Open Access Journals: CC Bait and Switch?

May 3, 2010, [MD]

I'm currently doing some surveying of the Open Access publishing landscape, together with a professor. We are trying to get a sense of the different actors, motivations, etc. We will be sharing much more from this research as it matures, but for now, I wanted to mention one thing that has come up frequently. I have been investigating a sample of OA journals, visiting their websites to gather basic statistics like whether they use open licenses or not, whether authors can keep their copyright or have to transfer it to the publisher, whether the publisher is for-profit or non-profit, etc.

The first thing that I realized is that finding this information is very difficult. Some journal websites are very helpful, and spell it all out (these are typically templated web pages belonging to big publishers). For many others, you have to dig deep into the "author's instructions" PDF, to find the information you are looking for, and in many other cases, you cannot find it at all.

When it comes to the use of open licenses, there is also a fair amount of confusion, and many web sites will have contradictory statements. To just choose one example (the last one I looked at, but there are many like this): The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Pathology. This journal is published by e-Century Publishing Corporation, a US corporation that publishes a total of six OA journals, with the slogan: "Always Publishing, Always Open-Access / We are working towards the Freedom of Sciences".

The journal sustains itself on the publication fee, which is \$900 for each paper accepted under ten pages, and \$100 for each additional page. Given that all the articles are available for free download, it does fulfill the most narrow criteria of OA publishing. But does it also offer articles under an open license, allowing dissemination, even modification, translation, etc? According to their Instructions to Authors, yes.

Here is their copyright policy in full:

Copyright Policy By submitting a manuscript to IJCEP, all authors agree that all copyrights of all materials included in the submitted manuscript will be exclusively transferred to the publisher - e-Century Publishing Corporation once the manuscript is accepted.

Once the paper is published, the copyright will be released by the publisher under the “Creative Commons Attribution License”, enabling the unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction of the published article in any medium, provided that the original work is properly cited.  If the manuscript contains a figure or table reproduced from a book or another journal article, the authors should obtain permission from the copyright holder before submitting the manuscript, and be fully responsible for any legal and/or financial consequences if such permissions are not obtained.

All PDF, XML and html files for all articles published in this journal are the property of the publisher, e-Century Publishing Corporation ( Authors and readers are granted the right to freely use these files for all academic purposes. By publishing paper in this journal, the authors grant the permanent right to the publisher to use any articles published in this journal without any restriction including, but not limited to academic and/or commercial purposes. If you are interested in using PDF, html, XML files or any art works published in this journal for any commercial purposes, please contact the publisher at

So, there are a few issues here. The journal requests you to transfer the copyright to them, and state that they will release the article under a CC BY license, but then go on to state that this will enable unrestricted non-commercial usage of the article. However, the CC BY license does not restrict commercial usage. If they desired this, they would have to use the CC BY NC license.  They also state that all PDF, HTML and XML files will be the property of the publisher, and that permission is granted to use these for "academic purposes".

This is confusing – are they saying that there is a difference between the copyright in the Platonic idea of the article, and the copyright on each of the individual expressions of that article? But if the article is only offered through HTML, PDF and XML, what does that mean? What if I took a picture, and said that the picture was freely licensed, by the JPEG I put on my website was copyrighted?

How does this confusion play out in practice though – for most visitors, who don't stop to read the instructions for authors, but merely want to access the articles? Well, let us choose a random article, "Androgen deprivation and stem cell markers in prostate cancers", which is featured in the latest issue. Looking at the abstract page, there is no mention of an open license, only a line at the bottom stating "IJCEP Copyright © 2007-All rights reserved". Nothing about right of reuse for academic purposes, etc. Let us download the PDF, and see if there is further information inside the actual article.

There is no reference to any open license inside the PDF. In other words, this is a traditionally copyrighted article - no hint anywhere that other permissions might be granted, whether they be CC BY, or "permission for academic reuse". The confusing text in the instruction for authors might be specific to this journal, but the mention of a CC license in one place of the website, and no use of CC license on the actual article, happens quite often.

Sometimes this is because the website inserts a copyright notice by default. University of Toronto's institutional repository T-Space had this problem, it would show "This item is licensed under Creative Commons BY", and right below that a line saying "Items in T-Space are protected by Copyright, with all rights reserved". Now they have changed that last line to say "unless otherwise noted".

Back to the journal business, there are two issues here. One is whether the stated intent in an information for authors PDF that articles will be released under CC BY is legally binding, and whether this in fact makes all articles on the site CC BY, even though this was not noted individually for each article. Regardless of this however, the whole point of CC licenses is to make it easy for people to copy, share, modify and distribute versions of the licensed material. If it's not clearly noted on the item (both on the abstract page, and in the PDF generated) that the item is licensed under CC, you lose all this benefit, and the item might just as well be copyrighted.

This is all the more egregious, because this publisher in particular publishes 6 journals. I hope all OA journals can have a look at the information they make available, and clarify this, so that there is no doubt of the intention of the journal, whether for authors (I would be upset if I submitted my article to this journal, thinking it would be CC licensed, and then find the PDF distributed without any information about this), and for readers.


Stian Håklev May 3, 2010 Toronto, Canada
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