As a scientist, you have many options when it comes to licensing your original, scholarly work. For every new paper, data set, video/audio recording, image collection, figure, or computer program (just to name a few), you must decide how far and wide the material will be distributed and what others are allowed to do with it once they have it.

Until relatively recently, the only option for protecting your work was standard copyright, which is “the exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material.”

And the only choice you had to make was to keep that exclusive legal right to yourself, or to assign it to another entity.

Historically, many journals would require that you turn over your copyright as a condition of publication. This makes sense from the business perspective of the journal, but comes with a number of downsides for you as the author.

For example, by giving a journal exclusive rights to publish your manuscript, you are restricting the audience for that work to only the people who subscribe to the journal (or are willing to pay for access to your paper). Compared to an open access model, this greatly restricts the possible audience for your paper, and hence the influence and citations it can generate.

Or an even more perplexing example is that any figures or articles for which you have given away your copyright cannot be used in your dissertation, book, or memoires without you obtaining written permission from each journal to which the copyright was assigned.

More recently a set of new options has been created, namely Creative Commons, that are giving authors and publishers greater flexibility.

Myth of Creative Commons Licensing

In today’s era of open access science, publishers and scientists are increasingly choosing to license works under Creative Commons.  While open access journals assign licenses that allow more freedom with the use and reuse of published material, authors seem to instinctively want more conservative licenses—as if their works were to be published in the historical sense.

In fact, in a comprehensive open access study published in 2013 by Taylor & Francis, of Informa, authors were asked if they “would be willing to sign the license when publishing your research” in open-access journals, specifically.  Of respondents, the vast majority responded that they would only say “yes, always” to the most restrictive CC license (summary of findings).

More curious is that over 65% academic authors feel that all research should be free to read online and that disseminating research results shouldn’t cost any money. However, only just over half agreed that they “always choose the best journal for my article, regardless of publication charges or whether articles are free to access.” Creative Commons licenses doesn’t monetize either reading or disseminating research and, therefore, should be the natural choice for academic authors.

This contradiction may be due to an unclear understanding of what Creative Commons has to offer or the perceived myth that open access authors have less—or even no rights—to their work when compared to standard copyrights.

Fortunately, it’s just that—a myth. In fact, authors do retain the rights to their published work; the biggest difference being that their rights are now spelled out in a way that is easier to understand and apply.

What are Creative Commons Licenses?

For a moment, assume the standard copyright was not given away at publication. That means it is up to you to correspond with everyone who is interested in using your published work and individually say “yes” or “no” to each request. It can become tedious to manage when all the requests ask the same thing. So, let’s say that you want to automatically grant permission for others to use your work within a specific set of guidelines instead (and without waiting to be asked first!). This cuts down on the number of requests and frees up your time to spend in the lab and, ultimately, publish more.

Win-win, right? Well, a Creative Commons license easily enables you to do just that.

Types of Creative Commons License

Six Creative Commons licenses cover the spectrum of copyright for your open-access piece. Briefly, here is what they mean to you:

The basis of each license begins with the Creative Commons (CC) Attribution, or CC BY, which states that for whatever purpose your material is used, you must be given credit where credit is due.

CC BY is the most versatile license in terms of how another can “distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work” including commercially for profit. The Public Library of Science (PLOS) was among the first to publish material under CC BY, but other journals and publishers such as BioMed Central also use this license.

The Attribution ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) license allows others to use your material as long as any future material is licensed in exactly the same way as yours. If your work is similar in scope to what is found in a Wikipedia-style knowledge base like OpenWetWare, then CC BY-SA is the most common license.

The Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND) license preserves your work as is: it can be shared, and even sold commercially, but only as you have created it—in whole.

The Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC) license allows others to do virtually anything with your work—except sell it. Cancer Science is one journal that offers the CCBY-NC publishing option

The Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) license goes one step further to restrict any subsequent work that builds upon or uses portions of yours to being shared under the same license. Journals do use this license. For example, Gene Therapy offers CCBY-NC-SA.

Last, but not least, the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND) license is as conservative as it gets: you allow the work to be shared with others, but it must be only as you created it, not modified in any way, and never sold. Authors choosing to publish open access in the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) have this license applied.

Publishing groups understand that organizations or granting agencies may have specific requirements with an open access piece, so they offer a range of licensing options that authors can choose, from CCBY to CCBY-NC-ND. Be sure to check with your journal of choice to learn all is available.

For authors who feel strongly about utilizing a selection-based journal, licensing the work under Creative Commons would enable you to publish it on your lab’s website, essentially granting open access that is under your control. Another option would be to first place the article under an “embargo,” so that once a set period of time has passed after publication it is released as open-access material.

Are you considering open access publishing but unsure as to which Creative Commons license fits best? Answer a few questions on for a suggestion.