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Open access: green does NOT mean CC-BY-NC

There's been a fair amount of confusion around the new UK guidelines that mean we have to publish our research articles as open access. One of the urban myths that has sprung up is rather curious, and it's the idea that if you choose to publish under the green route, you're supposed to publish under a Creative Commons NonCommercial licence. This is not true. (It's just one of the many licences that would work.) But I have heard it from heads of research groups, I've heard it from library staff. We need to be clear!

(BACKGROUND: "Green" and "gold" are terms often used to describe two different sorts of open access, and they're also the two terms used by Research Councils UK [RCUK] to tell us what to do. "Gold" means that the publisher has to provide the article freely to everyone, rather than charging people for access; in lieu of that, most publishers will charge us researchers in order to publish under gold. "Green" means the publisher doesn't have to do anything, except to agree that the author can put a copy of the paper on their website or in an online repository. So, both enable free access to research, but in different ways, and with different costs and benefits.)

Now, in RCUK official guidance we have the option of green or gold publication. If we go the gold route, RCUK requires a specific licence: Creative Commons Attribution, aka CC-BY. If we go the green route, the RCUK policy doesn't exactly specify the licence, but it does say that it has to be published "without restriction on non‐commercial re‐use". Pause for a second to unpick the triple-negative in that turn of phrase...

The reason for that wording is that RCUK didn't want the publishers to "lock down" green OA by saying things like "you can self-archive the paper, but only under these strict terms and conditions which don't actually let people get the benefits of OA". For whatever reasons, they decided that it was OK for publishers to forbid commercial reuse (perhaps to prevent other publishers profiting from simply re-publishing?), but they would draw the line and say they weren't allowed to forbid non-commercial reuse. However, the policy doesn't require any particular licence.

But we might be tempted to ask, well, fine, but what is an example of a licence that would satisfy these RCUK rules? Well, Mark Thorley of RCUK gave an example of this: the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial or CC-BY-NC would be fine. It's an appropriate example because it forbids commercial reuse but allows non-commercial reuse. OK so far?

Unfortunately, when you look at Mark Thorley's slides on the RCUK website, that's not exactly what is conveyed. If you go to slide 10 it says:

"Green (at least post print) with a maximum embargo period of 6(12) months, and CC-BY-NC"

OK that's pretty clear isn't it? It doesn't say that CC-BY-NC is just an example, it basically says CC-BY-NC is required. This is not what Thorley meant. I raised this issue on a mailing list, and he clarified the position:

"The policy does not define a specific licence for green deposit, provided non-commercial re-use such as text and data mining is supported. In presentations I say that this 'equates to CC-BY-NC', however, we do not specifically require CC-BY-NC. This is because some publishers, such as Nature, offer specific deposit licences which meet the requirements of the policy. However [...] this is the minimum requirement. So if authors are able and willing to use more open licences, such as CC-BY, we would encourage this. The more open the licence, the less ambiguities and barriers there are to re-use of repository content."

This clarification is welcome. But unfortunately it was provided in a reply on a mailing list discussion, and the RCUK website itself doesn't provide this clarification, so the misunderstanding is bound to run and run. This week I heard it repeated in an Open Access forum, and I hope that if you've read this far you'll help stop this misconception getting out of hand!

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