It’s Still Theft

Tags: academia, research

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I make all of my content available to the public sphere, ensuring access to my research, my talks, and my posts. This is not out of a misguided sense of grandiosity, but merely because I believe that, as someone paid from public funds, the public should also have the option to interact with the things that I do. It is for this very reason that I license all the content I have control over under some Creative Commons License. The only thing I ask for is an attribution.1

Some people do not understand this and keep using my content—mostly figures—without any attribution. This is still copyright infringement, or, to put it hyperbolically, theft. Now, I am normally not bothered by these things and will not police the use of my content, but a recent publication of mine was almost stopped in its tracks because a reviewer thought that we had used copyrighted material without proper attribution. This was a very diligent and astute observation—and I am grateful that the reviewer did not outright reject our submission but gave us a chance to react to it. Indeed, a quick glance at the other publication showed that my content had been used without attribution. The reviewer now correctly thought that, since the other publication was already accepted, that we had been the ones at fault here, but luckily, I was able to demonstrate the correctness of my claim.

Suffice it to say that I was not happy about this. It still amounts to theft and in different circumstances, it could have resulted in substantial setbacks for my own work. I am particularly chagrined because I believe that my permissive license makes it so easy to use my content in practice. If people ask me directly, I often even give out the sources for creating figures, thus allowing some cool remixes. In the past, this has worked quite well, but there are always bad apples, it seems.

I do not want to publicly shame the authors here but this is not the first time this happened, and the justifications are always quite mediocre.2 Ignorantia juris non excusa, or, to put it differently, it’s still theft. Don’t do it.

To end on a more happy note, I am always positively surprised by seeing interesting backlinks to my content and what people do with it. You rock!

  1. Because the people who are so kindly giving me money also want to be able to see what I did with it. And, like it or not, attribution is the currency of academia. ↩︎

  2. Mostly it is a combination of being stressed and not knowing any better. While I understand the first aspect, I need to point out that if you want to do science, you should not need a university course about plagiarism to tell you that it is not nice. You are responsible for the content you put out there, and journals typically ask about copyright information. If you do not take this seriously, this is on you—and mitigating circumstances only get you so far. We are all adults now. ↩︎