CC-BY: What Open Access Can Learn From Open Source

Here on the Open Enterprise blog I've often written about ways in which the underlying ideas of open source have been applied to other domains. One of the first areas to do so was in what is now called open access - the movement to make academic papers freely available, particularly those that have been funded by the taxpayer through government research grants. Open access is making great strides, but a recent article in the Library Journal suggested that there is discontent festering among certain academics:

they don’t typically object to OA itself, and in my experience many of them say so very explicitly in the context of voicing their concerns and frustration. What they object to is a particular parameter of OA as it is currently defined by a large and dominant segment of the OA community: the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license, which is enshrined in what is now the closest thing to a canonical definition that OA has: the Berlin Declaration on Open Access. The declaration does not use the term “Creative Commons” (CC licensing was a relatively new thing when it was being formulated) but it defines acceptable reuse licensing in terms that align exactly with those of CC BY


What this means is that, according to the Berlin Declaration, what makes an article OA is not the fact that it can be accessed and read by everyone at no charge. In order to be considered OA, the article’s content (and “all supplemental materials”) must also be made publicly available for any kind of reuse, including commercial reuse, without the author’s permission.

It's that commercial re-use that seems to stick in the craw of some. People have problems with seeing their work re-used for profit. Of course, exactly the same concerns were raised in the early years of commercial use of free software released under the GNU GPL: some people were unhappy at the thought of their code being adapted and sold by companies that gave little or nothing back to the community. And yet today, we practically never hear that argument at all. So what happened?

I think the issue is that the existing model of creativity has been perverted to the extent that people tend to think in terms of ownership - "my" code - and the money that could be made from it. But free software, and even open source, are about creating code collaboratively, and sharing the results so that more people can build on that. The reward is twofold. First, the kudos that results from writing good code that others wish to share; and secondly, the knowledge that your work is very widely distributed and used.

To those academics who are worried about companies making money from their academic work, I would ask why they wrote their papers and books: was it to make money? - in which case, they are probably in the wrong job. Or was it to gain recognition for what they have achieved, and to enable others to build on that? I suggest it is the latter, in which case the fact that companies are selling your work is not an issue, because the monetary side is not important.

What really matters is that those companies are spreading your work for others to appreciate and build on. Provided they do that - in other words, provided they abide by the terms of the CC-BY licence that requires proper attribution - academics should not just tolerate them, but welcome them, as coders do in open source. Ideally, companies will also make their own contributions back to the community - either financially or in other ways - but that is a bonus rather than a requirement.

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