CC0 and Data Citation

I always recommend CC0 public domain waivers as the best practice for public data sharing. There are all sorts of good reasons why public domain waivers work better and more predictably than other alternatives, including the traditional Creative Commons license suite – but you can (and should!) read about those elsewhere. Instead, I want to address one common worry people have about applying a CC0 public domain waiver to their datasets. It often looks something like this:

I want to share my data, but it is important to me that I’m cited when people use it. I prefer CC BY to CC0 because this kind of attribution is what I care about most.

Good news! In most cases, your right to see your contributions cited is exactly the same under both CC0 and CC BY. Why? Because citation practices are built around ethical norms, not around legal requirements. The CC BY license does, of course, require “attribution.” But all this means, essentially, is that users agree to provide identifying information whenever the work is shared with the public. When it comes time for someone to recognize the role your data played in their research—when it’s time to provide that citation—CC BY is silent. Regardless of whether you use CC BY or CC0, you will have to turn somewhere else to see that your work is properly cited: academic integrity.

Plagiarism, Copyright, and Citations

Fortunately, well established norms around plagiarism are there to fill this gap, and they are already part of your day-to-day experience as a scholar. When using or referencing someone else’s ideas and contributions, you cite your sources. You don’t do this because of copyright or because of a license term; you do it because honesty, transparency, and academic ethics require it. Plagiarism norms step in to resolve issues around credit where copyright would otherwise be silent.

So if your source is in the public domain, of course you still cite your source.  And if your data source is in the public domain because of a CC0 public domain waiver? Easy: you cite your source and don’t think twice.

And if you think that using a CC0 waiver might be interpreted by users as an invitation to plagiarize, think again. Among users of CC0 public domain waivers, whether for data or otherwise, it is completely normal to ask for recognition, and it is completely normal for users of CC0 works to happily provide it. It shouldn’t take any special leaps of faith to imagine scholars to get it right on citation. After all, you’re already doing it all the time.