Licence to ‘remix’ research alarms humanities scholars

Concerns raised over proposed UK open access rules that would require researchers to surrender copyright

March 20, 2020
Source: Getty

UK-based scholars will be powerless to stop their research being used in racist or homophobic propaganda if proposed open access rules are adopted, a publishing expert has warned.

Under the new policy unveiled by UK Research and Innovation last month, any article accepted for publication from January 2022 should be made “freely and immediately available online” in a journal, open access platform or institutional repository if its author acknowledges research council funding.

But the insistence that research should be made available under a Creative Commons attribution (CC BY) licence has particularly alarmed scholars in the arts and humanities. Under this licence, anyone is allowed to “distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation”.

Surrendering copyright is particularly problematic for humanities scholars, said Rick Anderson, associate dean at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library and former president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

“CC BY gives everyone in the world the right to remix, twist [or] distort your work as they see fit, but it also requires them to connect your name with the new version as its original author,” explained Mr Anderson, adding that this also meant allowing others to “create derivatives of your work, including translations into other languages".

“Humanists are more likely to hesitate at that than scientists” because “the manner in which their work is presented is often as important as the work’s factual content”, said Mr Anderson.

He highlighted the case of journalist Denver David Robinson, whose photographic portraits of Uganda’s gay community published in 2013 were subsequently used in a Ugandan tabloid article titled "Top Ugandan Gays Speak Out: How We Became Homos”. If the photos had been published with a CC BY licence, Mr Robinson would have been unable to demand their withdrawal, Mr Anderson said.

“What copyright gives you is the exclusive right to…say ‘no’,” he continued, adding that this included saying “‘no, you may not incorporate a twisted version of my work into your homophobic pamphlet’ and ‘no, I don’t want my work to be exploited commercially’”.

“I realise that ‘the right to say no’ sounds very negative, but it’s an extremely important right for authors [and] has been fundamental to the whole concept of copyright since its origins in the Statute of Anne,” said Mr Anderson, highlighting the British copyright legislation of 1710.

Susan Bruce, head of Keele University’s School of Humanities, who co-chairs the UK’s Arts and Humanities Alliance, said that it was “not piracy, so much as misrepresentation, that humanities academics are most worried about”.

“Crucial differences in meaning can flow from tiny changes in expression, [which is why] many humanities academics prefer a ‘no-derivatives’ (ND) licence, which offers protection from misuse, misquotation or mistranslation,” said Professor Bruce.

UKRI said the “core principle of our open access policy is that publicly funded research should be accessible and reusable” but it was “conscious of differences across disciplines and these are being taken into account in the open access review”.

“For example we are considering whether a case-by-case exception for ND to be added to an open licence should be permitted in the new open access policy and welcome contributions to the consultation on this subject,” a spokesman said.

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Reader's comments (2)

Any scientist attempting to distort and republish anothers finding in order to discredit them would soon find himself an outcast in the field. Why isn't that threat sufficient in the humanities?
Publishing Open Access under a Creative Commons license is not, as this article alleges, “surrendering copyright.” On the contrary, it allows the author of the work to maintain copyright and enforce certain rights themselves - unlike the current situation with subscription journals where copyright is “surrendered” to the publisher, thereby depriving the author of any control. The attribution to the original author enforced by the “BY” portion of the license makes it easy for any researcher, journalist or interested reader to see when an original work has been “distorted” or used out of context. In addition, by simply including a “no derivative works” (ND) clause or a “non commercial use” (NC) clause you can enforce the kinds of rights of which Anderson is claiming you will be stripped. It’s also worth pointing out that the Society for Scholarly Publishers is an organization that represents many commercial academic publishers who see their cash cow potentially disappearing with the advent of Open Access mandates. Anderson’s argument is scaremongering frankly.