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

john wilbanks wilbanks at creativecommons.org
Wed Jan 12 17:44:45 UTC 2011

Great thread.

> (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.

<furious applause>

We've gotten far too used to equating freedoms with public licenses. 
Public licenses scale in their adoption to the extent they are in line 
with the norms of the communities that adopt them. It's one of the 
reasons those licenses are so hard to integrate into business cultures 
with closed norms - not because of legal complexity, but because they 
violate the norms of enclosed communities.

> 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.

Sort of. Collections of US gov't works are regularly sold to collections 
outside the US, and getting unambiguous marking of PD works as such 
without territorial information can be complicated to achieve. But yes, 
no observed outbreaks with horrible results.

> 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.

<more furious applause>

> (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.)

Yes, this is precisely the sort of stacking I do mean, and I do agree 
with you here. The reality is that attribution - from a legal 
perspective - emerged from the world of one author, one work (or perhaps 
two or three, but not the sort of collective authorship made possible by 
the network). I try to distinguish the legal obligation of attribution 
from the normative concept of citation to help with this problem. But 
there are some nice emergent technical solutions that may hold the 
promise of squaring at least part of the circle.

> 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.

<one more round of furious applause>

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