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One small step for Nature..

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, 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.

The future?

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.

Additional Links Scientific American Nature News Macmillan Scientific American Digital Science Ross Mounce John Wilbanks Michael Eisen Bonnie Swoger

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Jon began university life as a geologist, followed by a treacherous leap into the life sciences. He spent several years at Imperial College London, investigating the extinction and biodiversity patterns of Mesozoic tetrapods – anything with four legs or flippers – to discover whether or not there is evidence for a ‘hidden’ mass extinction 145 million years ago. Alongside this, Jon researched the origins and evolution of ‘dwarf’ crocodiles called atoposaurids. Prior to this, there was a brief interlude were Jon was immersed in the world of science policy and communication, which greatly shaped his views on the broader role that science can play, and in particular, the current ‘open’ debate. Jon tragically passed away in 2020.


  1. I like the term “link-wall”, it’s catchy, but I’m afraid that the links are only a small and perhaps temporary gap in a much larger paywall that is now under construction. I’m concerned that the strategy that we are seeing play out — thinking of best-case scenario for NPG’s bottom line — is more like the DRM schema that the record industry implements on music. It prevents consumers from easily sharing content, while opening the door for third-party providers (e.g., iTunes, Amazon Music, Spotify), who pay royalties to the producers. Sometimes consumers pay the provider, and other times they are bombarded with advertisements or activities to generate provider income. I’m not sure what effect that might have on researchers or the publishing industry, but it leads to an interesting thought experiment.

    This DRM schema struck me like a brick when I read NPG’s post that likened ReadCube to iTunes. I’m also reminded of how I felt when Elsevier acquired Mendeley, which gave the publisher a possible edge in how articles will be organized are shared in the future. Are these the academic corollaries of iTunes and Amazon Music, trying to muddle out a business model for academic publishing the 21st century? Absolutely. Will ReadCube’s DRM interface find a way to partner with sharing sites like and ResearchGate, or even work its way into institutional or federal repositories? I certainly hope not, but it would be good for business.

    Finally, what does this scenario mean for institutional libraries? If they quit subscribing to the link-walled journals, other monetization strategies will necessarily fill in the link-gaps. What might future monetization look like? How would articles be selected if publishers relied on profit from third-parties who rent or sell scientific knowledge? These are the questions that only time will answer. It’s an interesting time in history to be an Open Access advocate.

  2. All fantastic points, Jon. I’m particularly interested in the effects that #SciShare will have on altmetrics (as you might have guessed). Going to write a post about it for the Impactstory blog, because there’s a lot of reasons why this will be bad for researchers who appreciate altmetrics, as well as for altmetrics providers like us at Impactstory and our friends at

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      Cool, I look forward to it.

      I’ve had another thought too. As things currently stand, articles published by Nature are still not REF compliant. So while they might have the ‘inflated impact’ scores, they still won’t be able to have articles submitted for the REF. This means one of three things:

      1. I’m completely wrong in thinking this was a smart and strategic move.
      2. NPG don’t care about the REF.
      3. NPG really are just using this to test the waters before moving to a completely open access model.

      I can’t think of any reason why this would be bad for altmetrics, and especially seeing as they’re owned by Digital Science! Would love to hear more of your thoughts on that.

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        As Stephen Curry just pointed out, I’m mistaken here: Nature is compliant with the REF. An author can deposit immediately, but embargoes still apply.

        Sorry for any confusion!

  3. Hi Jon,

    Thanks for your comments. I have a longer post here:
    but to comment on a couple of other specific points:

    * I have to say that I really don’t understand the ‘beggar’ tag (though I realise that you didn’t coin it). This is about making sharing easier. Does SETI@home encourage begging (for CPU cycles)? Does Zooniverse encourage begging (for people’s time)? Does Kickstarter encourage begging (for money, no less)? This isn’t begging, it’s sharing. If the question is ‘Why isn’t everything completely free to all readers?’ then we’re working on that too, but it’s a separate initiative. As you correctly say, this isn’t open access, but hopefully it’s useful all the same.

    * “[T]his bores down to one thing: NPG are still operating under the pretence that they have a right to commercialise knowledge.” No it doesn’t. One way or another, every commercial organisation in publishing, including PeerJ (whom I use as an example only because you do), is commercialising knowledge. There’s nothing innately wrong with the profit motive: most of the things you use every day were created by commercial organisations, and that’s generally a good thing. The key question here is whether publishers, including NPG, are helping or hindering the creation and dissemination of scientific knowledge. I would certainly agree that the industry as a whole has quite a lot to answer for on this front, and also that the spread of true open access will help. But there’s no sense in trying to turn a new, and IMHO useful, feature on into some grand-sounding statement of principle; with respect, it’s nothing of the kind.

    Best wishes,


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      Hey Timo,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond, appreciate it!

      I think Ross can probably explain the ‘beggar access’ thing a bit better, but as I understand it it’s about a power dynamic. Those without access, are having to request it from those with the privilege of access.

      I figured you would be working on something that’s free to everyone – really looking forward to seeing where this is going in a years time.

      With the second statement, apologies if that came of as anti-NPG. It’s more just frustration at the entire system (my frustration is largely aimed elsewhere in this respect – no names named). I think the comparison with PeerJ doesn’t really work though, as once the initial fee has been paid by the author, then the research is freely available to all, as opposed to the fee being paid by those who can afford it subsequent to publishing. And yeah, I understand about the need to make a profit – publishing is a business after all, operated by real people with real needs. But there is a difference between profiteering of things like, er, material items (the first thing which came to mind was coffee.. *sips*), and knowledge. And I get that the balance for this is difficult, and respect that some times sacrifices have to made. I just wish that they didn’t.

      Interesting point about altmetrics in your main response. Would certainly be interesting to see if other publishers can come up with such sophisticated integration, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see eh!

      I really do look forward to seeing how this progresses. If it is the start of some sort of tech ‘arms race’, then this can only be good for science. I don’t expect open access to magically happen over night, and I’m glad to see the ‘big guns’ operating in a progressive manner. I’ll let John and Peter tackle the remaining points about DRM and all that, as that’s more their line of expertise.

      Hopefully see you for a mince pie soon 🙂


    • “[T]his bores down to one thing: NPG are still operating under the pretence that they have a right to commercialise knowledge.” No it doesn’t. One way or another, every commercial organisation in publishing, including PeerJ (whom I use as an example only because you do), is commercialising knowledge.

      Absolutely, definitively, no. I can’t over-emphasise how important this is. PeerJ is commercialising services. The knowledge is always, definitively, unambiguously, unencumberedly free. Organisations that make a profit by freeing knowledge (BMC, Hindawi, etc.) all all right by me — I don’t think any of the well-known OA advocates have ever criticised the profit motive. They question is how you make money. PeerJ does it by freeing knowledge; Nature does it by controlling knowledge. A very fundamental difference.

      • Jon, your blog ignores italics — it just discards the tags. Can you fix that? It makes my previous comment all but incomprehensible, as I was using italics to show what text I was quoting.

        BTW., here is a test of block-quoting:

        This should be block-quoted.

        • OK, so that’s the right thing to do on this particularly blog. Infuriating, as (at least some) Blogger blogs reject block-quote tags, so that I have to use italics for quoting. So I have to remember to use blockquote here and italics there. How very 20th Century.

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          Ahhh, sorry about that Mike! Apparently it’s not “i” but “em” which you have to use to italicise comments. Have updated yours now.

          And yeah, agree with your comment too.

  4. Well , rather than emphasizing my opinion towards if NPG is promoting OA or not, I’m more concerned that this initiative of NPG has a negative impact on Altmetrics. However, I agree with many who argue this model of providing controlled access boost NPG’s Altmetrics. The very motive of Open is to make knowledge available for use. Nevertheless, this doesn’t promote re use. I do not see anything fruitful coming out of this controlled access.

    Even if their purpose is only to track Dark Social, I highly doubt this strategy.
    For instance, If a non subscriber of NPG gets access to the shortened link (read only) and finds the content useful, he/she might want to save and prefer to read it offline ; or he/she might want to save it to any reference manager like Mendeley etc. Consecutively the non subscriber will find a way to get the pdf format which is free to use without much restrictions and there we are back to dark social sharing in no time.

    Even if people accept this kind of sharing the links, this would have bad effect in altmetrics. We have not yet clearly identified/differentiated the motive behind different online engagements. In this stage, this way of sharing makes it even more complex for the altmetrics researchers to understand the user motive based on different online activities. Henceforth, as an early researcher in Altmetrics, I think it is even more complicating altmetrics making it difficult to interpret it a standardize way. Other effects have also been explained by Stacy in her recent Impactstory blog.

    In short, this would aggravate the confusion between the document view counts with document re- use. We might end up tracking Document views as document re-use.

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