Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a non-profit organisation that provides standard licences that anyone can use to indicate whether their work can be reused by users, and under which conditions. They’ve been around since 2001, and their licences are used in many online resources, including academic publications and educational materials.

Where can scientists find Creative Commons licences?

Journal articles. Many open access journals use Creative Commons licences (usually CC-BY) to indicate that their articles are not only free to read, but that they can also be reused by others, as long as you credit the authors and the original publication. For example, lecturers can include these articles in teaching materials without asking for explicit permission from the publisher.

Research data. Datasets that are made available for researchers and others to reuse often have a CC0 licence. This means that the raw data are free to use by anyone. For example, they can be included in computational meta-analyses, or reanalysed by other researchers.

Images. Some images have Creative Commons licences that indicate that the creator has made them available for reuse. Images in open access journal articles are often given the same licence as the article they appear in. If you are creating public informational material, such as websites or slides, you can include others’ images as long as you follow the terms of their Creative Commons licence. (See the bottom of this article for an example)

What are the different licenses?

The two licences most commonly used by major scientific open access publishers are the CC-BY licence and the CC0 licence. Because they are so common, it’s worth knowing their definitions.

  • CC-BY – free to reuse, if you credit the original creator in the method they specified. (For an academic article, that method is the formal citation. For an image, it’s often the name of the creator plus a link.)
  • CC0 – free to reuse, and no credit required. This licence is often used on datasets.

There are a few other Creative Commons licences. They come with restrictions that make them less suitable for academic work. The Creative Commons website list definitions of all the licences, and you can usually follow a link to those definitions whenever you come across a specific licence on the web.

How can you use creative commons licences in science?

Journals and repositories often decide the licence used for materials you submit to them. You can also put a Creative Commons licence on anything else you create, such as images, websites, educational materials, posters or conference slides.

One thing to note: When you create material with a CC license, you have to make sure that you have permission to use any of the images you include, and that their permissions don’t conflict with the licence you’re using.

Find out more

Image credit: Colour-altered image of an original by Timothy Vollmer on Flickr. (CC-BY)