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Why Sharing Academic Publications Under “No Derivatives” Licenses is Misguided

Licenses & Tools, Open Education

The benefits of open access (OA) are undeniable and increasingly evident across all academic disciplines and scientific research: making academic publications1 freely and openly accessible and reusable provides broad visibility for authors, a better return on investment for funders, and greater access to knowledge for other researchers and the general public. And yet, despite OA’s obvious advantages, some researchers choose to publish their research papers under restrictive licenses, under the mistaken belief that by doing so they are safeguarding academic integrity

Academic fraud, whether in the guise of cheating, copying, plagiarism or using the services of essay mills, is no doubt a serious issue for the academic community the world over. This age-old problem has been happening since long before digital technologies and open licenses (such as CC Licenses) were on the scene, however. Clearly, OA is neither to blame for academic fraud nor does it invite it or make it worse. 

In this blog post, we explain that applying restrictive licenses to academic publications is a misguided approach to addressing concerns over academic integrity. Specifically, we make it clear that using Creative Commons “No Derivatives” (ND) licenses on academic publications is not only ill-advised for policing academic fraud but also and more importantly unhelpful to the dissemination of research, especially publicly-funded research. We also show that the safeguards in place within truly open licenses (like CC BY or CC BY-SA) are well-suited to curbing malicious academic behavior, above and beyond other existing recourses for academic fraud and similar abuses. 

No Derivatives licenses (CC BY-ND and CC BY-NC-ND) allow people to copy and distribute a work but prohibit them from adapting, remixing, transforming, translating, or updating it, in any way that makes a derivative. In short, people are not allowed to create “derivative works” or adaptations.

Researchers are the ultimate remixers

Researchers publish to be read, to have impact, and to make the world a better place. To accomplish these important goals, researchers need to enable reuse and adaptations of their research publications and data. They also need to be able to reuse and adapt the publications and data of others. Isaac Newton, one of the most influential scientists of all time, famously declared: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” meaning the production of new knowledge can only be achieved if researchers can rely on the ideas and publications of their peers and predecessors and revisit, reuse, and transform them, adding layer upon layer of new insights. Researchers are the ultimate remixers—OA is the ultimate way to make remixing possible. 

ND licensed publications are not Open Access

Articles published under an ND license are not considered OA, as first defined in the Budapest Open Access Initiative and in its 2012 recommendations. ND licenses overly restrict reuse of content by fellow researchers and thus curtail their opportunity to contribute to the advancement of knowledge. This is the main reason why it is inadvisable to apply ND licenses to academic publications. Although ND licenses are used for certain types of content, such as official documents that are not meant to be substantively modified, using them to forbid adaptations of academic publications flies in the face of the ethos of academic research. If anything, the ND element harms researchers.

For instance, ND licenses prevent translations. Hence, given that English is the dominant language of academia, ND licenses place barriers to accessing knowledge by non-English speakers and limit the outreach of research beyond the English-speaking world. ND licenses also prevent the adaptation of the graphs, images or diagrams included in academic articles (unless separately licensed under a license permitting their adaptation), which are essential to achieve wider dissemination of the ideas expressed therein. 

Reusers might also be discouraged by how differently “adaptations” might be defined under copyright law in different jurisdictions and how differently exceptions and limitations (E&L) might apply. A notable example is the use of text and data mining (TDM) processes to generate new knowledge. Some laws are very clear about the ability of researchers to do TDM as an exception to copyright even when an adaptation is arguably made during the TDM process, and even when the output can almost never be said to constitute an adaptation of any one input. The use of an ND license might be erroneously interpreted to discourage such perfectly lawful activity altogether, and therefore present another hurdle to the progress of science. 2

Some remixes are still possible under ND licenses

Be that as it may, ND licenses do not completely bar the possibility of reusing and adapting academic publications. First, the licenses do not limit the rights that users have by virtue of the application of copyright’s exceptions and limitations, such as quotation, review, criticism or under the general doctrines of fair dealing or fair use. Further, our FAQ clarifies that, generally, no derivative work is made of the original from which an excerpt is taken when the portion is used to illustrate an idea or provide an example in another larger work. This is solely an act of reproduction, not of improving upon the pre-existing work in a way that could create an adaptation in violation of the ND license. All CC licenses grant the right to reproduce a CC-licensed work for noncommercial purposes (at a minimum). 

Moreover, anyone wishing to adapt ND-licensed publications can seek authorization from the author, who may grant an individual license. This, however, adds unnecessary transaction costs for reusers, who might choose to use different sources rather than go through the often tedious process of requesting permission. 

Despite the ways other researchers are legally able to reuse ND-licensed works, they leave much to be desired in the academic context.

All CC Licenses require attribution 

Multiple protections against reputational and attribution risks are embedded in all CC licenses, which have a strong legal history of enforcement actions against reusers that violate the licenses’ terms. These safeguards, that are in addition to and not in replacement of academic norms and practices, are in place to provide an additional layer of protection for the original authors’ reputation and to alleviate their concerns over changes to their works that might be wrongly attributed to them, such as:

Copyright is not the best framework to uphold academic integrity

Overall, copyright law and CC Licenses are not the most appropriate frameworks to address problems of academic integrity. Better results can certainly be achieved through compliance with and enforcement of relevant, well-established and enduring institutional and social norms, ethics policies, and moral codes of conduct. All told, researchers are not doing themselves or the global academe a favor when they share their publications under ND licenses. To optimize their dissemination and increase their social impact, we recommend sharing academic publications under the most open terms possible, i.e. by applying a CC BY license to the article and CC0 to the data.

We’re happy to provide further assistance and support in the interpretation of CC licenses, as well as in understanding open access for researchers. If you need help, get in touch ?


  1. Academic publications broadly include scholarly, academic, scientific and research books, journals, and articles/papers. Academic publications are often publicly funded.
  2. All 4.0 ND licenses permit text and data mining even if adaptations are created during the process, or as an output; however, adaptations may not be shared further and may only be used for internal or personal purposes.

Thanks to efforts by our community, this article has now been translated into français

Posted 21 April 2020