On ReadCube, and Nature‘s give-away
December 9, 2014
It’s been a week since Nature announced what they are now calling “read-only sharing by subscribers” — a much more accurate title than the one they originally used on that piece, “Nature makes all articles free to view” [old link, which now redirects]. I didn’t want to leap straight in with a comment at the time, because this is a complex issue and I felt it better to give my thoughts time to percolate.
Meanwhile, other commentators have weighed in, and have mostly been pretty negative. John Wilbanks described it as “canonization of a system that says a small number of companies not only do control the world’s knowledge, but should control all the world’s knowledge”; Ross Mounce characterised it as “beggar access”; Peter Murray-Rust says “Nature’s fauxpen access leaves me very sad and very angry”. Perhaps surprisingly, Michael Eisen is more temperate, asking whether Nature’s policy is “a magnanimous gesture or a cynical ploy”, and concluding only “At the end of the day, this is a pretty cynical move”.
I am a bit more optimistic (although as you will see, still not really happy).
First of all, let’s say clearly that this is a step in a good direction. Nature‘s papers are now at least somewhat easier for regular people to get hold of, and that is to be applauded. Even if Mike Eisen’s cynical reading is correct, it’s still a net good.
But — and it’s a big but — I have a huge problem with the use of ReadCube, or any equivalent, to provide a crippled form of access. Rather than Ross’s term “beggar access”, which focusses on the need to get a subscriber to share a link, I think the best term to describe what Nature is offering here is “broken access”. Broken by deliberately locking the content into the ReadCube jail, to prevent printing, downloading, copy-pasting, etc.
My issue with this is two-fold: both practical and philosophical. Practically, PDFs are very far from perfect, but there’s a lot we can do with them (including printing, downloading, copy-pasting, etc.) Most crucially, when I download a PDF, I have it forever. I can refer back to it whenever I need it, without depending on a third party. It becomes part of my research toolkit. I know it’s not going to vanish when my back is turned.
By contrast, we never know when we’re going to be able to read these Nature papers. Certainly not when we’re offline. Maybe not when there’s a service outage. Probably not after the end of the one-year pilot. And you can’t build research on something that you can’t rely on existing. It’s not real.
But the philosophical issue is really burns is that ReadCube exists precisely in order to take away functionality. Its purpose is to make access limited, ephemeral, unreliable and less useful. And I find that offensive. The idea of doing work to remove functionality hurts me. The idea of all those clever people doing all that hard work to take functionality away. It’s wrong. It’s burning value.
So I end up feeling conflicted about the new Nature policy. It is a forward step; but one that I literally don’t ever see myself taking advantage of. A much more useful policy (to me anyway) would be to keep new articles under lock and key, but make them truly open after, say, a year. Because for a scientist, usefulness trumps timeliness.
Finally, Matt makes this point:
Nature papers are short, typically 5 pages or fewer. With big, modern monitors, you can usually get away with screen-shotting a whole page in one go, or in two takes and the world’s easiest GIMP stitch at worst. So by not allowing people to download the PDFs, all they’ve done is ensure that the people who really need their own offline copy will have to waste maybe 15 minutes assembling one. So the ‘barrier’ they’ve put up is low and crossable, it’s just annoying. Is that what Nature wants to be known for, annoying their users to death?