Public access and protectionism

By now many folks have commented on the announcement from Nature Publishing Group early this week about public access to all of its content and most have sussed out the fairly obvious fact that this is not open access, in spite of the rah-rah headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education, nor even public access as it is defined by many national or funder mandates.  Just to review quickly the major points about why this announcement actually gives the scholarly community so much less than is implied by either of those terms, consider these limitations:

  1. A putative reader can only get to an article if they are sent a link by a subscriber, or the link is present in a news article written by one of the 100 news organizations that NPG has chosen to “honor.”
  2. Articles can only be read inside NPG’s proprietary reader
  3. No printing or downloading is possible, so a non-subscriber hoping to use one of these articles to further her own research better have a darn good memory!
  4. No machine processing will be possible; no text or data mining.

In short, all of the inconveniences of print journals are preserved; what NPG is facilitating here is essentially a replica of loaning a colleague your copy of the printed magazine.  Or, at best, the old-fashioned system whereby authors were given paper “off-prints” to send to colleagues.  Although, honestly, off-prints had more utility for furthering research than this “now you see it, now you don’t” system has.

If this is not open or public access, what is it?  I like the term “beggar access,” which Ross Mounce applied to NPG’s scheme in a recent blog post, since it makes clear that any potential reader must ask for and receive the link from a subscriber.  Some suggest that this is a small step forward, but I am not convinced.  There is nothing public or open about this “ask a subscriber” model; all it really does is prevent scholars from downloading PDFs from their subscription access to NPG journals and emailing them to colleagues who lack a subscription.  In short, it looks like another stage in the ongoing comedy of fear and incomprehension about the way digital scholarship works on the part of a major publisher.  But Mounce’s post suggests that the move is more than that; he points out ways in which it may be designed to prop up digital business that Nature and its parent Macmillan have invested in — specifically ReadCube and  The byzantine scheme announced by Nature will drive readers to ReadCube and will generate data for, helping ReadCube compete with, for example, Elsevier and their proprietary reading and sharing tool, Mendeley.

That is, this looks like another move in the efforts by the large commercial publishers to buy up and co-opt the potential of open access. On their lips, open access does not mean greater potential for research and the advancement of science; it means a new market to exploit.  If administrators, researchers and librarians allow that to happen, they will have only themselves to blame.

My colleague Haley Walton, who recently attended OpenCon 2014, told me about a presentation made by Audrey Watters that included the idea of “openwashing,” which Watters defines like this:

Openwashing: n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.

This is exactly what is happening in this announcement from NPG; old business models and awkward exploitation of new markets are being dressed up and presented as a commitment to access to scholarship, but the ruse is pretty transparent.  It may quack like a duck, or be quacked about, but this plan is really a turkey.

If NPG really was committed to better access for scientific research, there is a simple step they could take — put an end to the six-month embargo they impose on author self-archiving.  Much of their competition allows immediate self-archiving of an author’s final manuscript version of articles, but Nature does not.  Instead, they require a six-month embargo on such distribution.  So this new move does only very little to ameliorate the situation; the public still cannot see Nature-published research until it is old news.

Speaking of news, at Duke we have a relationship between the office of Scholarly Communications and that of News & Communications whereby we are notified of upcoming articles about research done at Duke.  In many cases, we are able to work with authors to get a version of the article in question into our repository and provide an open link that can be included in the article when it is released, or added shortly after release.  Our researchers find that putting such links in news stories leads to much better coverage of their discoveries and increased impact on their disciplines.  We always do this in accordance with the specific journal policies — we do not want to place our authors in a difficult position — which means that we cannot include Nature-published articles in this program.  To be frank, articles published in Nature remain highly valued by promotion and tenure committees, but relatively obscure in terms of their ability to advance science.  NPG seems to understand this problem, which is why they have selected a small number of news outlets to be allowed to use these tightly-restricted, read-only links.  They want to avoid increasing irrelevance, but they cannot quite bring themselves to take the necessary risk.  The best way they could advance science would be to eliminate the six-month embargo.

It is interesting to consider what might happen if Nature embraced a more comprehensive opportunity to learn what researchers think about open access by tying their “get a link from a subscriber” offer with an announcement that they were lifting the six-month embargo on self-archiving.  That would demonstrate a real commitment to better access for science, and it would set up a nice experiment.  Is the “version of record” really as important to researchers as some claim?  Important enough to tolerate the straightjacket created by NPG’s proprietary links?  Or will researchers and authors prefer self-archiving, even though an earlier version of the article must be used? This is not an obvious choice, and NPG might actually win its point, if it were willing to try; they might discover that their scheme is more attractive to authors than self-archiving.  NPG would have little to lose if they did this, and they would gain much more credit for facilitating real openness.  But the only way to know what the real preference among academic authors is would be for Nature Publishing to drop its embargo requirement and let authors choose.  When they make that announcement, I will believe that their commitment to finding new ways to promote research and learning is real.