What is a viral licence?

February 8, 2013

Earlier today, Richard Van Noorden pointed out on Twitter that in this video, at about 5:40, the speaker says that “CC BY is essentially a viral licence”. I was surprised to say the least that the speaker — Sue Joshua, Director of Legal Affairs at John Wiley & Sons — would make such a basic mistake. I’d have expected a copyright lawyer to know what the term “viral licence” means.

Hence this post.

A viral licence is one that imposes the same terms on derived works. If you don’t believe me, here’s the Wikipedia entry, and if you don’t believe that here’s Princeton University’s definition.

This is the meaning of the term “viral licence”. It doesn’t mean “a licence that has suddenly become popular, i.e. ‘gone viral'”. It refers specifically to a licence that (by design) infects numerous works by transmitting itself to from one work to others.

The classic example of a viral licence is the GNU General Public Licence, which is used for much of the world’s most important free software including the Linux kernel. [Disclosure: in my day-job, some of the software we release is under the GPL: YAZ Proxy, Metaproxy, pazpar2, Zebra, IRSpy, MKDru.]

The other best-known viral licence is Creative Commons Attribute-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA). Specifically, this is differentiated from the more common non-viral CC BY licence by the addition of the ShareAlike clause, which says:

Share Alike — If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one.

The reason that CC BY is the most widely used licence for open-access publications is precisely that it is not viral — its non-viral nature means that work licenced using it can be deployed in the widest possible range of circumstances, which is generally what funders want in exchange for their money.

Why am I making such a big deal about this? Because we need to communicate! The term “viral licence” has one meaning, which makes it very easy and unambiguous to talk about. But if we allow Sue Joshua’s confusion to spread, the term will soon become debased just as “open access” has. I was surprised to see in today’s Twitter stream that a couple of people who I expected to know this term seemed unclear on it, so it’s worth clearing up.

[In this post I am not interested in arguing about whether viral licences are a good or a bad thing; just in establishing what they are.]

Hot on the heels of the UK House of Lords’ inquiry into Open Access, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee of the House of Commons has begun its own inquiry. This morning I submitted my own evidence. Here it is.

[It’s not too late to make your own submission. It doesn’t have to be as long as this: just let the government know your attitude regarding the parts of the question that concern you most. Again, details are here. Get writing!]

Business, Innovation and Skills Committee

Inquiry into the Government’s Open Access Policy

Dr. Michael P. Taylor

7th February 2013

I am an honorary research associate in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. A computer programmer by profession, I completed a Ph.D in my spare time in 2009, and continue to publish research in vertebrate palaeontology. Although my Bristol affiliation gives me reasonable access to paywalled literature, the mechanics of access are cumbersome as I work exclusively off-campus. My unusual circumstances give me a perspective from both inside and outside academia.

I speak only for myself, not for the University of Bristol.

Executive summary

  1. The UK currently leads the world in Open Access, and as a result enjoys a significant citation advantage; the rest of the world is following.
  2. The purpose of funding research is to benefit society as a whole. When publishers’ interests conflict with those of broader society, the government must serve society.
  3. The inclusion of publishers on the Finch Committee represents a conflict of interest. Some recommendations of the Finch Report were compromised by this conflict of interest.
  4. Gold OA has a real advantages over Green OA in that it presents a single Version Of Record. But the Finch Report does not give proper weight to Green OA.
  5. The form of Green OA mandated by the RCUK policy is badly compromised in allowing restrictive licences and delayed access that reduce the value of the research.
  6. There is no evidence that Green OA negatively affects subscription revenue.
  7. CC BY allows commercial re-use by design, in order to obtain the best return on research investment. It explicitly prohibits plagiarism. It does not infringe author’s rights, in fact allowing authors to retain more rights than the prevailing copyright-transfer regime.
  8. The use of CC BY means that research does not merely allow us to know more, but to do more. It is not anti-commercial, it is anti-monopoly (and so facilitates an efficient market).
  9. Gold OA APCs vary greatly between publishers: traditional publishers are far more expensive than new OA-only publishers. Much lower APCs than the £1500–£2000 quoted by the Finch Report are achievable with no loss of publication quality. Government funding should cover only a base APC of perhaps £1000 to encourage downward pressure on prices.
  10. The government must make decisions on the basis of what benefits the UK as a whole, not what benefits any single industry. The government should allow both Gold and Green OA; should require the CC BY licence, whichever route is taken; should tolerate no embargo on Green OA; and should not fully fund exploitatively high APCs.


1. First, I enthusiastically welcome the government’s clearly stated commitment to Open Access (OA). There is no question that the free availability of research outputs will have a significant positive effect – not only by accelerating further research, but also in the form of practical improvements in health, education and industry.

2. I am also delighted to see the UK leading the world in Open Access. RCUK’s pre-Finch OA policy was one of the world’s earliest and most significant; the Finch Report established a clarity of vision not previously seen in any national OA policy; and BIS’s public commitment to OA in all government-funded work was a world first. As noted below, there are strong pragmatic reasons for the UK to maintain a position of leadership. But even leaving these aside, the symbolic value of leadership in open access can hardly be overstated.

3. Equally, it has been hugely encouraging to see the world following the UK’s lead. In the days after the announcement of the UK policy, similar declarations followed from several European countries; and most importantly, the €80M “Horizon 2020” programme of the European Commission also announced an Open Access policy. [Note added 18 May 2015: Eek! I only just noticed my error here: Horizon 2020 is a €80 billion program, so I dropped three orders of magnitude.] Global research is not a zero-sum game: the UK’s gain is not other countries’ loss or vice versa. As more countries open up their research outputs, the whole world benefits.

4. Against this backdrop, implementation issues must be discussed with a simple but important principle in mind: who is publicly-funded research for? When the question is stated explicitly, the answer is immediately obvious: it is for the public that funds it – for the citizens whose health, education and economic prospects are all improved by Open Access.

5. Unfortunately, the implementation strategies recommended by the Finch Report are not those that would most benefit the public, but are slanted towards the interests of academic publishers. This is because, as noted on page 113 of the Finch Report, three of the fourteen working members of the group represent publishers. The involvement of publishers in deciding the UK’s publishing policy is mystifying, as it represents a clear conflict of interest.

6. There is no question that in the process of research, publishers provide important services; but so do the providers of IT infrastructure and manufacturers of laboratory equipment, and their input was not sought in formulating policy. Neither should publishers have been consulted. The proper approach would have been for researchers, librarians, university administrators, funders, medics, educators and businesses to have worked out what policy and what strategy would best serve them in their goal of performing, disseminating and exploiting research; and then to negotiate with publishers (as with IT service providers and lab-equipment manufacturers) to obtain the necessary services at the best prices.

7. It is because of publisher involvement in the Finch Committee that the recommendations of the Report are skewed towards the interests of that one small group at the expense of citizens. All of the flaws in the recommendations in the report are directly attributable to this.

Specific issues

The Government’s acceptance of the recommendations of the Finch Group Report ‘Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications’, including its preference for the ‘gold’ over the ‘green’ open access model

8. There are good and legitimate reasons to prefer Gold over Green. Most importantly, there is no possibility of confusion over which is the version of record under the Gold model. However, the Finch Report goes much further than expressing a preference for Gold, by almost entirely omitting Green from its discussion. (The word “green” appears only three times in the 140 pages of the report and one of these is a reference to the HM Treasury Green Book.)

9. Perhaps as a result of this, the Green OA provisions of the revised RCUK policy are much weaker than its Gold OA provisions. In particular, while RCUK-funded work that is published as Gold OA must use the very permissive Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC BY), whereas work published as Green OA may have restrictive non-commercial clauses inserted. The inclusion of non-commercial clauses greatly diminishes the value of work, as discussed in the next section.

10. The Finch Report also allows embargoes – i.e. delays in availability – when research is published as Green OA, and the RCUK policy follows this (although it shortens the delays). Allowing such delays necessarily entails delaying all the benefits of Open Access, and thereby retards the progress of research, medicine, education and industry. There is no justification for these delays: even if they benefit publishers by enabling them to avoid subscription cancellations, the interests of publishers must be outweighed by those of all the other stakeholders.

11. In any case, counter-intuitively there is no evidence that Green OA hurts subscription revenue at all. The JISC/European-funded PEER project1, after nearly four years’ work, concluded that “there is no evidence that self-archiving has harmful effects on journal viability”. This is the only large-scale analysis of this issue to have been undertaken, and the only solid data we have to go on: publishers’ statements about effects of Green OA on subscription revenue are guesses, not informed by data.

12. In conclusion, the full benefit of Green OA will be realised only if Green articles are licenced using CC BY and if they are made available from the date of publication rather than after an embargo. If these changes have a negative effect on publishers (which all the evidence says they will not), then that is regrettable; but it would not be a reason to delay access to, and reduce the utility of, publicly funded research.

Rights of use and re-use in relation to open access research publications, including the implications of Creative Commons ‘CC-BY’ licences

13. The CC BY licence embodies the original definition of the term “Open Access” by the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI)2, and has been widely adopted as the open-access licence of choice by respected OA publishers such as BioMed Central (BMC) and the Public Library of Science (PLOS). It ensures that the published works can be used by the widest spectrum of organisations – not only to facilitate further pure research, but also to be used in education and to catalyse innovation in industry

14. Recently some regrettable misunderstandings of the CC BY licence have been promulgated, notably in an anti-Finch letter from editors of 21 history journals3. This claimed that the use of CC BY “means that commercial re-use, plagiarism, and republication of an author’s work will be possible, subject to the author being ‘credited’ (but it is not clear in what way they would be credited). We believe that this is a serious infringement of intellectual property rights and we do not want our authors to have to sign away their rights in order to publish with us.” I will address these misunderstandings in turn.

15. commercial re-use: yes, by design the CC BY licence makes this possible. Contrary to the assumption of the history-journal editors, this is not a bug but a feature. The goal of the UK government policy is to benefit the UK in general, including its many commercial concerns.

16. plagiarism: it is flatly wrong to say that CC BY encourages plagiarism. Plagiarism is the use of another person’s work without acknowledgement; but the CC BY licence explicitly does require acknowledgement. It is not possible to plagiarise and be within the terms of this licence.

17. republication of an author’s work: yes, the CC BY licence does allow this. So do the agreements currently in use by most publishers, which allow the publisher to anthologise and otherwise reuse author’s works with or without their consent. Again, this is a good thing: it enables the full value of the work to be realised, whether in an educational or commercial setting.

18. it is not clear in what way they would be credited: on the contrary, the text of the CC BY licence4 plainly states “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)”.

19. serious infringement of intellectual property rights: quite the reverse: the CC BY licence codifies the standard scholarly practice whereby authors’ works are used in various ways with full attribution but without further financial compensation. (After all, scholars have already been paid for their work.)

20. we do not want our authors to have to sign away their rights in order to publish with us: this statement betrays a surprising ignorance of standard journal requirements, including those of many of the journals whose editors signed the letter. These journals require the author to sign copyright over to the publisher, a far greater violation of intellectual property rights than in the open-access model.

21. The goal of the CC BY licence is to allow the full value of a work to be realised. By contrast, the non-commercial (NC) clause that the current RCUK policy allows in the case of Green OA outright prohibits use of the work in many important situations – e.g. in health, education and commercial enterprises. Worse still, the uncertainty introduced by a non-commercial clause has a chilling effect, stifling uses that might be allowed but which the innovator does not want to risk having to defend in court. There is no justification for a ban on commercial use of research publications. We fund research not only in order to know more, but in order to do more.

22. A particularly important application of Open Access articles is that massive numbers of articles can be “mined” by computer programs far more efficiently than any human can read them. Such techniques are already in use in a limited way and proving their value: for example, in discovering and synthesising new chemical formulae5. However, such work is greatly impeded by the difficulty of obtaining permission from publishers, and assurances that they will not claim ownership of the results. The use of a permissive licence such as CC BY disposes of such concerns and encourages innovative uses of research data that we cannot yet envisage.

23. Eric Kansa, of the University of California at Berkeley, summed up the misunderstandings and realities of fully open licences such as CC BY very efficiently: “While Open Access is not anti-commercial, it is anti-monopoly”. Monopolies lead to inefficient markets and poor economic utilisation. Permissive licences on publicly-funded work fix that.

24. In conclusion: for the benefit of the country as a whole, the government should renew its commitment to the use of the CC BY licence on all the Gold OA research that it funds, and extend this to Green OA publications as well.

The costs of article processing charges (APCs) and the implications for research funding and for the taxpayer

25. Simple calculations6 conservatively estimate the overall cost to the worldwide academic community of an average paywalled article at £3307 (£4.96 billion total paywall revenue each year for 1.5 million articles). Naively, an APC needs only be cheaper than this to achieve a net economic improvement. In practice, APCs need to be significantly cheaper because of the difficulty of making a transition to Gold OA while subscriptions are still being paid.

26. At present, APCs for Gold OA are under strong price pressure. I will review some key data points as they were one year ago, then consider recent developments.

  • Typical APCs from traditional publishers (Elsevier “sponsored article”, Springer Open Choice) are in the region of $3000 (about £1950)
  • The open-access megajournal PLOS ONE charges $1350 (about £862)
  • The broad survey of Solomon and Björk (2012) found an average Gold OA fee of $906 (about £579).

27. In the last year, significant developments have changed the landscape. In roughly chronological order:

  • The new high-impact journal eLife, sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust, is initially waiving all APCs.
  • The new for-profit open-access megajournal PeerJ introduces a new model where each author pays $99 (about £63) for a lifetime membership, which covers one publication each year at no further charge. (A $299 (~£189) lifetime membership covers unlimited publications.)
  • The new Forum of Mathematics journals will waive all APCs for the first three years, after which they may charge £500 or may find a different revenue stream and retain a zero APC.
  • The open-access humanities megajournal SAGE Open recently dropped its APC to $99.

28. Other new open-access ventures continue to emerge, including the Episciences initiative to create overlay journals for arXiv, and the Open Library of Humanities.

29. As low as these prices are, a surprising finding by Stuart Shieber of Harvard is that 70% of all open-access journals charge no APC at all7. Others have independently found similar results.

30. In the light of all this, it is surprising that the Finch Report suggests a typical APC of “£1500-£2000”. The only explanation for this is that the bulk of the APCs in the sample that this range was calculated from was biased by many high-priced papers in traditional publishers’ journals. If this is so, then a cultural change is required in researchers. There is no reason why the majority of papers should not be published in outlets with much lower APCs. (In most cases the new journals also offer other benefits, such as unlimited colour figures and supplementary information, and the ability to include audio and video in the published work.)

31. A shift away from traditional journals to newer “born open-access” journals is likely to be accelerated if there is some pressure on researchers to overcome their innate conservatism and choose venues accordingly. Researchers may find it more convenient to keep submitting to the same journals they have used previously, publishing their work as Gold OA with the APCs covered by funders. But this convenience, while attractive in the short term, will inhibit long-term change.

32. For this reason, I would support a cap on the APCs that will be paid by funders: for example, RCUK could elect to fund the first £1000 of each APC, leaving authors who insist on using more expensive journals to top up the fee from their own grants. The resulting downward pressure on prices would ensure that a true market in Gold OA provision emerges.

33. In some quarters, such a scheme might be described as a curtailment of academic freedom. It is not. The phrase “academic freedom” refers to the freedom to choose what to study and what opinions to express – not what venues to publish the results in. A researcher who freely elects what to work on is just as free, whatever journal his paper appears in.

34. In conclusion, government funding should cover the costs of modest APCs; but there is no need for them to continue to support very expensive journals as far cheaper alternatives are now becoming available at no loss of quality.

The level of ‘gold’ open access uptake in the rest of the world versus the UK, and the ability of UK higher education institutions to remain competitive.

35. Some critics of the Finch Report and RCUK’s updated OA policy have complained that by making British-funded research outputs Open Access, these policies will put the UK’s researchers at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of the world, because our research grants will have to bear the cost of APCs while those of others do not.

36. This complaint is true, but misleading. In the first place, all the signs are that the world as a whole is moving towards universal Open Access, so any period of Britain alone paying APCs will likely be short.

37. But more importantly, by making their work Open Access, British researchers place themselves at a huge advantage in terms of the visibility of their work. Numerous studies have now been performed on the Open-Access Citation Advantage. A good summary is found in the meta-analysis of Swan (2010)8. Swan surveyed 31 studies of the OACA, showing that 27 of them found an advantage of between 45% and 600%. I analysed the final table of that report, averaging the citation advantages given for each of ten academic fields (using the midpoints of ranges when given), and found that on average open-access articles are cited 2.76 times as often as non-open.

38. In conclusion, having made a bold beginning, the UK government should push vigorously on with its open-access plans, yielding benefits for medicine, education and industry, and giving its academics a competitive advantage over the rest of the world.


39. We must remember that what is best for the country as a whole will not necessarily be best for each group that is affected. In this case, it is clear that the UK will benefit from Open Access that is immediate and uses permissive licences, whether achieved by the Gold or Green route. It is likely that publishers will (rightly or wrongly) fear some damage to their business as this change is made. But the interests of one small group – publishers – must not be allowed to compromise decisions made on behalf of all other stakeholders. In particular, the government of the UK is beholden to its citizens, not to the publishing industry. The government must make decisions that promote the welfare of citizens rather than decisions that suit any one business.

40. Note that publishers who find the revised Green-OA terms unacceptable will be at liberty to decline offers of manuscripts resulting from Government-funded research. (In practice, this is unlikely to happen: rather than forego the opportunity to publish publicly funded research, publishers will simply accept the loss of their government-granted monopoly on the commercial exploitation of this research.)

41. It is not the job of government to concern itself with challenges faced by the publishing community at the expense of other stakeholders. This assertion does not arise from hostility to publishers, but from a simple recognition of who the government serves.


1. PEER Project: http://www.peerproject.eu/

3. Statement on position in relation to open access: http://www.history.ac.uk/news/2012-12-10/statement-position-relation-open-access

4. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

6. What does it cost to publish a paywalled paper with anyone?: https://svpow.com/2012/07/18/what-does-it-cost-to-publish-a-paywalled-paper-with-anyone/

8. Swan, Alma (2010) The Open Access citation advantage: Studies and results to date. http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/268516/2/Citation_advantage_paper.pdf

Other response to this call:

[Originally written as a comment on Martin Coward’s blog, but I thought the point was worth making as its own post.]

Here’s my take on the widely used Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC BY) in contrast to more restrictive CC licences such as the Non-Commercial variant (CC BY-NC).

It may be true, as Martin suggests, that CC BY-NC is better for the author than CC BY. But authors are part of a community, and it’s unquestionably better for the broader community that CC BY be used. It’s better for society that commercial applications of the author’s research be allowed and encouraged.


So long as researchers are funded by that broader community, it’s fair that funders should be able to mandate the more permissive licence, which is better for society. If we kick back against that — if we say it’s not enough to be paid to do research, we also want a slice of the commercial uses of our work — we only perpetuate society’s ivory-tower stereotype of academics who think the world owes them a living.

So while there is certainly an argument to be made that CC BY is also better for the researcher, I think that whether that’s true or not, simple justice requires that no additional restrictions be placed on such work.

We know that most academic journals and edited volumes ask authors to sign a copyright transfer agreement before proceeding with publication. When this is done, the publisher becomes the owner of the paper; the author may retain some rights according to the grace or otherwise of the publisher.

Plenty of authors have rightly railed against this land-grab, which publishers have been quite unable to justify. On occasion we’ve found ways to avoid the transfer, including the excellent structured approach that is the SPARC Author Addendum and my tactic of transferring copyright to my wife.

Works produced by the U.S. Federal Government are not protected by copyright. For example, papers written by Bill Parker as part of his work at Petrified Forest National Park are in the public domain.

Journals know this, and have clauses in their copyright transfer agreements to deal with it. For example, Elsevier’s template agreement has a box to check that says “I am a US Government employee and there is no copyright to transfer”, and the publishing agreement itself reads as follows (emphasis added):

Assignment of publishing rights
I hereby assign to <Copyright owner> the copyright in the manuscript identified above (government authors not electing to transfer agree to assign a non-exclusive licence) and any supplemental tables, illustrations or other information submitted therewith that are intended for publication as part of or as a supplement to the manuscript (the “Article”) in all forms and media (whether now known or hereafter developed), throughout the world, in all languages, for the full term of copyright, effective when and if the article is accepted for publication.

So journals and publishers are already set up to deal with public domain works that have no copyright. And that made me wonder why this option should be restricted to U.S. Federal employees.

What would happen if I just unilaterally place my manuscript in the public domain before submitting it? (This is easy to do: you can use the Creative Commons CC0 tool.)

Once I’d done that, I would be unable to sign a copyright transfer agreement. Not merely unwilling — I wouldn’t need to argue with publishers, “Oh, I don’t want to sign that”. It would be simpler than this. It’s would just be “There is no copyright to transfer”.

What would publishers say?

What could they say?

“We only publish public-domain works if they were written by U.S. federal employees”?

The best open-access publishers make their articles open from the get-go, and leave them that way forever. (That’s part of what makes them best.) But it’s not unusual to find articles which either start out free to access, then go behind a paywall; or that start out paywalled but are later released; or that live behind a paywall but peek out for a limited period.

Let’s talk about these.

Initial “open access”

You’ll sometimes come across journals where articles are free to read for some initial period after their publication. For example, the announcement of the Journal of Photonics for Energy says “The journal will be available as open access for the first year”; and the 2008/9 progress report for the Journal of Nutrition says “We will continue to restrict open access for one year, as per current procedure”.

Despite the good intentions of the journals, these articles are not open access in any useful sense. The point of an open-access article is that it’s there when you need it. If it’s there this week, but I need to read and cite it next week when I can’t get it any more, then that’s no good.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that publishers have a mandate to keep articles up on their web-sites forever (although we would prefer that they do). What it means is that, if they want to be open access, they can’t prohibit others from mirroring and archiving those papers, and continuing to make them available after they’ve disappeared from the publisher’s site.

Note that any article published with a Creative Commons licence — even the most restrictive of those licences — is safe from this kind of disappearance. Those licences guarantee third parties’ rights to archive, replicate and redistribute the articles.

Delayed open access

it’s probably more common to take the opposite approach. Some journals, including Science and Proceedings B, make articles free to read, and so “gratis open access”, after an embargo period during which they are available only to subscribers.  This period is one year in the case of both these journals; that seems to be typical.

Are such journals open access? I would say that the journals themselves are not open access, but that the articles become open access once they cross the release line. So for example, Raichlen and Polk’s new neurobiology paper in Proc B. is not open access, but Anderson et al.’s seed-dispersal paper (which is a year older) is. On that basis you might choose to refer to Proc B. as a “delayed open access” journal.

[Unfortunately, Science is not truly open access even for older articles such as Stevens and Parrish’s DinoMorph. That’s because it requires registration/login before you can get to the papers. The BOAI FAQ does not accept registration-required content as open access, specifying “without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself”.]

Transitory “open access”

And then you have the worst of both worlds. Every now an then a journal or a publisher has a special offer where they open up access to their articles for a limited period — for example, this one where the Royal Society opened up all their content for two weeks, or this where an issue of European Physical Journal D was opened for a week.

It seems churlish to criticise a generous action like this, but I find it close to useless, and I think most other researchers will, too. When I am working on a paper, I don’t choose what to cite based on which journal or publisher the papers are from: I would never think, “Oh, let’s see, European Physical Journal D is open at the moment, I’ll cite something from there”. I cite what’s relevant and appropriate, irrespective of its source; and if I can’t get the papers I need at that time there’s a problem.

I sometimes wonder what publishers think will be the result of this kind of limited-time-only offer. One obvious outcome is that people will batch-download the transitorily available content — either to store up for themselves in case they even happen to need it (which is wasteful of both bandwidth and storage); or to post openly elsewhere for permanence (which is usually a violation of copyright).

To summarise: I think that making articles open access after a delay is a good thing (though obviously not as good as making them open access immediately!). But that making them free to read for a limited time — either when first published or as part of some special event later — is of very limited value, and can’t really be described as open access.

I hope it’s clear to anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while that I do try to be fair to Elsevier (and indeed to everyone). Although I’ve often had occasion to be critical of them, I’ve also been critical of Palaeontologia Electronica, PLOS and Royal Society publishing, among others; and I have praised Elsevier when they’ve done good things.

Against that backdrop, I hope no-one will feel it’s unreasonable for me to comment on Elsevier’s new “Open Access Articles” page. Let’s quote this (short) page in full, so we’ll still have the current version to hand if it changes tomorrow:

Open Access Articles

Open Access articles have unrestricted access and will remain permanently free for the public to read and download.

When you publish in an Elsevier journal, as an author, you retain the right to use your article for a broad range of purposes, including use by your institute or company, without the need to obtain specific permission from Elsevier. For further details see our posting policy.

What you can do with Open Access articles?

Readers are permitted to read, download, print out, extract, reuse, archive, translate and distribute the article provided the appropriate credit is given to the authors and source of the work. For commercial use or systemic distribution, you must still request permission via our permission system.

Visit our universal access pages for more information on our other public access initiatives and information on our access policies.

[An aside: you will notice that the “public access initiatives” link is broken. It’s not a copying error on my part — that’s how it is on Elsevier’s own site, too. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of carelessness. Does no-one click on these things?]

Anyway. The point is, this falls short of the original meaning of “open access”, and makes Elsevier’s “open access” journals unacceptable venues for work funded by RCUK and other bodies.

The very clear statement “will remain permanently free for the public to read and download” is laudable, but that “unrestricted access” part at the start is quickly undermined when we reach the detail: “For commercial use or systemic distribution, you must still request permission”. This is a non-commercial clause, making Elsevier’s terms roughly congruent with the CC BY-NC licence — whereas RCUK funding requires the less restrictive CC BY, which allows use of articles in commercial contexts.

But in fact it’s worse than CC BY-NC, because of that “systemic distribution” clause. Let’s leave aside the fact that Elsevier don’t seem to know what “systemic” means, and assume that they meant “systematic”. What can they mean by prohibiting systematic distribution? Well, for one thing, it means the “open access” articles can’t be mirrored in another archive. They can’t be conveniently torrented. You may or may not be allowed to distribute them on USB sticks at conferences — who can tell what counts as “systematic”? You may or may not be allowed to make a better search engine for them that what Elsevier provide.

[This clause is inexplicable to me. By making the articles freely available for viewing and download, they are already committed to not charging access fees. So what can they possibly lose by allowing others to mirror them? If anything, it’s to their benefit, saving them bandwidth.]

Anyway …

The reason this is all so frustrating is that it’s so close to being The Right Thing. My sense is that Elsevier really is making an effort to change, and that particular people within Elsevier are pushing for it to be done right. These “open access” terms a are good thing. The very fact that Elsevier is using the term “open access” is an important step forward. But it would have been so easy to go one or two steps further and make them right.

This would be in researchers’ interests, of course; but also in Elsevier’s interests, for two reasons. First, it would make their open-access journals usable by RCUK and other grant recipients. And second — more important in the long term — it would send a signal that Elsevier is embracing open access, rather than grudgingly conceding ground.

Come on, Elsevier — step up to the plate!

Thanks for sticking with this series. In part 1, we looked at what open access means, and what terms to use in describing it. In part 2, we considered the Gold and Green roads to open access. In part 3, we touched on zero-cost Gold OA, sometimes known as “Platinum”. This time, we’re going to get down the nitty gritty of the actual licences that govern what you can do with a paper that you’ve downloaded.

As usual in this series, I will try to keep my opinions and preferences out of it, and limit myself to uncontroversial statements. So for example, I will not express a preference for one Creative Commons licence over another, even though I do have a preference.

No licence

Unfortunately, this is still very common. Lots of journals that make their articles freely available to read online say nothing about what you are and are not allowed to do with them. PalArch’s journal of vertebrate palaeontology is one of these — I have no idea, for example, whether I am allowed to print a copy of an article for myself; or, if I am, then whether I can give it to a friend; or if I can print three copies for three friends, or fifty copies for a group of students. [Note added 15 November 2013: I’m pleased to say that PalArch has now fixed this, and starting from our own article there, they use CC By.]

Not much better is the sort of vague statement given by Palaeontologia Electronica:

All articles appearing in Palaeontologia Electronica (PE) are available free of charge from the World Wide Web through the Palaeontologia Electronica Site. Copyrights for technical articles (text and graphics) are assigned to Palaeontologia Electronica Sponsors where appropriate … If you would like to distribute copies of materials published by Palaeontologia Electronica we encourage you to obtain the requisite permissions from the copyright holders.

The implication here is that I can print a copy for myself but not for my friend, but it’s not at all explicit. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the issue of whether there’s any reason for such a condition, and limit our questions to what the conditions are, not what they should be.)

So the first thing to say about open-access licences is: please have a licence. Even if it’s a horrible, restrictive licence, please at least be clear about it. Merely shoving PDFs up on the web and walking away is asking for misunderstanding.

Custom licences

One step up from no licence at all is a custom licence, written for a particular journal or publisher. One such is the set of terms used by Elsevier for their “sponsored articles”. (Credit to Elsevier for making these fairly easy to find now — it was not always the case!)

Leaving aside how restrictive these terms are, let’s at least give credit where it’s due, and acknowledge that they are explicit. The problem is, it’s a lot to read and understand. Elsevier’s terms are actually fairly short and sweet as these things go: 300-odd words. But it’s not unusual for these things to be multi-page monsters. Who can read and understand the implications of such things? If only there were a small set of simple, well-defined standard licences, so that content providers could just pick the one they wanted and everyone would know what it meant.

Creative Commons licences

… and that is the purpose of Creative Commons. There are about seven different Creative Commons licences, depending on how you count them, but they are made up from a small number of easy-to-understand building blocks. Since each such block has a two-letter name, it’s easy to name a specific Creative Commons licence such as BY-NC-SA. (The full abbreviations of the licences begin with “CC”.)

CC BY is the basic CC licence. It says that you are allowed to do anything at all with the content of the article provided only that you credit the author. It’s the licence used by the biggest and most influential open-access publishers (PLOS, BMC, Hindawi) precisely because it allows the licenced work to have the most value. Wikipedia uses it for the same reason (as indeed does this blog). When dealing with a CC BY article, you can reuse passages of it in your own work, copy its illustrations into a Wikipedia article, hand out copies to classes you teach, extract numeric data and add it to your database, and so on.

You can augment — or, rather, restrict — the CC BY terms by adding other clauses:

The NC clause means “non-commercial”, and restricts downstream use of the work to non-commercial contexts — although exactly what that means is vague and difficult to define. The purpose of this clause is to ensure that if anyone makes money from the work, the author gets a slice. (We’ll discuss this more in a future post.)

The ND clause means “no derivatives”: you’re allowed to make copies of the entire article, but not to “remix” it: you can’t make translations, extract passages, adapt it into a blog post, etc. The idea of this clause is to protect authorial integrity.

By contrast, SA means “share alike”: you are allowed to make derivatives, but only on the condition that you release them under the same licence. The idea here is to make openness viral, to ensure that it’s passed on to other projects.

The ND and SA clauses are two alternatives: you can’t have both together, that would be a contradiction.

Finally, there’s CC0. This is not exactly a licence, but a formal declaration that the work is placed in the public domain, that copyright is waived, and that can you do whatever you like with it, subject to no conditions at all, not even attribution. (Some other classes of work are also in the public domain, notably anything produced by US Federal employees, including those who work for the BLM.)

These various CC licensing options can be stacked to make the following licences: CC BY, CC BY-NC, CC BY-ND, CC BY-SA, CC BY-NC-ND and CC BY-NC-SA. And CC0 makes seven.

SIDEBAR: If you’re familiar with the major open-source software licences, you’ll recognise CC BY as being similar to the Apache and BSD licences; and CC BY-SA as similar to the GNU General Public Licence (GPL). There are no open-source software equivalents of CC licences with the NC or ND clauses, as these would violate the open-source definition. CC0 is of course equivalent to public domain software.

Note that, as with any other licence, you have the option of routing around CC licences by negotiating with the copyright holder — which is often, though not always, the author. If for some reason you particularly wanted to reproduce an SV-POW! article and not credit me as the author, then this blog’s CC BY licence doesn’t give you permission to do that — but you can contact me and ask whether I’ll allow it anyway. More realistically, if you wanted to use CC BY-NC material in your business’s training materials, you might be able to negotiate its use, for a fee.

Other licences

No doubt there are other licences out there other than the CC ones and the ones that various publishers make up for themselves. (In the software world there are lots of these, to no-one’s benefit.) But I can’t think of any examples. Can anyone?

Varying licences

One last nasty problem needs to be mentioned. While journals tend to at least be consistent in the terms under which they make articles available, repositories often are not. For example, articles in arXiv are provided under four different conditions: CC BY, CC BY-NC-SA, public domain, and an underspecified “licence to distribute“. Worse still, I can’t see that their pages even specify which licence a given article uses.

This makes it harder, in general, to safely reuse content from repositories. It’s one reason why some people favour Gold OA over Green OA.

Last night, I got a message from Joseph Kraus, the Collections & E-Resources Analysis Librarian at Penrose Library, University of Denver. He’s asking several open-access advocates (of which I am one) to answer a set of seven questions for a study that will investigate institutional activities and personal opinions concerning open access resources. The title of the study will be Comparing scholarly communication practices and policies between the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) stakeholders, and it will be submitted to a BOAI-compliant open-access journal. [See update below]

With Joe’s consent, I am posting his questions here, along with the answers that I gave. It was an interesting process to go through, and left helped me to clarify my own thoughts and feelings on some of these issues.

1) The Finch report and the RCUK report recently came out. These reports have taken stances concerning green and gold open access in the UK. What are your thoughts on the issue of green vs gold open access policies?

Well, the most important point to make is that it really doesn’t matter. Green and Gold OA are not two different things; they are just two complementary strategies to achieve the same goal. So whether we get there by the Green or Gold route is much less important than that we get there. I care much more about full BOAI compliance (i.e. freedom to reuse, not just to read) than I do about Green vs. Gold.

It’s also worth noting that the Finch report doesn’t really take a stance on which route is better — instead, it ignores Green completely, and just doesn’t comment on it one way or the other.

I suppose in principle I slightly prefer Gold, because that way there is only one definitive version of the article. But publishers have a lot of work to do to persuade me that their contribution (as opposed to the editors’ and reviewers’ freely donated contributions) are worth £2000 a pop, or even $1350.

2) PLOS ONE is a well-known large open access journal that covers a broad range of disciplines. Because it has been deemed successful, other publishers have also proposed or started similar journals. What is your opinion of this new type of publication outlet?

PLOS ONE is the single greatest thing to have happened to scholarly publication. Its approach to peer-review is precisely correct: if a submission is good science, it gets published, period. The journal makes no attempt to judge the paper’s likely impact — which is pure guesswork anyway. It lets the scientific community decide, which is exactly as it should be.

(This approach has sometimes been called “peer-review lite“. That is exactly wrong. The peer-review at PLOS ONE is as harsh as it is anywhere. What’s lite, and indeed completely absent, is selection by trendiness and sexiness. Which is exactly as it should be. We are scientists, not marketeers.)

So I am keen to see many other venues with the same approach. That’s important because, as good as PLOS is, we don’t want to see a monoculture develop, not even a PLOS monoculture.

3) Harvard University has recommended to their faculty to “consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access.” The concept of “moving prestige to open access” is an interesting statement to the Harvard faculty authors and researchers. What do you think of this statement?

First, let me take a moment to (A) commend Harvard for taking this initiative, but (B) deplore the very weak wording “recommended … to consider”, rather than imposing an actual mandate. What they’ve done is good; but it could and should have been so much better.

The idea of “moving prestige to open access” is exactly right. During the early days of the OA movement there was a completely groundless idea — propagated by paywall publishers, I presume — that OA venues were somehow inferior to paywalled ones. That idiot notion seems to have died now, but we can and should and must go further — we need to convey to job-search, promotion, tenure and granting committees that open-access publications ought to count for much more than paywalled ones.

The bottom line is, if a paper is behind a paywall, it’s not really published. The academic community is less able to benefit from it; that is even more true of the broader population, which in most cases funded the work. This is the 21st century. By now, the idea of letting your paper be locked up where no-one can see it should be a shameful one, the sort of thing you admit to only when cornered. Harvard’s statement is a good step towards reconfiguring scholarly norms in this way.

4) University presses and many societies are concerned about how the open access movement will affect their financial bottom line. What concerns do you have about open access and society publications?

Without doubt, there is an issue here — it’s the one potential downside of the shift to OA that bothers me.

That said, we do have to ask what scholarly societies are for. In some cases — the ACS springs to mind — we are seeing the tail wagging the dog: the society sometimes talks and acts as though the discipline exists for its benefit rather than vice versa. That won’t do. Societies have to benefit their disciplines, otherwise they are a waste of time, energy and money. And unquestionably the best way they can benefit the science they are there to serve is by releasing research to the world.

So I hope that societies can make the OA transition in a way that allows them continue to do the things they’re doing. But if it comes to a choice between the society thriving at the science’s expense or vice versa, then the science has to be the winner every time.

5) AltMetrics is gathering steam as an additional method for faculty to determine the impact of their work. Do you plan to take advantage of this data for either your work, or for the benefit of your institution or department?

At this early stage in the story of AltMetrics, I am not too sure what I am supposed to actually do with it, so I am really at the wait-and-see stage.

The one thing I feel passionately about in this area — and it’s so obvious it seems stupid even to say — is can we please measure the right thing? Using impact factors to evaluate journals is statistically illiterate, but it’s at least what IFs were intended for, however flawed they may be. Using IFs to judge a paper by what journal it appears in is idiotic. If you have to have a number to judge the paper by, then use its own citation count if you must — not the citation counts of other papers that appeared in the same journal. And judging a researcher by the IFs of the journals that her papers appeared in transcends the merely idiotic and achieves the level of moronic.

If AltMetrics bring an end to this astonishingly persistent practice, that will be enough of a win to justify all the work being done.

6) The Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK notes: “No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs.” While this is a valid statement for UK based research evaluation, it would be impossible to get a majority of academic tenure and promotion committees throughout the United States to agree to a similar statement in the near future. Since the UK has the REF, and the US does not, how much is this holding back the US from adopting greater OA policies at various institutions?

Kudos to the REF for making this statement. The Wellcome Trust has said something similar, and I would love to see other funding bodies (and universities and departments) publicly saying the same.

If US institutions are using IFs to evaluate researchers, then … I am trying to find a polite way to express the depth of my contempt for this damaging and incompetent behaviour, but I am struggling to do it. At the very least, it will contribute to eroding the US’s position in the academic world.

Really. It’s exactly as rational as high-school kids judging their classmates by the label of the clothes they wear. We’re scientists. We’re better than that.


(You too, France.)

7) Is there anything else you would like to say concerning open access publishing?

I think we’ve just about covered it :-)

Update (10 June 2015)

For some reason, I have only now registered that the article was published in F1000 Research as Cash, carrots, and sticks: Open Access incentives for researchers (Kraus 2014).

If you’ve been following Twitter or the blogs, you’ll know that this has been Open Access Week. It’s been great to see many new open-access policies announced this week [IrelandBelgiumHungary], to read important explanations of why fully open (CC BY) OA is the way to go, and to see discussions from people like clinicians and librarians. It all contributes to the glorious sense that the transition to OA is beyond the tipping point.

Here’s what we at SV-POW! have been doing for Open Access Week:

Nothing at all.

We’re just carrying on, doing what we do — which is writing and reviewing papers for open-access journals, and of course writing an open-access science blog and writing about open-access issues. Because while open-access week is an excellent focal period, we believe in an open-access life, not just a week.

I’m actually not sure if I’ve ever stated this explicitly, but as of a couple of years back I am not submitting anything to non-open journals any more. Matt has made the same decision for himself.

Now we do understand that not everyone has the luxury of being so black-and-white about it — that most people, if they had a finding sexy enough to make it into Nature or Science would try that route. We do understand that papers in those venues can be career changers, and that lots of our readers are under heavy pressure to make the attempt. That’s all cool. But what I am sensing from more and more people is that they are shifting towards at least a strong preference for open-access venues — that they will prefer an open journal over an equally prestigious paywalled one, or even a rather more prestigious one. From some people, I pick up the idea that they’ve more or less promised themselves “all OA except Nature and Science“. It’s great to see that movement.

Come to think of it, nearly every time I read a comment on the necessity of publishing in non-open venues for career reasons, it’s those same two journals that come up. Trends in Ecology & Evolution has a much higher impact factor than PLOS ONE, but I don’t hear people saying “I have to publish in TREE for my career”. My sense is that Nature and Science are a special case — that people feel a publication there is somehow qualitatively different from one elsewhere. Is that an accurate reflection?

If it does, then maybe an “all OA except Nature and Science” pledge would be a good one for some people. (Not everyone: I know for example that there are also people who want to publish in JVP to support the society.)

Update (later the same day)

Richard Butler points out (see comments below) that the the career argument goes much further down the pecking order. It seems that naming Nature and Science in such arguments is just a rhetorical convention, and my suggested “all OA except those two” policy is a non-starter for career scientists. Shame.

Four things:

1. From the start of 2013, the Royal Society is abandoning issues for its journals (Proc. B, Phil. Trans., Biology Letters and more) and moving to a continuing publishing model — as already used for their open-access journal Open Biology. Excellent news: in a post-print world, issues achieve nothing but the imposition of arbitrary delays. As of next year, the first (online) published version of each Royal Society paper will be the Version Of Record.

2. IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is launching its own open-access megajournal. This is welcome news, because up till now IEEE has been one of the more access-hostile publishers. (For some reason, the new journal will come out in monthly issues rather than using the PLOS-like continuous publishing model that the Royal Society is adopting. But still.)

3. I really need to get around to writing about why CC BY is the right open-access licence for scholarship, especially given the comments on the last post. But until I do, this post by Claire Redhead, on the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association site, is a good read.

4. Peter Suber reports that Belgium is following the UK’s lead in converting to open access as the default infrastructure for dissemination of research. Signatories “express their determination to be amongst the frontrunners in this evolution, both at European and worldwide level”.

It’s great to see the gathering momentum around the shift to open access (including the Royal Society’s shift to a less subscription-focussed schedule). What’s most encouraging is that it’s coming from all kinds of stakeholders: governments, other funders, scholarly societies, enlightened publishers, and of course researchers.