Monday, September 22, 2014

Attribution Meets Open Access

Credits Dancer (see on YouTube)
It drives my kids crazy, but I always stay for the credits after the movie. I'm writing this while on a plane over the Atlantic, and I just watched Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel. Among the usual credits for the actors, the producers, the directors, writers, editors, composers, designers, musicians, key grips, best boys, animators, model makers and the like, Michael Taylor is credited as the painter of "Johannes von Hoytl's Boy with Apple" along with his model, Ed Munro. "The House of Waris" is credited for "Brass Knuckle-dusters and Crossed Key Pins". There's a "Drapesmaster", a Millener and two "Key Costume Cutters". There are even "Photochrom images courtesy of The Library of Congress". To reward me for watching to the end there's a funny Russian dancer over the balalaika chorus.

It says a lot about the movie industry that so much work has gone into the credits. They are a fitting recognition of the miracle of a myriad of talents collaborating to result in a Hollywood movie. But the maturity of the film industry is also reflected in the standardization of the form of this attribution.

The importance of attribution is similarly reflected by its presence is each of the Creative Commons licenses. But many of the digital media that have adopted Creative Commons licensing have not reached the sort of attribution maturity seen in the film industry. The book publishing industry, for example, hides the valuable contributions of copy editors, jacket designers, research assistants and others. It's standard practice to attribute a work to the author alone. If someone spends time to make an ebook work well, that generally doesn't get a credit alongside the author.

The Creative Commons licenses require attribution, but don't specify much about how the attribution is to be done, and it's taken a while for media specific conventions to emerge. It seems to be accepted practice, for example, that CC licensed blog posts require a back-link to the original blog post. People who use CC licensed photos to illustrate a slide presentation typically have a credits page with links to the sources at the end.

Signs of maturation were omnipresent at the 6th Conference for Open Access Scholarly Publishing, which I'm just returning from. Prominent in the list of achievements was the announcement of a "Shared Statement and Community Principles on Expectations of Scholarly Standards on Attribution", a set of attribution principles for open access scholarly publications, signed by all the important open access scholarly publishers.

The four agreed-upon principles are as follows:

  1. Researchers choosing Open Access and using liberal licenses do so because they wish to maximise access to and re-use of their work. We acknowledge the tradition of both freely giving knowledge to our communities and also the expectation that contributions will be respected and that full credit is given according to scholarly norms.
  2. Authors choose Creative Commons licenses in part to ensure attribution and the assignment of credit. The community expects that where a work is reprinted, collected, aggregated or otherwise re-used substantially as a whole that the original source, location and free availability of the original version will be both made explicit and emphasised.
  3. The community expects that where modifications have been made to an article that this will be made explicit and every practicable effort will be made to make the nature and scope of modifications explicit. Where a derivative is digital all practicable efforts should be made to make comparison with the original version as easy as possible for the user.
  4. The community assumes, consistent with the terms of the Creative Commons licenses, that unless noted otherwise authors have not endorsed any republication or modification of their original work. Where authors have explicitly endorsed the republication or modified version this should be made explicit in a way which is separate to the attribution.

These principles, and the implementation guidelines that will result from further consultations, are particularly needed because many scholars, while supporting the reuse enabled by CC BY licenses, are concerned about possible misuse. The principles reinforce that when a work is modified, the substance of the modifications should be made clear to the end user, and that further, there must be no implication that republication carries any endorsement by the original authors.

One thing that is likely to emerge from this process is the use of CrossRef DOI's as attribution urls. DOIs can be resolved (via redirection) to an authoritative web and can be maintained by the publisher so that links needn't break when content moves.

As scholarly content gets remixed, revised and repurposed, there will increasingly be a need to track contributions every bit as elaborate as for Grand Budapest Hotel. Imagine a paper by Alice analyzing data from Bob on a sample by Carol, with later corrections by Eve. Luckily we live in the future and there's already a technology and user framework that shows how it can be done. That technology, the future of attribution (I hope), is Distributed Version Control. A subsequent post will discuss why every serious publisher needs to understand GitHub.

The emphasis on community in the the "Shared Statement" is vitally important. With consultation and shared values, we'll soon all be dancing at the end of the credits.


  1. I think the credits at the end of the movie are ridiculous. They even give credit to the caterer! I would look (quite rightly) ridiculous if I listed the local grocery store clerk among the credits for an academic paper.

    1. The local grocery store clerk would find it creepy, too. One size does NOT fit all.