Scholarly Publishing and Open Access blog

The latest news and answers to your questions about scholarly publishing and open access.

CC-What? What's behind the Creative Commons licenses used by OA journals?

Published by Jennifer Zerkee

If you are new to Open Access publishing, you might find the variety of license options used by journals overwhelming. What's the difference between CC BY and CC BY-NC-ND? What do those letters even mean? Which one is better?

It's Open Access Week, so what better time to get to know Creative Commons licenses?

 Creative Commons

Creative Commons, or CC, is a not-for-profit organization that was established in the early 2000s to address the limits of copyright in an age of easy sharing and distributing of content over the Internet. Creative Commons created a suite of six licenses that can be applied to works of all kinds, that let users know how they can use, share and modify that content. These licenses essentially grant permission up front for a wide range of uses, so the user doesn't have to contact the copyright owner unless they would like permission to do something beyond the terms of the license.

Creative Commons licenses start from a position of open, permitting any and every use of your work except under the optional parameters that can be applied. Publishing with an open access journal that uses these licenses lets you share your work outside of a subscription paywall, making it more accessible and increasing the ability for others to find, use and build on your research.

Creative Commons licenses

CC licenses are composed of different combinations of four parameters that are placed around the reuse of your work:

  • Attribution (BY or  ): All CC licenses require users to cite the creator of the work.
  • NonCommercial (NC or  ): Some CC licenses prohibit users from making commercial use of the work.
  • NoDerivatives (ND or  ): Some CC licenses prohibit users from making modifications to the work.
  • ShareAlike (SA or  ): Some CC licenses require users to apply the same licenses to a new work they create with the original work.

How common are the various licenses in open access journals?

CC BY (Attribution only) licenses are used by nearly half of the journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). This license permits absolutely any use of the content without permission, provided the author and source are cited. This is the most open license, and is favoured by many open access advocates.

CC BY-NC-ND (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives) and CC BY-NC (Attribution-NonCommercial) are the next most common licenses, each used by about one-fifth of journals in the DOAJ. Both of these licenses permit any non-commercial use of the content without permission, provided the author and source are cited. CC BY-NC also permits modification of the work, while CC BY-NC-ND does not.

The remaining journals use a variety of licenses, including CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike) and CC BY-SA (Attribution-ShareAlike), both of which require the user to cite the author and source, and to license any resulting work that uses a modified or adapted version of the original work with a ShareAlike license as well; CC BY-NC-SA permits only non-commercial use of the work. A few journals use a custom license developed by the publisher, and very few use CC BY-ND (Attribution-NoDerivatives), which permits use without permission, provided the original is not modified or adapted in any way and the author and source are cited.

(Based on search by journal license, available at, accessed September 28, 2018.)

Journal license examples

Open Access journals will typically indicate somewhere on their website which CC (or other) license will be applied to their content. You can also check the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) for journal license information.

Most journals use one specific license, for example, Higher Learning Research Communications applies a CC BY (Attribution) license to its articles:

Copyright Notice

Authors who publish with HLRC agree to the following terms:

  • Authors retain copyright and publishing rights without restrictions and grant the journal right of first publication. Authors grant Laureate Education, Inc. a license to publish and distribute the work under a Creative Commons Attribution License that allows others to share the work with an acknowledgement of the work's authorship and initial publication in HLRC.
  • Authors who submit manuscripts are to declare that their submission to HLRC is not simultaneously under consideration for publication in another journal and has not been published elsewhere previously.
  • Authors are able to enter into separate, additional contractual arrangements for the non-exclusive distribution of the HLRC's published version of the work (e.g., post it to an institutional repository or publish it in a book), with an acknowledgement of its initial publication in HLRC.

The Journal of Classics Teaching applies a CC BY-NC-ND (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives) license to its articles. Note that this publisher requires you to transfer ownership of copyright to them, which is somewhat unusual for an open access journal:

JCT and Open Access

JCT is published as a wholly Open Access journal, with no Article Processing Charges payable by authors or funders. The cost of publishing the journal is covered by the Classical Association and Cambridge University Press.

Contributors to JCT assign copyright in their articles to the Classical Association. Under the terms of the CC-BY-NC-ND license, contributors and others may reuse the article provided the reuse is non-commercial and non-derivative, and the original author is given attribution. Further information about CC-BY-NC-ND licenses may be found at


In rare cases you may get to choose from a selection of licenses. For example, publisher Taylor & Francis offers options including CC BY (Attribution), CC BY-NC (Attribution-NonCommercial) or CC BY-NC-ND (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives), depending on which of its journals you are publishing in:

Open access Creative Commons licenses

We ask you to sign a publishing agreement to establish the originality and provenance of your article and to give us the non-exclusive right to publish the Version of Record of your article; you (the author) retain copyright. This agreement incorporates the Creative Commons license of your choice, which will dictate what others can do with your article once it has been published.

Attribution (CC BY)

CC BY logo

Others can distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.

This license is offered on our full Open and our hybrid Open Select journals (when publishing on a gold OA basis).

Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC)

CC BY NC logo

Others can remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

This license is offered on our full Open journals.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (CC BY-NC-ND)

CC BY NC ND logo

Others can download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

This license is offered on our hybrid Open Select journals (when publishing on a gold OA basis).


Custom licenses developed by publishers are often somewhat similar to CC licenses. For example, Cultural Anthropology journal content can be reused for "noncommercial, scholarly, and educational purposes,"1 provided credit to the author and publication are given:

Copyright Notice

Cultural Anthropology

© American Anthropological Association 2018. Cultural Anthropology journal content published since 2014 is freely available to download, save, reproduce, and transmit for noncommercial, scholarly, and educational purposes. Reproduction and transmission of journal content for the above purposes should credit the author and original source. Use, reproduction, or distribution of journal content for commercial purposes requires additional permissions from the American Anthropological Association.


The bottom line

Now that you know more about Creative Commons licenses, and how they can permit others to share and reuse your work, you can make an informed decision about the open access venue you publish with. You may decide that you want to publish under CC BY because it's the most open and flexible. Or you may prefer an NC license to ensure that your work can only be reused for non-commercial purposes. Or you may want to publish with a specific journal, and be content with whatever license they apply.

The license applied by a journal is only one factor of many you'll consider when you decide where to publish. The DOAJ can help you narrow down your search by discipline, license type and a number of other filters.

Happy Open Access Week!

Blog Categories
Blog Tags