Nature’s shiny sounding copout on open access

Nature has an editorial in this week’s issue on broader issues surround access to the scientific literature.

Several people have sent it to me with some variation on “Wow, Nature is saying good things about open access”. I was skeptical, given that Nature has a long history of occasionally saying the right things about open access one day, but then editorializing against it or running news pieces with a strong negative slant the next. There are things to like here. The piece does reaffirm Nature’s opposition to the Research Works Act – indeed, they dismiss it as an inconsequential distraction. And it expresses a useful sentiment:

In short, the literature is becoming ever more multifaceted, and intermediaries will be needed to supply added value and usability. It is hard to imagine such a primary literature and all of those seeking to add genuine value to it thriving when its key results are behind subscription firewalls.

But it follows this up with the bromide publishers have trotted out for a decade:

But a vision for open access in which all results — text, data, grey literature and so on — are immediately available in their published versions requires the costs of that added value to be paid for.

This is such an incredibly disingenuous and patronizing thing to say. The scientific community is well aware of this – spending on the order of $5 billion a year of public money to support biomedical research journals – with Nature receiving a healthy chunk of it. And, as Nature is well aware, one of the main reasons governments have not shifted this money from wasteful subscriptions that provide access to a limited number of people is that most publishers have failed to offer such to option, and have opposed any move towards government support of real open access. And yet, Nature – arguably the most powerful publisher in the biomedical sciences – denies any agency, placing responsibility squarely on the government’s shoulders:

Above all, they need to find the money to make the vision viable. Only then will the open research literature truly come to fruition, and only then will those wishing to provide added value be able to invest confidently in doing so.

But what do you think publishers would say if the government did what I have long argued they should – announce tomorrow that they will no longer fund journal subscriptions and will shift all of the money they currently spend on them to support open access publishing. I am sure publishers would start shrieking about how terrible it was for the government to intrude in the free market, like Nature does in this piece:

The only way that can happen is for governments to recognize the complexities of this terrain, and the damage that can be done to the providers of added value and to research itself as a result of poorly considered prohibitions or compulsions.

This is what annoys me most. It reinforces what is the biggest hypocrisy pushed by publishers – that governments have to spend billions of dollars to support the services they provide, but have no right to specify the terms under which publishers should operate. This “give us the money, but don’t tell us what to do” sentiment is exactly the same as that spewed by Elsevier in the Research Works Act.

Nature has always been very savvy about changes that are coming in scientific publishing. They clearly understand the issues, and – with projects like Digital Science – are trying to position themselves to capitalize on this future. But if Nature had any guts at all, and if they really believe that the future can not be realized “when its key results are behind subscription firewalls”, they wouldn’t dispense the kind of copouts we find here. Instead, they would lay out – and embrace – a clear plan for governments and other research funders to embrace real open access.

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