words, and BMC says something a bit different (“… provided the original work is properly cited”) which us also open to misinterpretation.
All three of these publishers, and probably many others using CC By, need to tighten their wording so that they don’t claim that CC By requires a full citation, but stipulate that in their use of CC By, providing a citation is part of what constitutes proper attribution.
Had PLOS ONE done that, then the reprinted version of the Reganold et al. paper would have been clearly not covered by the CC By licencing option, and so would have constituted copyright violation plain and simple. As it is, they’re clearly guilty but have some wiggle-room. (To be fair, representatives of the production company and publisher have been quick to apologise on Schadt’s blog.)