Copyright for Chemists: Promoting Reuse through Open Licensing

The previous posts in this series introduced copyright as it applies to chemistry research and underscored one of the many issues that can arise when authors of research communications grant publishers exclusive copyright.

Although ensuring that other chemists can access the written record of your work is important, an often overlooked concept is that of reuse. This article explains why you might want to be concerned about reuse of your scientific work and ways you can help ensure that it takes place.

Licenses: Selectively Transfer Some of Your Rights

Governments grant citizens the right to control how their works are reused through copyright. As scientists, these rights are extended to you every time you publish a paper.

Although many organizations such as ACS Publications insist on extracting exclusive copyright from authors as a condition for publication, there is a better way.

As a copyright holder, you can license your work. In doing so, you retain all ownership rights but permit only those you choose to duplicate your work and only in the manner you specify.

As a specific example, you may have noticed the upper-right image in many Depth-First posts. These were not created by me, but rather photographers around the world who make their pictures available under a license that gives me the right to combine their work with my own. Without such a license, I wouldn't even consider using these images in the manner I do.

Modern information technologies like the Web have opened up vast new possibilities to combine large numbers of scientific papers for automatic indexing and mining. But these efforts can only happen within the boundaries of copyright law.

Those chemists who fail to grasp the significance of copyright as it applies to their research documentation may find themselves unable to gain recognition for their hard work in an increasingly noisy (and open) scientific environment.

Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons is "a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools." They offer a selection of pre-written licenses, each of which grant others varying degrees of permission to reuse your work.

Although other open licenses are available, Creative Commons is one of the most widely-used and understood.

What Should You License?

Anything you write or produce in digital form may be eligible for copyright protection and therefore licensing. Examples could include:

  • Supporting Information. A previous post discussed the possibility that ACS (and possibly others publishers) specifically grant authors joint copyright to Supporting Information. Although the copyrightablity of Supporting Information has been debated, exercising your rights by applying an open licence removes all doubt.
  • Meeting Slides. Whether you're a veteran of giving public presentations of your work or just starting out, you generally own all copyright to your slide deck. Fortunately, ACS requires no copyright transfer as a condition for presenting at its meetings.
  • Videos. Any videos you make documenting or promoting your research are eligible for copyright and therefore licensing.
  • Collections of Spectra or Other Data. Although it's highly debatable whether an individual spectrum is copyrightable, collections of spectra may be.
  • Blogs and Websites. This one is particularly important given the increased use of blogging by chemistry research groups and individuals. All online content, event content created under a pseudonym can be copyrighted.

It should go without saying that I am not a lawyer. When in doubt about whether your work can be licensed, ask an attorney.

How to Use a Creative Commons License

In using any license, you need to be sure to do two things: (1) clearly identify yourself as the copyright holder; and (2) clearly state the rights you're giving someone who finds your work. Identifying yourself as a copyright holder is as simple as using the word 'copyright', '(c)', or '©' together with the year of creation and your name.

As far as stating the rights a license grants, Creative Commons recommends applying one of a number of markers to your content. You can see how I've done it by skipping to the bottom of this page.

The government grants individuals and organizations far-reaching control over how their works are used through copyright. Licenses offer a way for you to selectively transfer some or all of these rights to others. Open licenses such as those from Creative Commons offer a convenient method to ensure the widest possible distribution and credit for your hard work.