Why would a scientist or mathematician want to publish a paper under the Creative Commons CC BY licence? This licence allows the work to be modified. Why would you want to allow a scientific paper to be altered?

Yet Arxiv at https://arxiv.org/help/license seems to offer only licences that allow changes.

Similary Nature Communications at http://www.nature.com/ncomms/about/open-access:

"Nature Communications articles are published open access under a CC BY license".

The CC licences that do not allow change are the ones with ND (no derive). So the natural choice would seem to be either BY-ND or BY-NC-ND. Can anyone shed light?

  • 3
    Why would you not want someone to tranform, modify and build upon your work?
    – FBolst
    Apr 16, 2018 at 23:41
  • 4
    Of course they are not replacing your paper with a modified version. They are creating a new paper/commentary/etc. derived from your paper. I agree with FBolst. Why would you want no one to derive anything from your paper?
    – GEdgar
    Apr 16, 2018 at 23:59
  • Some funding sources have a prefered (or required) licence they want to use for published work. For my last publication, which was optional Open Access, my funding body payed around 3k€ for Open Access fees (I think it was Elsivier published), but they required a specific licence to be used. I think it was CC-BY, tho I can't be 100% sure.
    – penelope
    Apr 17, 2018 at 9:21

4 Answers 4


I work for a literature archive, and this is a very important question for me. Here is an example of how restrictive licensing affects our work. We host a large collection of biomedical publications. We developed a tool that identifies mentions of research data in the text. The tool highlights these mentions for readers to find it easier. If the article is licensed as CC-BY-ND (no derivatives) we cannot display the highlight, because it changes the article. We are a publicly funded, free service that offers free open tools for researchers. But we can only develop new functionalities based on public data. The more restrictive you go, the less value we can provide for the benefit of all.


My organisation uses CC-BY as its default license for published work. We're government rather than academia, but there are similarities between what we do and scientific research (we're in the business of collecting, processing, and publishing data) and some of the same considerations apply.

Part of the reason for using CC-BY is that we want people to use the stuff we publish. It's our reason for existence, and they've paid for this work through their taxes. (The USA goes further, and makes work done by government employees as part of their jobs copyright-free.)

Another reason is more pragmatic: it saves us a lot of time that would otherwise be spent responding to individual requests for permission. It's less trouble just to give a blanket "yes".

  • 2
    Whatever the license is (even no license), everyone is always able to build upon your work and adapt it. Copyright is not about ideas. I think you're mischaracterizing the rights a CC license gives. "Adapting" the work in the sense of the CC licenses would be, for example, translating it in another language, or creating an audio version. The kind of rights granted by CC licenses would be considered plagiarism in the majority of cases, if you tried to pass the "adapted" version as your own.
    – user9646
    Apr 17, 2018 at 9:00
  • 1
    @NajibIdrissi You're right, mea culpa. Gonna edit that bit out. Apr 19, 2018 at 1:52

I think it is first important to understand what exactly an adaptation is according to the CC licenses. Creative Commons has a FAQ about it.

Generally, a modification rises to the level of an adaptation under copyright law when the modified work is based on the prior work but manifests sufficient new creativity to be copyrightable, such as a translation of a novel from one language to another, or the creation of a screenplay based on a novel.

And the legalese is:

Adapted Material means material subject to Copyright and Similar Rights that is derived from or based upon the Licensed Material and in which the Licensed Material is translated, altered, arranged, transformed, or otherwise modified in a manner requiring permission under the Copyright and Similar Rights held by the Licensor. For purposes of this Public License, where the Licensed Material is a musical work, performance, or sound recording, Adapted Material is always produced where the Licensed Material is synched in timed relation with a moving image.

For example, changing the format of a work is not an adaptation. If you publish something in PDF format under a CC license that forbids modification, I could still print it and distribute the printed pages even if it's a new format.

Moreover, these licenses are only about copyright. Reusing the ideas from your work is not an adaptation either – copyright isn't about ideas. If you publish a method, even under a license that grants no rights to adapt and modify your work, everyone will always be able to "build upon" your method, because you cannot copyright an idea. (Note that in most jurisdictions it's not even clear if you can patent an idea either.) Ideas belong to everyone.

Many of the rights related to adaptation granted by a CC license would be considered as plagiarism (or, even if you attribute it properly, not novel). So I don't think there's anything to be scared of in this regard.

It may still be interesting to grant these rights. For example, with a CC license that allow derivative works, you allow people to translate your work in other languages. If you don't see yourself suing people for doing this kind of thing, it may be interesting to explicitly grant them these rights.

  • 3
    +1. This is a really good answer. The ND in CC-BY-ND doesn't prevent plagiarism (plagiarists typically don't care); it prevents translations. Aug 14, 2018 at 13:07

See the essay Why CC BY? by Claire Redhead.

"Derived use is fundamental to the way in which scholarly research builds on what has gone before. One of the many benefits of open access publishing is that elements such as figures from a published research article can be reused, with attribution, as part of teaching material, or in other published works, without needing to request permission of the publisher. Similarly, article translations, image libraries, case report databases, text-mining enhancements and data visualizations are all examples of how additional value can be created by allowing derivative use."

"To fully realise that potential of open access to research literature, barriers to reuse need to be removed. The Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) strongly encourages the use of the CC-BY license, rather than one of the more restrictive licenses."

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