Don’t Muddy the “Open” Waters: SPARC Joins Call for STM Association to Rethink New Licenses

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August 07, 2014

For the past decade, SPARC has made it our mission to communicate a clear, concise definition of Open Access – the free, immediate online availability of scholarly articles, coupled with the rights to use those articles fully in the digital environment. These reuse rights are neatly expressed in the widely-used suite of open licenses supported by Creative Commons (CC), which have become the de-facto standard for Open Access journals. CC licenses have proven to be highly effective in helping to achieve the core goals of Open Access – making scholarly articles easily accessible to and fully usable by the widest possible community.

Recently, the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM International) released its own set of “open” licenses, which were presumably developed to support the same aims as CC licenses. However, upon examination, these licenses contain significant weaknesses that will muddy the Open Access waters and unnecessarily limit the utility of articles, create confusion, and weaken authors’ ability to make their work truly open.

Today, SPARC has joined with over nearly four-dozen colleague organizations from around the world releasing a letter outlining the weaknesses of STM’s new licenses, and calling for the Association to withdraw them. The letter calls on STM to instead recommend that its authors use existing, proven licenses that are entirely compatible with the Association’s own mission of working to ensure that the benefits of scholarly research are reliably and broadly available.

The joint letter highlights the primary concerns shared by members of the library, research, publishing and research funding community. One fundamental concern is that these new licenses contain terms and conditions that introduce confusion into the Open Access publishing marketplace, an environment in which the terminology used in Creative Commons licenses have become fairly well understood and established.

This confusion is exacerbated by the fact that it is extremely difficult to figure out the intended use of each STM license. For a community that has spent years collectively working to understand and appropriately apply the much more straightforward CC license suite, this is a heavy – and entirely unnecessary – burden to take on.

Whether you consider it an essential precondition for Open Access publishing or merely aspirational, there is no downplaying the importance of the CC BY license. Many Open Access advocates believe that CC BY represents the gold standard for truly achieving the aims of Open Access - full accessibility and full reuse of an article with no restrictions other than appropriately crediting the creator of the work. It is a standard requirement for publication in the most prominent Open Access journals, ranging from those published by PLoS to BioMed Central to Hindawi, and has also been adopted as a standard for publication of works by funders such as the Wellcome Trust.

SPARC does, however, respect the diversity of needs in our community, and supports the use of the full suite of CC licenses that provide for appropriate modifications to meet different needs. In particular, we recognize that there are some instances where an author may want to restrict the commercial reuse of their works.

That’s why it is particularly important to note that that the STM set of “open” licenses does not provide for a corollary to the CC BY license, and that all of the STM licenses further contain significant restrictions on commercial uses and derivatives, limiting how open an article actually can be.

There are many other troubling issues with these new licenses that the joint letter highlights, including concerns that these licenses claim to grant permission to do things that that users already have permission to do, such as linking to a work. STM also seems to make the very troubling assumption that its new licenses can be used to regulate text and data mining – an area of growing importance and of deep interest to the research community. 

All of these issues combined point to a fundamental disconnect between the aims of this new set of licenses and the CC licenses already in wide use throughout the academic community. While Creative Commons approaches this issue from the perspective that the default should be “Open,” and restrictions only carefully and incrementally applied, the STM Association appears to be taking the opposite approach.

Nothing is ever perfect, and that includes the current set of CC licenses. But Creative Commons has proven itself to be a thoughtful and trusted partner organization in our common quest to democratize the accessibility and utility of scholarly information. Their license suite provides a crucial legal tool that is easy to understand, flexible, suitable for the digital environment, and that is already being consistently applied around the world. Rather than muddying the waters by adding unnecessary complexity to the mix, we call on the STM Association to work with the whole scholarly community to build on the solid foundation that has already been established.