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How Open Should Academic Papers Be?

Richard Van Noorden reports in Nature that 95% of the authors submitting to the Nature Publishing Group choose more restrictive open-source licenses, CC-BY-NC-SA or CC-BY-NC-ND, even when given the opportunity to use a much more open license, CC-BY. (I include their data below.)

How open should papers be? Should authors own their work or should universities? What if they’re paid for by a government research grant? For instance, should NIH go further in requiring openness than it already has?

Personally, I don’t mind publishers trying to make a buck off my papers. But I don’t want to write something and then hand them the copyright, because then they’ll try to restrict the distribution.

Creative Commons Licenses

Here’s the license cheat sheet, straight from Creative Commons:

CC-BY: This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

CC BY-NC-SA: This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.

CC BY-NC-ND: This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Stan’s Doc is Really Open

We want everyone to use Stan and its doc, so we licensed Stan’s doc under CC BY. Using CC BY, a publisher could print all or part of the Stan manual and sell it. I’d be excited if someone did this, not mad at them for using my work without paying me.

The Data

The article references a message-board post by Grace Baynes, the key data from which is as follows.

Nature Publishing Group can offer some more data on author choice of 
licenses on Scientific Reports. Since we introduced CC-BY as an 
option in July 2012, authors have chosen CC-BY on 5% of papers. 

1 January 2011 to 30 June 2012
* Two license choices were available: CC-BY-NC-SA, CC-BY-NC-ND
532 papers accepted
* 75% were CC-BY-NC-SA 
* 25% were CC-BY-NC-ND

1 July 2012 to 7 November 2012
Introduced CC-BY; Three license choices available
412 papers accepted
* 37% were CC BY-NC-SA 
* 58% were CC BY-NC-ND 
* 5% were CC BY 
Order of the license on the rights form was: 
We speculated that more authors might be choosing ND because it was 
the middle option listed on the form. On 8 November 2012, we released 
an updated form with the options reorganized.

8 November 2012 to 21 January 2013
273 papers accepted 
* 11% were CC BY-NC-SA 
* 83% were CC BY-NC-ND 
* 5% were CC BY 

Order on the rights form revised to: 

P.S. Thanks to Slashdot, where I saw the link.


  1. Fernando says:

    Congrats on choosing the most open license for STAN!!

    The article does not mention pricing. My sense is if you hand over copyright to publisher you don’t pay publisher but if you keep it you pay $500-$2,500, so maybe that explains low uptake. Ultimately someone has to pay for publishing infrastructure etc. But with modern technology one can do this relatively cheaply (e.g.

    More importantly, with Amazon Turk etc, you could have every online article copy edited and translated. So think “World Journal of Political Science” published online in Hindi, Chinese, Spanish, French, and English. I’d pay $500 for that. Its an investment: I presume you’ll get hundreds more citations.

    PS I used to produce simultaneous forecasting reports in three different languages and the workflow was pretty easy to manage.

  2. Fernando says:

    PSS I guess my main fear of CC-BY is third parties using your work out of context, etc.. You don’t want something you said endorsing milk products (

    Academics primarily trade in opinions, inferences, and so forth, and often it is important these are not taken out of context. So whereas I think open source is an investment, I’d be careful about what rights I give away.

  3. Chris G says:

    CC BY-ND. Maybe I’m unusual but I’d be really bothered by someone tweaking or remixing my work. Share my data if collected with govt funding? Sure.* Redistribute the original work? Do so to your heart’s content. Edit my writing without my approval? No way, no how.

    (*If the data was collected under a Govt contract rather than a grant then that’s a moot point in most cases. The Govt owns the data – sometimes the organization that collected it gets exclusive rights for a period but I believe that’s the exception not the rule. If you want a copy then you just have to request it through the appropriate channel.)

  4. Sebastian says:

    I agree with Chris – for academic writing I’d be reluctant to use anything but an ND license, I’m not at all surprised that that’s the license most commonly chosen.

    I’ve written software documentation and I’ve always done that under CC-BY-SA (the SA requiring “share alike” for all derivative works). Like you I’d be happy if someone wanted to publish stuff based on it, but if they did I want to make sure that they keep it copyleft.
    Data, of course, if at all possible, should be as open as possible once my paper is accepted for publication.

  5. Fernando says:

    ” Authors who release their work under CC BY may request not to be attributed at all, and can require users to remove the credit otherwise required. This removal mechanism enables the authors to distance themselves from re-uses of their work they may find objectionable, a feature that may be used to protect their reputation. “

    More details:

    • Chris G says:

      A top level summary of my attitude towards academic writing:
      “You may cite my work. You may redistribute my papers. You may analyze my data and present your own conclusions. You may not reuse or revise my writing without my express approval. (If you excerpt it or use my data then provide a citation.) If I catch you tweaking or otherwise revising my writing without my permission there will be hell to pay. If you’re going to borrow or modify something then rework it sufficiently that you can call it your own. No ‘sampling’ my prose.”

      I actually feel quite differently about code. I’m fine with sharing and having it reworked so long as the original source is acknowledged.

      • Fernando says:

        If you read my link above, CC-BY is actually pretty close to your preferences, except that it replaces “You may not reuse or revise my writing without my express approval” with something like “you can use and cut and paste but (a) quote original source (b) document all changes (c) I reserve right to veto.” The latter is a pretty strong incentive for fair use.

        I feel more comfortable with CC-BY now.

        • Nameless says:

          How would you feel if a publisher took your old paper, reformatted it, changed some conclusions, turned it into a chapter in a book, credited the chapter to an internal guy who did the editing (mentioning you in the footnote), and published the book without paying you anything?

          • Fernando says:

            I would feel better than if it sat behind a pay wall, nobody read it, and then some guy took it apart, put it into a chapter, mentioned me in a footnote and paid Elsevier for it.

            If I own the rights I can challenge the use. If not the publisher does what it wants with your work and they get paid. And u can always use aore restrictive license.