ReadCube enables content sharing from nature.comScientific American readers who click on our story links to nature.com will now be able to access the full journal articles, providing deeper insights into the process of science. Credit: Nature

Paging through some old Scientific American scrapbooks recently, I found this gem from Gerard Piel, a past publisher, in a 1958 article:

“Science moves forward in little jumps with small accretions to the total body of knowledge. But its progress is motivated at every step by the larger questions in which all men have a stake.”

Since 1845 Scientific American has been sharing and illuminating such “small accretions” against the backdrop of some of humanity’s most profound “larger questions.” Uniquely, our scientist and other expert authors, including some 150 Nobel laureates, work with our editors and journalists make accessible and explain the science that matters. And as science has progressed–becoming more multidisciplinary, with teams now collaborating across the globe–so have the ways we “invite in” people to the knowledge feast, with an explosion across digital platforms. Now the parent company of Scientific American, Nature Publishing Group (NPG), is taking that to the next level with a bold experiment.

In a one-year pilot, NPG will enable free content sharing for nature.com subscribers and for 100 white-listed journalists and media outlets (including Scientific American) for 49 owned journals, including the Nature family. Nature.com subscribers will be able to share links with non-subscribers via e-mail, social media and Web pages. The functionality on nature.com is powered by, ReadCube (part of NPG’s sister company Digital Science).

Enriching the offerings around our award-winning journalism, Scientific American will be able to share links to the journal articles with our millions of readers–science enthusiasts, educators, and policy and business leaders among them–providing deeper insights about the progress of science, which longtime readers know I hold to be the engine of human prosperity.

More important, since a free flow of information is the fuel that powers that engine, this experiment stands to benefit the progress of science itself. How could it do that–and why would a for-profit publisher of highly selective journals do such a thing in the first place? What follows is an edited conversation that I had on those questions with Steven Inchcoombe, managing director of NPG and president of Scientific American. At bottom is a short demo video.

Let’s start with what you are doing. Tell us about how it will work.

What we’re going to do is start to solve a big pain point for many scientists. We will make our most important scientific research content available for sharing. First, peer-to peer–that is, between professional scientists and anybody they choose to share with. And, in the second instance, people such as yourself who are referring to articles we’ve published in the broader specialist media area; you and they can use links to the sites to enable readers to click to the full text research papers.

People who want to comment on, or explain, science will be empowered to the best of our ability. The other use, peer to peer, beyond just the article itself will have in-line referencing and, very soon, enable sharers to highlight and annotate these papers–to effectively make a personalized version to share with peers and colleagues as a scientist.

Why is it important to do this? Why are you excited about it?

Fundamentally, content sharing is part of successful researcher collaboration, and that drives the advance of modern science–which increasingly involves cross-institutional, cross-continental collaboration and with growing interdisciplinary elements. Helping this work better is critical to accelerating scientific discovery and hugely exciting to be a part of.

We’re hoping others will take confidence from us and our experience. We want to change how the publishing industry works in this area and not just do it for ourselves. ReadCube already works well with over 30 other publishers providing them with other functionality. We hope they and others will adopt this approach because of its exceptional benefits.

It’s important that we don’t just allow sharing but that we add value and make it easy to share. The ReadCube library will connect people in a safe way with read and write access and the ability to bring content within that environment so that we can help focus, support, drive and enable the discussion around the progress of science.

For institutional librarians, we want to be able to tell them how the researchers and students on their campus are using and sharing the content they license and where some are having to rely on content subscribed to elsewhere. ReadCube’s reporting allows us to do this and it could do the same for other publishers.

Why do this now?

First, expectations for article accessibility have increased. Now there are significant levels of open access plus some tools, such as the Social Scientific Networks, which enable the sharing of whole documents as units of shrink-wrapped PDFs. Those have raised the appetite–and people have started to realize how much better it could be to share information in better ways. Second, for publishers, ReadCube at last genuinely provides more opportunity than risk. The functionality we are using wasn’t available even six months ago. Third, I think we’re through a period of getting content online and making it more discoverable–though it could always be better and search has solved much of that problem–and usable as html in terms of the article itself together with the PDF.

Sharing is now a necessity and the time has come to do it well rather than [it happening] offline in suboptimum ways such as by e-mail, dropbox and via Social Scientific Networks. Scientists are already doing this–none of us [publishers] know what’s happening now when they do. For us it’s a black box and it’s huge: it’s called “the Internet.”

We want to put scientists’ unmet needs center stage and work at how we can help. Until ReadCube, I didn’t see how we could. Now we can. The real question is why didn’t we do it sooner rather than why do it now.

We want to lead by example and try to build confidence for all publishers so they can see the benefit is greater than the risks, so we are going first. I also want the industry to see how well it works, by sharing the resulting data. They will need to analyze the data for themselves so we’ll also make it open.

Publishers have carefully guarded copyrighted content. Why is opening it up a good idea?

The fundamental reason why we cannot stick our head in the sand and why we have to deal with this is that some usage has already migrated off [current publisher platforms]. If we do not accommodate these needs, we could end up as the digital archive that just feeds content to other platforms, where all the usage occurs.

Or–worse–we completely go out of business because authors see us as a barrier to usage with peers rather than seeing us as an enabler. That’s not our intention so our actions need to reflect that.

Our job as publishers is to serve the scientists and not to hobble progress. When you’ve taken responsibility for disseminating information, you’ve taken on an obligation that needs to be balanced with making sufficient money to ensure you are sustainable and competitive.

Open access, in which authors pay a processing fee, is here for that type of content. If we can’t make [highly selective journal article] subscription content nearly as accessible, it will get compromised and ultimately could get eliminated. Such highly selective journals are a proven very efficient reader service, and therefore their costs should be spread over large numbers of readers via academic subscriptions, not the smaller number of authors making submissions.

Institutions all want stable and predictable budgets, that means subscriptions, and we need to make these subscriptions more valuable than today; that’s where the sharing comes in. We need to keep our discipline by not trying to gain incremental dollars by allowing sharing but in return institutional librarians need to maintain these subscriptions rather than cancel them. Then we can all get what we are after–the authors; the readers, users, and sharers; and purchasers–everyone can win.

You don’t know what you don’t know–which is why we need to run our grand experiment. We will, as you once put it to me when we first met, like good scientists, take an evidence-based approach. We’ve got to build and understand the evidence, and then we can adapt our functionality and licensing policies.

Ultimately, we want to serve scientists and help the advance of science, with this approach I believe we can do this better than ever before.

[The video below provides a quick demo of how it works.]