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My situation is the following. I'm about to submit an article to a journal with the goal of having it published in that journal. The journal distributes its content under CC BY 4.0. While writing this article I ran into a (math) sub-problem which I couldn't solve myself. So I asked a question on Math SE and it got an answer which solved the problem. The answer contains a description of the required steps (mathematical aspects) as well as a code snippet which verifies the assumptions with the help of a computer program (this code is required to complete the proof). For completeness, I would like to include the content of this answer in my article; the proof it demonstrates is required for my work to be complete (otherwise my conjecture stands without proof). However, Math SE content is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 which seems to be more restrictive than CC BY 4.0 since it additionally requires ShareAlike. The creative commons website provides the following description:

ShareAlike — If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original.

This page mentions that ShareAlike also allows publication under a compatible license. The page lists Free Art License and GPLv3 as compatible with CC BY-SA 4.0.

Which brings me to my question(s). Am I allowed to include the Math SE answer's content into my article and have the journal redistribute it under CC BY 4.0? Based on the above findings, my feeling is that I am not allowed to do that (or that the journal is not allowed to redistribute that content and thus would have to reject the article). Which brings me to my second question. In the case that I am not allowed to include the Math SE content, what are my options? For my article to be complete I need a proof of the specific sub-problem similar to the one which has been given in the Math SE answer. I didn't manage to come up with another proof myself (that's why I asked the question). Even if I rephrase that Math SE answer, I guess, including it without proper attribution still poses a copyright infringement (and after all, there is the code snippet which I can't really rewrite; at least not its purpose and what it's doing). Have I reached an impasse?


A glimmer of hope? One option that comes to my mind is that in my article I just state "this is the problem (description-goes-here) and it has been proved here [citation]" (i.e. not including the proof). However, the problem description is not simple and in order to make it more accessible for the Math SE users, I have rephrased it by removing any domain knowledge / notation (i.e. on Math SE it stands as as pure, generic math problem, but it originated from a specific physics problem with dedicated notation etc.). So for the readers of my article it will be difficult to connect the cited answer to the original problem. So this would require me to rephrase the problem inside my article so it has the same form as the one on Math SE. That, however, feels awkward because to the reader it will seem like an unnecessary excursion / transformation which further inflates the article; the readers will ask themselves, why didn't the authors stay within the physics domain and just adapted the proof accordingly; that would have been so much easier to understand.

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There are ultimately two distinct aspects here:

  • copyright concerns and the terms of the CC BY-SA license
  • academic practices

If you want to include material which you did not author yourself into a paper, you need a license. Here, you received material under the terms of the CC BY-SA 4.0 license. Due to the ShareAlike license component it is a “copyleft” license that requires that all derivative works use the same (or a compatible) license. You do not have the right to distribute it under a different license such as CC BY 4.0. License compatibility is a directional relationship. While you can include CC BY 4.0-licensed material into a CC BY-SA 4.0 licensed work, the inverse does not hold.

But the license only matters if your use would be copyright infringement without the license. Some uses are covered by copyright exceptions (but I wouldn't want to rely on that here). Also, copyright only covers creative expression, but not ideas. This means that you can summarize others' work without needing a license.

Academic practices are out of scope of this site, but it's worth pointing out that you cannot publish other people's work, regardless of licensing concerns. If those people's contribution meets the criteria for authorship, then it may be appropriate to publish the paper together. Otherwise, it would be appropriate to cite their work. In the context of a citation, it may be appropriate to reproduce small fragments verbatim, and such fragments might be covered by a copyright exception in your jurisdiction, but you shouldn't copy the entire work.

Practically speaking, this leaves you the following options:

  • You co-author the paper together with the person who contributed an essential part of your proofs.
  • You ask the other person for a separate license so that you can include their material into the CC BY 4.0 licensed paper.
  • You identify a copyright exception allowing your use, for example § 51 UrhG in Germany.
  • You cite the other person's work and summarize key aspects in your own words, without reproducing the material.
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  • Thank you for your answer. For comparison, it's like looking up a formula in a table of integrals. It might have been highly non-trivial to derive that formula but for my purposes it's just a piece of generic math that I need in the scope of my work. For the integral I would simply cite the source and include the formula, but not its derivation. For the proof, I also only need the result. My concern was that it will be difficult to connect the notation in my article to the one given in the proof, but that can be solved by summarizing the key aspects and notation of the proof, as you suggest.
    – a_guest
    Jul 8 at 9:45

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