News articles about scientific research often have misleading headlines meant to grab readers. News articles about scientific publishing are rarely subject to the same forces simply because relatively few people are interested. This morning, Nature News published one of the most misleading headlines ever:

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CC BY Image courtesy of Flickr user Steven Depolo

In fact, Nature did not make it’s articles free to view. Users without a subscription still cannot view articles, unless they have a friend with a subscription who can now share a read-only version of the article. Or if they are willing to pay an exorbitant amount of money to buy (or "rent") the article. This is remarkably similar to how things work today. Through listservs, emails to friends, and via the #icanhazpdf hash tag students and scholars ask for access to scientific content. With the new Nature program, instead of getting a PDF you can print, add to your favorite citation manager, or share with a student, you can only read the article on screen. While this kind of sharing often violates the licenses institutions need to sign in order to subscribe, it is a remarkable effective system that supplements interlibrary loan.

The phrase “beggar access” has been coined for the new system, which some suggest is more of a PR stunt than any actual attempt to provide greater access.

In addition to allowing subscribers to share links to read-only, DRM filled articles, many news organizations and science blog networks will be able to share these links with their readers. The lay-person interested in science may benefit the most from this program, since they may now be able to at least view the primary research article on which a news story is based.

This doesn’t change things for students and scholars who are searching databases or the web for scientific information. If their institutions subscribe, they have access. If not, they would still have to beg for a link, a PDF, or put in a request from ILL.

What concerns me about the program is the move toward proprietary formats and greater control of content, through the platform ReadCube. While the current access system is imperfect (really imperfect), the PDF format allows users to easily share information, access their articles from anywhere, and print articles for easy reading. In essence, the publisher loses control of the content once a user downloads a PDF. The move to a more restrictive platform like ReadCube allows publishers to retain more control on content (even while claiming to provide greater access). I worry that this could be a step backward for true open access. Publishers can argue that they have provided access, so policy makers could be less inclined to develop open access mandates.

Open Access advocates stress that OA is not just about access, but about the ability to re-use the content in multiple ways. This new initiative from Nature is limiting even the most basic re-uses of this material: printing and saving. In the future, could publishers refuse to allow anyone (even subscribers) to download or save copies of the articles? Offline access would disappear, and content would become more difficult to use.

The restrictive proprietary platform provides tools such as annotations and in-PDF notes. While you can't print, you can add in a note. My cynical side views these features as bells and whistles to distract users from the fact that they can't even print an article and write on it.

Perhaps I am being too cynical. Perhaps this won't start a move toward only offering proprietary DRM-filled formats. Perhaps this is an honest attempt by Nature to allow readers of science blogs and science news to look at the science behind the headlines. We'll see.


Disclaimer: Scientific American is owned by Nature Publishing Group. I'm guessing that Scientific American news and blogs will be one of the news organizations that will be able to benefit from the new links.