When Is Open Access Not Open Access?

  • Catriona J MacCallum
  • Published: October 16, 2007
  • DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0050285
  • Featured in PLOS Collections

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Reply to Thomas Lemberger

Posted by plosbiology on 07 May 2009 at 22:21 GMT

Author: Mark Patterson
Position: Director of Publishing
Institution: PLoS Biology
Additional Authors: Catriona MacCallum
Submitted Date: October 31, 2007
Published Date: October 31, 2007
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

We are grateful to Thomas Lemberger for his response to the recent PLoS Biology editorial concerning the confusion about open versus free access. We thank him as well for pointing out that authors at Molecular Systems Biology are now given a choice between two Creative Commons licenses when they publish their work. The announcement of a new option for their authors of an alternative “Share Alike” licence was not available as the PLoS Biology editorial went to press. We certainly agree with him that open access offers a tremendous potential for researchers and scientific publishing. However, in our view, no matter how well-intentioned this new policy might be, it will only lead to further confusion.

As noted in our editorial, all the research articles published in Molecular Systems Biology still end with the statement that the article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution License – see for example this article This remains misleading, because only one Creative Commons Attribution License allows any kind of derivative reuse subject only to appropriate attribution of the authors. If you follow the license link at the bottom of the article cited above (http://creativecommons.or...) you find that the license is quoted as an “attribution, non-commercial, no derivative works” license – one of the most restrictive of the Creative Commons licenses (for a summary of the licenses see
http://creativecommons.or...). The Creative Commons web site explains the meaning of “no derivative works” as follows: “You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work”. This is not open access.

The new “share alike” choice now offered to Molecular Systems Biology authors is closer to the accepted definition of open access, but includes the “non-commercial” and “share alike” restrictions, which means that any derivatives that are created have to be distributed under the same license terms. While we agree with the sentiments underlying this licence (in that it potentially promotes open access) – it is still restrictive, which is why open access publishers such as PLoS, BioMedCentral and Hindawi have chosen to use the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.or...).

In effect, Molecular Systems Biology offers authors the choice between free access to their work and open access (with some restrictions). This means that the content of the journal is not all available open access. It is therefore not correct to say the “Molecular Systems Biology is an open access journal” as it does at the bottom of the research articles.

It is unfortunate that the PDFs of the articles published in Molecular Systems Biology lead to further confusion. The PDF of the article available at this link has a copyright line at the top indicating that the copyright belongs to EMBO and the Nature Publishing Group and that all rights are reserved. At the end of the abstract, there is a paragraph that reads as follows:

“This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. This license does not permit commercial exploitation or the creation of derivative works without specific permission.”

On this single page we are told that all rights are reserved, that the article is open access, and that no derivative works can be created without permission. There is so much inconsistency within this single page, that no one can really be sure what is and what is not allowed.

It seems to us that we share many of the same goals as the editors Molecular Systems Biology, and so we urge them to work with their publisher to rationalize and simplify the license policies of their fine journal.

Catriona MacCallum
Mark Patterson

No competing interests declared.