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Ask PLoS Medicine: No need to request permisson – just be creative!

PLoS Medicine is fast approaching its fifth anniversary, and we’ve noticed that there are a number of recurring questions that get asked about the journal and about open-access publishing by authors, potential authors and readers.

We’ll post these frequently-asked questions in this “Ask PLoS Medicine” part of the Speaking of Medicine blog. They are typically the sort of enquiries that are fielded by the journal staff at PLoS Medicine Darcy Gill, Katie Hickling, and me – who assist authors, reviewers, and readers and deal with press officers and journalists interested in our articles.

If there’s a question you’d like to pose, you can always do so by commenting on the blog, or if it is urgent you can email us at (Remember, there are also the Frequently Asked Questions on the PLoS Medicine website that explain why open access is important for medical research and answer some questions about the editorial policies of the journal).

Meanwhile, here is the first sample question:

Question: I am writing on behalf of Professor So-and-So at Such-and-Such University to include the following PLoS Medicine material in a print CoursePack for approximately 18 students enrolled in a course during the Fall 2009 semester.

Please grant permission by emailing or faxing written approval to this request. If a royalty fee applies, please include that with your email or fax.

Asking for permission to re-use a full article, or part of a paper (such as a figure, a table, or supplemental data) is one of the most frequent enquiries that we get, despite the fact that every single article is published with a copyright statement that explains:

“This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.”

So, in this instance, we said we were delighted that the PLoS Medicine article in question was going to be used for the course in question – and explained that as the copyright statement makes clear: written permission isn’t needed; we just ask that the author of the article and journal it was published in are cited. And we added that the students or the course tutor are free to reprint or photocopy the article as many times as they like, and that it can be presented in any medium without restriction.

But although the copyright is clear on the PDF and HTML versions of any PLoS Medicine article, and we provide a link to the Creative Commons Attribution License at the bottom of every page of, it is not always grasped by those who want re-use our content – even by authors, who sign an online form agreeing to make their article available under this license. This perhaps demonstrates how entrenched traditional ideas about copyright are: typically, in subscription publishing, the copyright is owned by the journal, and permission is required to re-print articles, or re-use elements of them.

We hope to encourage creative re-use of material, so that what we publish becomes useful for as wide an audience as possible.

As well as re-use of articles for educational purposes – as in the sample question above – it is possible to use PLoS Medicine content in other ways:

For example, the ZDnet blog summarised the content of a PLoS Medicine paper by JR Hoffman and colleagues- Hoffman JR, Wilkes MS, Day FC, Bell DS, Higa JK (2006) The Roulette Wheel: An Aid to Informed Decision Making. PLoS Med 3(6): e137 – for its own readership, including the figure below of the visual tools described in the article that may help patients choose between several different medical treatments:

Figure 3 from Hoffman et al PLoS Med 3(6): e137.
Figure 3 from Hoffman et al PLoS Med 3(6): e137.

As well as written summaries of our PLoS Medicine papers, there have been video and podcast summaries made of our articles too. The Kaiser Foundation has conducted a number of excellent interviews with PLoS Medicine authors over the years. For example, check out the podcast and video conducted with David Holtgrave, author of Costs and Consequences of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Recommendations for Opt-Out HIV Testing. PLoS Med 4(6): e194.

As we’ve emphasized in an editorial on why language matters in medicine are no restrictions on translations of an open access article into another language. An early example of translation was Boletines Fármacos‘s Spanish version of The Global Threat of Counterfeit Drugs: Why Industry and Governments Must Communicate the Dangers. Robert Cockburn, Paul N. Newton, E. Kyeremateng Agyarko, Dora Akunyili, Nicholas J. White. PLoS Medicine Vol. 2, No. 4, e100. (Since that article was published we’ve been encouraging authors to provide their own translations of abstracts or of full articles, so that we can publish them as supporting information files).

What if someone wants to re-publish a whole article in another journal, or some other format? We have questions from authors who may have been commissioned to write a public health article for another publisher, for example, and who want to include an adapted or updated version of a PLoS Medicine article. Again, this is fine, as long as the original source of the article is stated (including the DOI, which, of course, will take the reader to the open access version of the paper).

However, our license does stipulate that:

“You may not distribute, publicly display, publicly perform, or publicly digitally perform the Work with any technological measures that control access or use of the Work in a manner inconsistent with the terms of this License Agreement.”

So, for example, if another journal wants to re-publish a PLoS Medicine article as part of collection of papers on a particular topic, they could not restrict the availability of the article – they would have to make it available as an open access article, citing the original source.

You can read more about the Creative Commons Attribution License in this PLoS Biology editorial. Keep us informed of interesting uses of PLoS content. Perhaps your ideas will inspire others!


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