Macmillan have released an interesting press release, announcing that all research papers published in their 49 Nature Publishing Group (NPG) journals, including Nature, will be made free to read online, via one of Digital Science’s pet projects, ReadCube (note that Digital Science is also owned by Macmillan). These articles can be annotated in ReadCube, but not copied, printed, or downloaded.
This is not open access*, and NPG have been very careful and explicit about stating this.
What is the reason for this move, then, when we have a globally shifting environment towards open access? Well, academics love to break rules. We share papers freely, and often illegally, with our colleagues all the time. It’s a sort of passive rebellion against paywall-based publishers. A great example of this is #icanhazpdf on Twitter, whereby articles are requested, and then hopefully shared privately by someone else. This kind of activity is what NPG are calling ‘dark social’, like some terrible name for an evil media organisation. By this, they simply mean sharing, but out of their control. This new initiative seems to be a way of controlling, and legitimising this sort of ‘peer-to-peer’ practice.
Now, read-only versions of articles can be shared via special links for each article. Ross Mounce has called this ‘Beggar Access’ – you have to ask colleagues for access. Importantly, this still means that you need access to the articles in the first place (personal access or via an institution), but you are then free to share these articles, as long as they are viewed in ReadCube. John Wilbanks is rightly cynical about this, calling it “the canonization of a system that privileges the wealthy academic.” The work is still paywalled, in the sense that you need a subscription in the first place to access it. The canonization aspect of this is that now, NPG are broadening their reach into how articles are shared and used.
This is significant. NPG want to control how you access, use, and share their articles. Combine this the fact that around 100 media outlets and blogs will be granted the ability to share read-only links (fusing access and accessibility – a good thing, generally), and we begin to see their strategy emerge. Another of Digital Science’s investments is Altmetric.com, is a tool designed to track the sharing and use of individual articles, and provide a relative measure of ‘digital activity’ for it.
Now, what is Nature famous for? Apart from publishing anything that resembles a feathered dinosaur, it’s known for its impact factor! The impact factor is dying. What we are moving too is a more complex system of alternative, article-level metrics that describe the broader use of an article (e.g., social media usage, media coverage, and article citations). This is used by some as a proxy for ‘impact’. In the UK, HEFCE are investigating the role that metrics like this can play in research assessment. The Declaration on Research Assessment (currently only signed by one UK university, the University of Sussex) is another example of how this is changing on a global basis.
So all of a sudden, at NPG, we have a very controlled way of releasing articles under a sort of ‘shadow’ of open access (highly restricted, free-ish access), controlling how they’re shared, and directing media coverage directly to them in a way that they can measure. Who needs an impact factor when you can demonstrate that your papers are still receiving the most attention out there, and generating the most ‘impact’? This puts them way ahead of the curve of other publishers in inflating altmetrics scores, who don’t have sophisticated systems like this yet backed up by pretty decent tech.
Is this a bad thing? Nope, it’s really smart from Macmillan, makes sense, and is the next logical step for them to take in a publishing environment that’s ever changing in the world of open scholarship. Is it the right thing to have done, though? I don’t think so. There are too many restrictions, and I don’t like the idea of one organisation trying to exert such control over this sort of thing. Open access is supposed to be a game changer. It’s supposed to inspire creativity, disruption, innovation, and reform the market into one which is better for researchers and the wider public. This new initiative seems to only do one thing: stifle the above. The simple fact that re-use rights are prohibited says it all really (sharing only via ReadCube, no commercial usage). What it does, is allow NPG to make their articles freely available to subscribers (and now others via ‘beggar access’, as Ross calls it), but at the same time preserve their primary income source – subscription fees from libraries and individuals.
One can’t help but feel this is the beginning of the ‘tech arms race’ of the open access movement; F1000 have in beta phase an awesome browser-based collaborative tool that’s well worth checking out. Was the development of this enough to kick NPG and Digital Science into panic mode and release something a bit prematurely, perhaps..? Or maybe I’m being cynical. Free to read is still sort of a step forward, albeit even in this highly constrained sense.
This isn’t the final word. The trial period for this is for one year, and subject to change. There is no reason why NPG aren’t going to use this as a stepping stone to a full-open access model. I see this as them testing the waters, seeing what is feasible, and whether the strategy plays out in their favour. They’re going to have to become full open access sooner or later, whether they like it or not. This change comes at a time when funding bodies around the world are creating open access policies of varying strength – the Gates Foundation recently implemented a very progressive policy that incidentally does not allow publication in Nature. If Nature don’t conform to changing standards and practices, people will simply stop submitting there.
So, to me, this seems like half a step forward. While it might facilitate greater access of NPG articles, it does so in a restrictive and controlled manner. Worse, it might actually discourage authors from self-archiving in future, which is arguably a better way of distributing research articles.
What this move does do, is take a teeny step towards knowledge equality. It replaces paywalls with a link-wall. It’s still nowhere near as good as full open access like PeerJ or PLOS, but it seems to be a nod to the community that they’re at least trying to progress in the right direction. Getting this shit right is really, really difficult for established organisations.
At the end of the day, though, this bores down to one thing: NPG are still operating under the pretence that they have a right to commercialise knowledge. That it is somehow theirs to exert control over. This is something I cannot support, at least until there is equal, unrestricted access for everyone.
*Note that Nature is already compliant with some open access mandates (e.g., the RCUK), as it allows self-archiving of the peer-reviewed post-print manuscript 6 months after publication. Also, note that 38% of NPG articles published last year are open access via the ‘gold’ route. The articles can also only be used for ‘non-commercial’ purposes, an unnecessary restriction that Nature Communications actually got rid of.
http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1668 Michael Eisen