Mosaic and Creative Commons

Creative Commons

In 1996, the leaders of the Human Genome Project came together in Bermuda for a summit. They decided that all the project's DNA data should be released into freely available online databases within a day of it being produced. To me, who at the time had just transitioned from genetics research into publishing, it was a fascinating decision that was just as important as the project itself.

Deciphering the DNA code that builds and maintains every human had always seemed an eminently sensible thing to do. Obvious even. (It took me a while to fully appreciate quite how hard it was to do though.) But the Bermuda Principles were a step further. Anyone could look at the DNA sequence. Scientists worldwide could use it to inspire or help their research, or to take them in entirely new directions. It was opening up biology.

There are of course earlier examples of other fields being opened up. The free software movement began in the 1980s (the term open source being introduced in 1998), the arXiv archive for mathematics and physics launched in 1991. And there have been many since: Wikipedia launched in 2001, open access journal publishers BioMedCentral in 2000 and PLOS in 2001, to choose just a few.

What they have in common, along with many social platforms and wikis, is an idea of sharing, learning and collaboration. And it is this idea that chimes with our view of Mosaic. It also fits with the ethos of the Wellcome Trust, which has a strong belief in and commitment to open access for the findings of the research it funds.

So 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. This means that anyone can copy and distribute the work, adapt it and use it commercially. The key condition is that the user must attribute the work to the original author, and also to Mosaic, including a link. It’s a licence that makes it easy for someone to put an article on their own website or blog, to translate it into another language, to abridge text to fit an available print space (so long as the edits and the full piece are acknowledged) or to excerpt for audiences who like reading 600 words instead of 3000.

We want people to use and republish our content, and we think the CC-BY licence makes this easiest. Indeed, an important element of the Mosaic project is that we think the features we commission cover important subjects that people will want to read. We’d like them to come to our website, but if they read the content elsewhere that is fine by us. So we will be actively encouraging magazines, newspapers, websites and blogs to take it and reuse it. And we aren’t bothered at all if others make a profit from our features, through advertising or subscriptions. In fact, we’d be delighted if our work helps media outlets that want to cover exciting science to thrive.

Of course, when deciding on the licence, we spent time discussing potential concerns. Our authors and editors will have spent weeks, potentially months of time crafting text. 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.

It may happen, in which case we’d ask for the attribution to be removed, and for such a post to be taken down – it would be in breach of the licence. Yet it appears such cases 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.

We also think that the very wide distribution that a CC-BY licence makes possible will actually appeal to many writers. We will pay our writers a competitive fee for their work, with significant travel budgets available where required, and then publish it in a way that allows maximum exposure. Professional writers need to be paid — we are thoroughly opposed to the idea that they might work for free, alarmingly common in online publishing — but they also want their writing to be widely read and shared. We think that the Mosaic model offers the best of all worlds.

CC-BY will apply to the majority of our stories, but there will be occasion where we’ll need to use a different license. We have a forthcoming story on cycling, for example, which is part of a larger project that also involves other funders and so we’ll use CC-BY-ND.  And for images licences will vary, depending on their source.

We’re excited by the possibilities that Creative Commons offers. It will be fascinating to see how others use our content, and how this open approach helps bring stories about science to new audiences.

Giles Newton
Editor, Mosaic