Is Nature’s “free to view” a magnanimous gesture or a cynical ploy?

Macmillan, the publisher of Nature and 48 other Nature Publishing Group (NPG) journals, announced today that all research papers published in these journals would be “made free to read in a proprietary screen-view format that can be annotated but not copied, printed or downloaded”.

If you believe, as I do, that paywalls that restrict the free flow of scientific knowledge are a bad thing, then anything that removes some of these restrictions is a good thing.

This move is fairly typical of Nature as of late. Despite its place as one of the oldest and most august big Kahuna in the subscription publishing world, Nature – and especially its Digital Science division – have been far more attuned to the ways that the Internet has changed publishing than their competitors. And, because of the rise of open access publishing and funder efforts to provide access to their papers, people increasingly expect to be able to access scientific publications, and Nature is responding to that expectation.

There are really two parts of this announcement.

  1. A smallish (~100) media outlets and bloggers will be able to provide a link to Nature papers they are writing about that will allow readers that will allow them to access them for free.
  2. Subscribers to Nature and other NPG journals will be able to generate and share such links by email, on Twitter, etc…

It’s actually kind of brilliant on Nature‘s part. They are giving up absolutely nothing. Readers of news stories about Nature articles were never going to pay to access the actual articles (like other publisher Nature has tried a pay-per-view system that has completely failed). And individuals and institutions that subscribe to Nature aren’t going to give up the convenience of being able to read articles on demand for the challenge of finding a link on Twitter (unless someone were to set up a database of these links…. hmmm….).

And let’s remember that subscribers to Nature were already sharing copies of downloaded PDFs quite abundantly. This was not, as Nature argues happening in an inconvenient way in the dark corners of the Internet. This was happening in email and on Twitter. The problem was that Nature had no control over this sharing. So, really, they’re not changing people’s ability to access Nature very much – what they’re doing is changing where they access it – likely with the hope that they will figure out ways to monetize this attention.

Thus Nature gets lots of goodwill, more people reading their papers, and they lose nothing in the process. At least not immediately. Because the irony of a system like this is that it can’t ever actually do what it purports to do. If it ever actually made it possible to find and get free access to any Nature paper, then people actually would stop subscribing and they’d have to end this kind of access.

At the end of the day, this is a pretty cynical move. I’m sure the people at Nature want as many people as possible to read their articles. But this move is really about defusing pressure from various sources to provide free access. Yet Nature knows that they can’t really provide free access without giving up their lucrative subscription business model, which they are unwilling to do. So they do something that makes it seem like they are promoting free access, while doing nothing to address the real obstacle to free access – subscription publishing.

It is also worth noting how Nature is defining access down. First we had “open access” in which people can download, read, reuse and redistribute content. Then we had “public access” in which people can download and read content. Now we have “free access” in which people can read for free in a proprietary browser, and can’t download or print. This is going in the wrong direction, and it would be a disaster for science if – as Nature clearly hopes – this is the definition of access that sticks.


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