Open Access and open licensing

Much of the recent concern about Open Access in the UK, at least for the humanities, has not been about the general principle, but rather about the means.

In my hearing, however, perhaps at least as much consternation was in reaction to the prospect of subsequently licensing those outputs for re-use using one or other of the Creative Commons suite of licences. CC allows various degrees of redistribution, and re-use, without further recourse to the author, but with credit given. Commercial use can be restricted (or not); the making of derivative works can be provided for (or not). You can Meet the Licenses here.

As an advocate of greater Open Access in the humanities, I suspect that Research Councils UK made a tactical error in suggesting that it intended to enforce the most liberal of these licenses. CC-BY ‘lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.’ Here’s why I think the focus on CC-BY has been a mistake, at this point.

Personally, I have never quite been convinced that ‘full’ or ‘real’ OA was dependent on maximally open licensing. I see free availability of the content for reading and citation as quite distinct from the subsequent reuse of that content in other ways. Both are desirable, but can be decoupled without damage. A move to any form of OA represents a major cultural change, albeit one that is necessary. Given this I would rather see an OA article with all rights reserved (as a staging post) than to not see that article at all. And to couple the two too closely risks the first goal by too strong an insistence on the second. Over time, cultures can and do change; but we ought to practice the art of the possible.

More generally, it isn’t yet clear to me what re-use of a traditional history article looks like. Quotation (with a reference) is a mode historians understand; so is citation as an authority in paraphrase. Both are possible from an article with all rights reserved. Compilation of readers and anthologies would be made easier by CC, but doesn’t require CC-BY. It also isn’t clear what ‘remixing’ of traditional historical writing looks like if it doesn’t involve quotation. Historians are also well used to acknowledging a seminal work in a footnote (or even once only in foreword or acknowledgments) without quoting it directly, but is this all that giving ‘credit’ for ‘remixing’ an idea really means ? If so, there is little to fear; but I’m not sure we know, yet.

Over time, there will be possibilities for data-mining in corpora of scholarly articles, but we ought to think on about whether this can be accommodated without full CC-BY. Much turns on the question of what counts as a derivative work in the context of an aggregated database, and what the output to the user is; and whether an insistence on  non-commercial re-use shuts down important future possibilities that we can’t yet foresee.

It may be that CC-BY is the right default option; my feeling is that it probably will be. But I think we should probably take more time to document some of these use cases, in order to plan a movement towards licensing for historical writing that is neither more restrictive nor more liberal than it need be, and allows scholars to dip in their toes without plunging in up to the neck. For now, there are horses we should avoid scaring, lest they bolt.