[open-science] Should scientific text be put in the public domain rather than licensed with CC-BY?

Michael Nielsen mn at michaelnielsen.org
Wed Jan 12 17:29:13 UTC 2011

On Wed, 12 Jan 2011, Thomas Kluyver wrote:

> What could we do if all scientific writing was CC0, that couldn't be done if it was
> all CC-BY?

I don't have especially strong feelings about this, but a few 

(1) Attribution amongst scientists is currently enforced normatively, not 
legally.  Those norms aren't perfect, but they are very, very strong: as a 
scientist one of the worst accusations that can be made against you is one 
of plagiarism.

The implication is that it's perfectly possible to (normatively) require 
attribution, but to release things into the public domain, where 
attribution is not legally required.

My understanding is that a large number of written scientific works from 
the US Government are already released into the public domain.  Yet this 
hasn't caused an outbreak of people copying them without attribution.  So 
I think it's a mistake to think that adopting CC0 means not requiring 
attribution.  It merely means not LEGALLY requiring attribution, which is 
quite different.

(2) I can easily imagine a future in which a thousand-word piece of text 
has (a) tens or hundreds of thousands of authors; and (b) goes through 
hundreds or even thousands of public iterations, possibly involving many 
quite different sets of authors.  I don't know of a case where both these 
things have already happened, but point (a) has arguably already happened 
in the case of Galaxy Zoo and Foldit, where tens or hundreds of thousands 
of people contributed to the analysis.  And point (b) is seen in projects 
such as the Matlab programming competition.  I like a term I've heard John 
Wilbanks use to describe the problem with attribution that arises in this 
kind of situation: it creates an attribution stacking problem. (I've heard 
John mostly use it for data, and don't intend to imply that he agrees with 
what I'm saying here.)  Personally, I'd be in favour of developing tools 
to handle the attribution stacking problem in these kinds of situations. 
But I am a bit uncomfortable with the notion of legally requiring 
attribution.  What happens as the community fragments?  Maybe some authors 
will disagree with later versions of "their" paper, and want to rescind 
authorship?  Or they'll agree with only parts of the paper?  Perhaps 
managing authorship legally in such a complex environment will turn out to 
be more trouble than it's worth, and it would be better instead to focus 
on coming up with flexible normative solutions.


More information about the open-science mailing list