#beggaraccess: Nature, Dark Social, Free to View and the Open Access Debate

There has been a major scrimmage in the online academia and open access world over Nature’s declaration that they will allow free, read-only sharing of their published articles since ye olde times for institutional subscribers and 1997 for personal subscribers. Now this sounds great on the surface of it, but to be honest, hardly anything has changed! I know a lot has been written about it already, and I have put a list of the “must-read” blogs at the end of this post, but I want to make my voice heard and send the message across to my circle of friends and readers.

Initially, an independent Nature News piece went out, which stated (I am sharing this from the Scientific American blog, which has blogged this screen grab before it was edited):


It was, however, modified in a subsequent edit. A footnote has duly noted the reason for this edit:

The original headline on this article gave an exaggerated impression of the way in which content from Nature journals can now be accessed. As the story makes clear, read-only sharing must be facilitated by a subscriber.

Now, it reads a more balanced, and honest-to-truth version of its initial shock-and-awe headline:

Very carefully worded! Click to go to Nature announcement.
Very carefully worded! Click to go to Nature announcement.

There are too many catches in here. Effectively speaking, nothing much has changed for the “scholarly poor” like me, except, perhaps, increased barriers to access research!

Previously, if I wanted to read an article published in a paywalled journal which I do not have access to, I would have to post the link to twitter with the hashtag #icanhazpdf and hope someone came up with the PDF and supplied me with it. I could save it, print it out, read it on my mobile device or, for the visually impaired, use screen readers for accessible reading. However, now, I will have to get a hold of someone who has access to the article, get a link from them, and read it on the screen using proprietary software, ReadCube, which does not allow me to save, print, or even use screen-readers. There are some tweeters who say that it might be possible for Linux users to bypass the DRM-filled screen-reads and grab a PDF for saves, but that would be clearly illegal.

So, the thing is, previously, Nature or the other publishers had no control over how the articles were being shared between academics and how academic behavior was impacting the metrics of an article. Now that ReadCube is there, they could use another Macmillan backed product, Altmetrics, to track academic-sharing-behavior and get that kind of information for their article level metrics. Now we all know that journals are measured in their greatness using impact factor, but the world is very rapidly moving from journal-level metrics to article-level metrics. With the combination of ReadCube and Altmetrics, now Nature may have unprecedented data on how academic behavior is impacting their article metrics. This is probably skeptical conjecture, but then again, when one goes and changes a system that was working fine enough for me, I tend to grow suspicious and skeptical.

I have to accept that as of now, Nature does not seem to be pretending that this is a way for them to support open access (or even free access). They have carefully worded it to present what it is: free sharing from access-holders to those without access. This has been, very aptly, called #beggaraccess by Ross Mounce (blog post linked below), who was one of the first to pounce on this news bit and expose it.

Now, effectively, I have access to the entire treasure trove of the Nature Publication Group of journals. This sounds great to me, but it does not really help me. I will have to do the same things I did before: find a paper I like or I want to read, go on Twitter or Facebook and beg for a link, and then read it on ReadCube, then BOOM@ get done with it! There are some people who are thinking of writing a script or a bookmarklet that will automatically pull in the “read for free” link for every NPG paper, thus saving some time for the link begging bit, but I guess it is still some distance away from being successful.

The truth is, if NPG started giving away the articles for free, then they would be damaging their revenue system, which is subscription-based. This process, while maintaining the emblem of free data for all, is actually doing nothing but creating barriers. It buys NPG some goodwill in the market, and probably also allows them to fall somewhat in line with the new Gates Foundation directive of putting all foundation-funded research results in the open with a CC-BY license. I am not sure if this would actually work, but, at least they can say that everyone is, theoretically, able to access the stuff being published in Nature’s journals.

I must say, the way the term “dark social” had been used makes it sound like some repugnant activity. (I cannot find it on the announcement page now! Where did I read it? I do remember reading it on one or the other posts!) If it were not for the dark social sharing of articles, I would not have been able to read and access 75% of the stuff I have used in my work, especially my dissertation for MD, which has hardly any open access work in its realm.

Anyway, this activity will remain up for a year, and it will be interesting to wait and see how this goes. The problem is, these journals are such big names, that every academic will aspire to get their work in one of these journals: many researchers actually measure their worth by the weight of the work published in such high-profile journal. Such elitism is not desirable in science. But, one cannot disengage from the market forces either! Till tenure track and job interviews are sealed by the weight of impact factors and journal titles one gets to show on their CVs, these premier journals will get to beat the market back and take the stance of directing science and academia. We do not really have much to do. The much-vaunted ban imposed on Elsevier-backed journals was also well-spread through the academia, but it does not seem to have dampened the bottom-lines for the publishing giant, nor the desire of early-career researchers to publish in leading journals of the house. My guess is, in the long run, Altmetrics will kick in on this project of NPG, and soon, there will be more light shed on the dark social circles. People are already asking for PDFs using Mounce’s #beggaraccess hashtag!

As for me, I shall stick to my circle of friends, and #icanhazpdf on Twitter for my reading requirements. ReadCube is not going to be worth the trouble for me.

Here is a list of the major blog posts on this issue. If you know of more, tweet them to me @Scepticemia or leave a link in the comments:

This was an independent editorial piece, the one which got most eyeballs, at least in my niche of the networks: Nature News Announcement

The original announcement, the press release can be found here: Articles on nature.com to be made widely available to read and share to support collaborative research

The Guardian covers the issue in some detail: Science journal Nature to make archives available online

On the Nature Blog called “Of schemes and memes”: Makes a lot of good points, but misses the bit where the endeavor fails to add anything new to the fray: Content sharing is *not* open access and why NPG is committed to both

Timo Hannay replied to a lot of the criticism levelled against this NPG move in his Digital Science blog post: Nature.com content sharing: action and reaction

And although it is not directly associated with this context, it is never out of place to suggest a re-visit of Peter Suber’s summarization of the overview and principles of Open Access on the Earlham.edu archived blog here: Open Access: An Overview

Now to come to the more critical posts.

Ross Mounce pounced on the issue and spent no time in viralizing the hashtag Beggar Access with his post here: Nature and Beggar Access

Bonnie Swoger raises a pertinent question over at Information Culture blog on the Scientific American network: Is Nature’s “free to view” program a step back for open access?

Martin Bentley has covered the issue on his blog as well and has highlighted something that struck me the moment I read Nature’s Newspiece: But we already have that: Nature’s link sharing

John Wilbanks has been open in criticism of the system and was one of the first to have critiqued this move on his Tumblog: Nature’s Shareware Moment

Jon Tennant has quite a balanced and lovely summary of the issue on his blog (which I have always thought is exquisitely titled): One small step for Nature. He has curated a list of posts on the issue as well.

Michael Eisen has been, in his usual style, incisive and has raised a question which hardly needs answering: Is Nature’s “free to view” a magnanimous gesture or a cynical ploy? He sums it up quite brilliantly when he says this:

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….). …

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.

See more

Peter Murray Rust has been very vocal, and quite charged up in his post here: Nature’s fauxpen access leaves me very sad and very angry.

Tom Pollard (on his very cleverly URL-ed blog), talks about the stress the whole issue has put on ReadCube. He managed to engage Noah Gray when he had loads of trouble bypassing the rotating cube. He talks about content vs cube in his post: More Cube Than Content. (His blog has an awesome look: I would have loved to have tried using such a framework but unfortunately, it involved a lot of tech mumbo jumbo on Github and I have no clue how to go about that!)

Got more stuff out there? Pass me a link!

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