Nature makes all its papers free to view

The premiere science publisher will make shareable "read-only" links to its all papers stretching back to 1869, using technology from a startup that its parent company, Macmillan, has invested in.

The offer is complex and confusing. Personal subscribers will be able to share links going back to 1997, while institutional subscribers will get shareable links going back to 1869. The Readcube sharing platform is not well-described in the article — it's compared to Itunes for science articles, but you can't share links to Itunes tracks, so presumably there's some nuance missing there.

It's also hard to understand what a "read-only" link is. Do they mean that they're using some kind of browser-based DRM to stop you from saving the stuff on your screen? That's an interesting proposition, since the DRM will lock up articles from 1869, which will certainly be in the public domain, and there's no infringement in screencapping those pages and sharing them, and they appear to be the company's premium offering, which you need an institutional subscription to get access to. I suspect that the process of screencapping and OCRing the entire public domain archive of Nature will be a trivial technical question — which leads me to wonder whether the company will try to use terms-of-service to restrict the action, and whether a court will find that you can legally apply a "license agreement" to material that's in the public domain and has no licensable elements.

Nature notes that this move is driven in part by a requirement from the Gates Foundation and other funders that the work they fund be published as open access (though this wouldn't meet the Gates Foundation's criteria).

"We know researchers are already sharing content, often in hidden corners of the Internet or using clumsy, time-consuming practices," said a statement by Timo Hannay, the managing director of Digital Science, a division of Macmillan that has invested in ReadCube. "At Digital Science we have the technology to provide a convenient, legitimate alternative that allows researchers to access the information they need and the wider, interested public access to scientific knowledge, from the definitive, original source," Hannay said.

The policy comes as research funders are increasingly mandating that scientists make their papers free to read, download and reuse in various other ways. Nature and its sister journals already allow scientists to freely archive online the peer-reviewed manuscripts of their papers, but only after a delay of six months following publication. And papers published in some NPG journals — 38% of all papers NPG published this year, says Thomas — are already being made free to read immediately on publication, a 'gold open-access' model in which publishers charge authors or their funders, rather than subscribers, for publishing each paper.

But Thomas says that she expects that the subscription and the open-access business models would exist side by side for a long time to come. Philip Campbell, the editor-in-chief of Nature and the other Nature-branded journals, has said that Nature's internal costs of publishing run at £20,000–30,000 (US$31,000–47,000) per paper, an extremely high charge to load onto authors or funders rather than spread over subscribers.

Nature makes all articles free to view [Richard Van Noorden/Nature]