One of the things that most surprised me when putting together the list of preprint servers for this site is that a large number don’t explicitly list any licensing or copyright information, and some routinely use very restrictive licenses. Coming from a publishing background, this was very surprising.
Subscription publishing relies on content ownership and enforcement of strict copyright conditions: If the publisher doesn’t own the copyright, the articles could be distributed by anyone. The open access movement turned this logic on its head. Someone (often the authors or their funder) pays for value added services including peer review, copy editing, hosting and distribution, but anyone is allowed to distribute the final article. The copyright and licensing terms are among the most significant features distinguishing open access and legacy publishers.
Licensing for open access is very important. Most open access publishers have gravitated towards the creative commons licenses, and in particular CC BY. Although there are differing views, simply being free to read is generally accepted as insufficient for open access. It also requires rights for reuse, in whole or in part. This means that for the strictest definitions of open access, not even all creative commons licenses are sufficient.
The preprint paradigm developed before open access and at the very beginning of the internet, when licensing conditions were not such a contentious area. As a result, many preprints were not, and still aren’t, open access compatible. If no terms are stated, as with a number of preprints I’ve seen, the default is an all rights reserved license, which means distribution and reuse are not permitted.
For authors, the lack of open access for preprints doesn’t matter much and I don’t believe many know or care a great deal about it. I have never received a request at preprints.org to use license other than CC BY for a preprint, and only on about three occasions in the last four years for open access journals (over about 70,000 articles). Most authors I speak to like the ideals of open access, even if they have issues with how it works in practice. It is the rest of the research community (ironically including many of the same people) that stands to lose out. Data mining, especially, becomes a legal minefield if reuse rights are not clear. Use of figures in lectures, blogs and journal articles is problematic. Simply sharing a copy with a few colleagues could be illegal. The tragic recent case of Diego Gomez shows that this is not just a hypothetical argument. The goal for preprints to widely disseminate work is limited by the lack of a clear license. Even more, if the increasing use of preprints has aspirations to be seen as part of the push for open science, the current haphazard approach to licensing isn’t going to work.
Some have justified offering a range of licenses on the grounds that it make preprints more inclusive and the time will come for moving forward on this issue. I think this overestimates the risks and underestimates the benefits of open access, and I am yet to see a timescale for the transition. Others seem to be unaware of the issue: I recently saw a definition declaring that all preprints are open access. To reach the full potential of preprints, they should be in step with open access and aim to be fully integrated into the growing calls for open and transparent science. At the very least, I would challenge those advocating for the use of preprints to decide which side of the fence they sit on.