An OA publisher’s perspective on CC-BY

As the Director of the University of Adelaide Press, I am participating in the Humanities and Social Sciences session in the OASPA (Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association) conference in Latvia, Riga later this month.

OASPA was initially set up to group together Open Access journal publishers, and now is keen to include book publishers, in all disciplines.

At present, which is why I am speaking, OASPA require that their members not only have published at least one Open Access book, but also that it is published with a licence that allows the “broadest re-use of published material possible”.

Their preference is the ‘CC-BY’ licence, now required by the United Kingdom funding bodies if they fund research, the European Union, and increasingly other funding bodies around the world.

I do not believe this licence is automatically appropriate for Humanities and Social Sciences which generally publish in books. 

‘Open Access’ as a term was formally adopted in the Budapest Open Access Initiative in December 2001, with the aim of assisting faster advances in Sciences, Medicine and Health. 

Subsequently, the six Creative Commons licences were created, to provide globally coherent copyright licences.

I do not have a quibble with the most open licence of all, the CC-BY licence, when it is used in Sciences, Medicine and Health.  Or for that matter, if any author in the Humanities and Social Sciences wishes to use it.

My quibble is when it is mandated to all of us to use.  I disagree flatly and categorically that when there are six different Creative Commons licences that only one must be used.

The CC-BY licence not only allows all readers the free, open access to the text, and to share it and quote it, but also to adapt it and create what they call, mysteriously, “derivative works”.

There is no requirement for these derivative works to be subjected to the same rigorous peer-reviewing before publishing that the original work had to pass.

It also allows them to commercialise their derivative work, without needing to share the profits with the original author, the only condition being that they attribute the original work.

No one yet has explained what a derivative work is to me, and even in the legal language of the licence itself, it remains a vague term.

This licence is undoubtedly perfect when applied to the results of fast-moving medical research, for example in genetics.

But it could equally allow an unscrupulous publisher to patch together a very good textbook and make a killing, probably selling it back to the same institutions that produced the original scholarly texts.

We already are more than aware of the way institutions are forced to buy back their own research in journal packages, in which they did not pay for the content, indeed charged a fee to publish it, then took ownership of the copyright, and also receive subsequent copyright use payments – like through the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL).

As an author of books myself, I am concerned about a licence allowing someone to take the results of years of original research, largely written in donated time, reword it, change it, and then turn a profit from it.

Of the people I have talked to who insist on the single use of the CC-BY licence, I wonder how many of them have published a book? 

On the other hand, I believe that the Creative Commons licences are essential for Open Access publishing to work efficiently and effectively.  The University of Adelaide Press will be introducing them in future titles, but will allow authors to choose which one suits their work.

John Emerson
Director, University of Adelaide Press

11 thoughts on “An OA publisher’s perspective on CC-BY

  1. I’ve defended CC-BY elsewhere and here want to make a smaller point. The Budapest Open Access Initiative aimed to promote OA in every field, not just in “Sciences, Medicine and Health.” I speak as the principal drafter of the BOAI.

    See the BOAI FAQ from 2002: “BOAI applies to all academic fields, not just to the sciences.”

    Also see the 10-year anniversary statement of the BOAI from 2012: “[T]he BOAI was the first initiative…to generalize the call for OA to all disciplines and countries….[Now] we specifically set the new goal that within the next ten years, OA will become the default method for distributing new peer-reviewed research in every field and country.”

  2. Thank you for posting this. I am a strong and long-term advocate of open access and fan of CC who is very concerned about the push for ubiquitous CC-BY, which I consider to be a misinformed and dangerous position. The overlap between open access and CC licenses is one of my current and emerging lines of research. The question of the wisdom of blanket allowance of derivatives should be an issue for discussion in every area of scholarship. Would you want your doctor or pharmacist to rely on derivatives of peer review that are not peer reviewed? A larger issue to me is what I see as a huge loophole that could lead to re-enclosure of vast amounts of OA: no CC license necessarily means “free of charge”. A publisher can publish a work free if charge and OA today, then take that copy down and replace it with a copy with another license (eg ARR or CC-BY-NC), under a paywall tomorrow. This is one of the reasons I strongly recommend that authors using any CC license also self-archive in both institutional and disciplinary repositories. Links to some of my work on this topic can be found here:

    • “Would you want your doctor or pharmacist to rely on derivatives of peer review that are not peer reviewed?”

      I’m afraid that’s a straw-man argument, Heather – your doctor or pharmacist shouldn’t be relying on results that aren’t backed up by medical trials and/or certification by various authorities, and I would hope that medical people are trained in the art of assessing a publication and coming to an informed opinion on that front.

    • “Would you want your doctor or pharmacist to rely on derivatives of peer review that are not peer reviewed?”
      Patients living in a country where the medical practitioners are not fluent in the language of relevant medical literature will benefit from translations of that peer-reviewed literature being available.

      • “Huge loophole that could lead to re-enclosure of vast amounts of OA: no CC license necessarily means “free of charge”. A publisher can publish a work free if charge and OA today, then take that copy down and replace it with a copy with another license (eg ARR or CC-BY-NC), under a paywall tomorrow.”
        And they would quickly go out of business. They also cannot change the licence if the author owns copyright, and if they do own it then doing this would likely breach their publishing agreement with the author. This is unfounded.

      • Matt, aren’t you assuming that there are no problems with the translation? Doesn’t this assume a translator with sufficient medical knowledge to avoid accidental errors on this score, and perfect translation? This assumes that the latter is even possible! As someone who works in a bilingual environment, I can assure you that writing in either english or french or both is a lot easier than writing in either language and trying to translate.

        I would suggest that if someone has this kind of specialized knowledge and ability to convey it in another language, it might more make sense to write a new work than to translate. I acknowledge that this is conjecture on my part. If you have evidence showing, for example, that translating a description of how to do a surgical procedure can easily be translated by just anyone (thanks to blanket permission for derivatives), but no possible problems, please share!

  3. It’s unfortunate that Creative Commons licenses are so widely misinterpreted.

    I must point out that all of the Creative Commons licenses, even the ND licenses allow for “Collective Works”.

    From the CC BY-ND license:
    “Collective Work” means a work, such as a periodical issue, anthology or encyclopedia, in which the Work in its entirety in unmodified form, along with one or more other contributions, constituting separate and independent works in themselves, are assembled into a collective whole. A work that constitutes a Collective Work will not be considered a Derivative Work (as defined below) for the purposes of this License.

    So the scenario you cite as a problem with CC BY is not germane to the discussion. A for-profit publisher can collect a bunch of CC articles, bind them into a book and sell them. A not-for-profit publisher can even use NC works in such a book, so long as the selling price does not exceed the printing cost. If that scenario is of real concern, publishers should not be relying on any CC license to avoid it.

    Similarly, the issue of “re-enclosure” raised by Heather Morrison, while it’s a real concern, is more a problem with poor understanding of CC than it is inherent to the license. CC licenses are non-revocable and allow for third-party deposit and redistribution through archives. For example, see my discussion at

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