Mosaic: The Publishing Of Science, And The Science Of Publishing

from the moral-rights dept

The UK-based Wellcome Trust is the second-largest non-governmental funder of medical research after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It was one of the main backers of the Human Genome Project, which pioneered the idea of open data by placing all its results in the public domain, and of open access. Recently, it began a new project exploring openness:

First there was open source software, given away for anybody to download, use and share without charge. Then there was open access publishing, the movement to make the results of scientific research freely available to read without paying journal subscription fees. Today, the Wellcome Trust is launching a fresh experiment in open information, this time in science journalism.

Mosaic, our new digital publication devoted to long-form features about the science of life, is not only free for anybody to read. Its content is also freely available for anybody else to republish or share through their own publications and platforms.

Of course, “freely available” can mean many things. Here’s more about the license Mosaic will be published under:

when we were starting out on the development of Mosaic, one of the first principles we put in place was that the features we published should have a Creative Commons (CC) licence. We want as many people to be able to read our stories as possible, and so we’ll be publishing features on the Mosaic site and making it simple for others to take our content and re-use it.

While Creative Commons is well established in scholarly circles, its use in journalism is still relatively sparse. The investigative journalism newsroom Propublica, and The Conversation, which brings together professional editors and university experts, both publish under CC licences (do let us know if you know of other examples).

The license we’ve chosen for Mosaic is Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY), which is the most open of the licences.

Well, arguably CC0 is more open — it’s akin to placing something in the public domain, with no restrictions whatsoever. Still, CC-BY is certainly an extremely generous license, allowing almost anything to be done with the articles, provided authorship is acknowledged. Of course, that could be problematic, as the Wellcome Trust recognizes:

Might adaptation, if done poorly, damage our reputation for quality and depth, or the author’s reputation? Might some adaptations distort the story? In the former case, the original, crafted version will always be on the Mosaic site, the licence allows us to insist that attribution requires a link back and and that the edited nature of an adapted or abridged piece must be signposted. In the latter case, the licence protects the author’s ‘moral rights’, which include the right not to have the work distorted, mutilated, modified or subjected to derogatory action which would be prejudicial to the author’s honour or reputation.

Although such “moral rights” are rarely invoked in the US, in Europe they are more important. However, as the Wellcome Trust itself points out, this is more of a theoretical problem than a real one:

it appears such cases [of distortion] are very few and far between and problems that do arise are usually due to miscommunication or misunderstanding. What is more, it is the nature of the internet that work published even under the most restrictive licences is often taken and adapted by others without any consent — while often illegal, this is extremely difficult to police. So while it was good to think through potential issues, our conclusion was that we should offer our work in good faith. We trust others’ editorial judgment.

That’s both a good summary of the situation, and an eminently pragmatic solution. If only more publishers adopted it, instead of trying to stamp out every kind of unauthorized online use, however minor, and however disproportionate the effort required.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Companies: wellcome trust

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