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Over 600 thousand academic articles under Creative Commons Attribution license. Do authors want more?


December 16, 2015

Despite the conservative view on copyright, shared by the majority of academic authors, liberal licences dominate open access publishing. Does some unspoken tension between academic authors, funders, policymakers and open access advocates exist in the case of licensing and readers’ rights?

Creative Commons, a global advocacy organization promoting an alternative to the classic, restrictive copyright contract, has recently published the State of the Commons Report, summarizing the popularity of its licenses. These licenses have become a standard in open access publishing and in the broader open culture movement. The report notes a rapid growth in the number of works employing them, and their presence in virtually every field of human creative production. According to the report, we can now enjoy 1,4 million papers under Creative Commons licenses (CC)!

This estimation is based mostly on data from the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), which indexes open access venues that have submitted an application and have met some criteria. Journals indexed by DOAJ have published 1,3 mln CC licensed papers until now (and only a couple thousand papers released under different legal conditions). However, this dataset is not exhaustive. Above all, the data does not cover open access articles published in journals that publish both open and toll-access content (so called ‘hybrid journals’). Offering an open access option is standard in high quality traditional venues, which also tend to employ CC licenses for their open access content. What is more, DOAJ’s data does not cover new journals, that have not yet published enough works to pass the verification, venues that have not submitted to DOAJ for other reasons, and those that did not meet the criteria. In fact, the exact number of CC licensed papers is unknown, but it may be even more that 1,4 mln mentioned in the report.

The abundance of licenses

Anyway, DOAJ’s number is probably the best approximation of the popularity of Creative Commons in academic publishing. But Creative Commons licenses vary significantly from one to another. There are more liberal licenses and more restrictive ones. For those less familiar with this concept I’m pasting here a part of the info-graphic by Creative Commons New Zealand, specifying what each CC license allows others to do with your work.


I can use this image, because it is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC-BY) itself. I couldn’t do it if it was published as a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial work, since this blog belongs to a commercial company. I could cut a one piece from the info-graphic only (modify it), because CC-BY allows me to do this. I was not obligated to ask for permission to republish the modified work, but I would have been if this work had been published under the terms of any No Derivatives license.

As you can see, it makes a huge difference which particular Creative Commons license is used in each case. And since the State of the Commons Report did not answer the question of what is the most popular license in academic publishing today, I had a quick look at DOAJ’s data on my own.

What is the most popular Creative Commons license?

The problem is that DOAJ provides information about licensing on journal level only, and not every paper in a journal is necessarily published under it’s default license. Liberal licenses (CC-BY most importantly), are sometimes enforced by research funders against a journal’s default policy. And when a journal, which uses CC-BY-NC-ND as a default, publishes an article under a CC-BY license, following the demand of a research funder, this exception is not taken into account in the DOAJ data. What is more, when a journal uses several different licenses (e.g. for different types of content), DOAJ classifies it on the basis of the MOST restrictive one. Both these factors would result in an underestimation of more liberal licenses in the DOAJ data. And despite this fact, The most liberal license, CC-BY, which allows to both modification and commercial usage, wins the popularity challenge. More than half of the DOAJ’s article (682 253) were published in journals employing this license as a default. And probably the real share of CC-BY licensed academic works is even greater.

I’ve created a simple circle chart to visualize it clearly for myself. You can see the result above. Data is taken from December 9th, 2015 from the DOAJ advanced search website. The graph shows the share of articles published by journals using respective licenses as a default in the number of all CC-licensed articles in DOAJ. We can therefore assume that the share of CC-BY is even bigger than is visible on the graph.

Do authors want liberal licensing?

The popularity of CC-BY is interesting since the majority of scholarly authors seem to have quite a conservative view on copyright. Taylor & Francis survey reports say that only 39% of authors would agree to include their work in an anthology without their prior acceptance and only 44% accept translations without permissions. Both of these things are allowed with works published under CC-BY. On the other hand, liberal licensing is promoted by policy makers and funders, because it is seen to foster the development of science, as it makes it easier to re-use graphs, charts, and other materials presented in an original paper. It also allows content mining, which means machine reading in order to extract data from texts or graphs (e.g. chemical formulas). This may have a really positive impact in the future, leading to the automation of thinking, in a way similar to the one we know from the automation of manual labor.

T&F research is probably correct in their diagnosis. It is supported by several other surveys and datasets (for more information on this topic have a look here). We repeat similar questions in our Key Challenges of Research Communication Survey, which is currently on, so I will inform you when we have finished collecting data, how it looks according to our sample. But I think that some unspoken tension between academic authors, funders, policymakers and the open access advocacy movement exists in the case of licensing and readers’ rights.

At this time the publishing industry seems to follow policymakers, not authors. Will it result in some dissatisfaction among conservative researchers? Or will researchers change their attitudes? This might be a future hot topic in the world of academic research.

This entry was posted on December 16, 2015 by Witold Kieńć and tagged , , , .

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