Why I feel horrible about Nature‘s article-sharing initiative
December 15, 2014
I wrote last week that I can’t support Nature’s new broken-access initiative for two reasons: practically, I can’t rely on it; and philosophically I can’t abide work being done to reduce utility.
More recently I read a post on Nature’s blog: Content sharing is *not* open access and why NPG is committed to both. It’s well worth reading: concise, clear and helpful. The key point they make is that “This is not a step back from open access or an attempt to undermine it. We see content sharing as an additional offering to open access, not instead of it”. But do read the article, as it provides useful background on NPG’s moves towards open access.
So NPG do look pretty much like the good guys here. They are not taking anything away; they are adding a thing that no-one is obliged to use; and they are carefully not claiming that this thing is something it’s not. What’s not to like? Surely at worst this has to have net zero value, yes?
The first thing is that for me the value is not more than zero, because articles that might evaporate at any moment are simply not of value to me as a researcher. If I am going to cite them, I need to have permanent copies, so I can check back on what I meant.
All right — but doesn’t that leave the value at least no less than zero?
Well, it depends. When I wrote last year about the travesty that is “walk-in access” — the ridiculous idea that you can physically go to a special magic building to use their anointed computers to read documents your own computer is perfectly capable of reading — I speculated:
I can only assume that was always the intention of the barrier-based publishers on the Finch committee that came up with this initiative: to deliver a stillborn access initiative that they can point to and say “See, no-one wants open access”.
It’s easy to imagine barrier-based publishers making the same point when take-up of NPG’s broken access is low. That’s one possible bad outcome that would make the broken-access offer a net negative.
Another, much more serious, one would the fragmentation of the literature into multiple mutually incompatible subsets. In this dystopia, you’d have to read NPG papers on ReadCube, Elsevier papers using Mendeley, and so on. As Peter Murray-Rust noted:
Maybe we’ll shortly return to the browser-wars “this paper only viewable on Read-Cube”. If readers are brainwashed into compliance by technology restrictions our future is grim.
Say what you want about PDFs — and there is plenty to dislike about them — the format is at least defined by an open standard: anyone can write software to read and display it, and lots of different groups have created implementations. The idea of papers that can only be read by a specific program (almost certainly a proprietary one) is a horrifyingly retrograde one.
And here’s a third possible bad consequence. ReadCube is one of those applications that “phones home” — it tracks what you read. NPG say that this data is anonymised, but the opportunities for abuse are obvious. Suppose you look up a lot of papers about cancer and find that your health insurance premiums have gone up. You read papers about communist theory, and can’t get a place at the university you thought was keen to take you. Right now, this isn’t happening (so NPG assure us) but history does not give us reason to be optimistic about corporations that own big databases about user behaviour.
So the outcomes of NPG’s kind offer, intentionally or not, could include anti-OA propaganda based on poor uptake, fragmentation of the literature into technically incompatible subsets, and violation of researcher privacy.
Not a pretty prospect.
But here’s why I feel even worse about this: pointing it out feels like throwing a generous offer back in the faces of the people who made it. When I read Timo Hannay’s visionary exposition of what broken access is meant to achieve, and Steven Inchcoombe and Grace Baynes clear explanation of what it is and isn’t, I see good people honestly trying to do good work, and I hate to be so negative about it.
So my heartfelt apologies to Timo, Steven and Grace; but I gotta call ’em like I see ’em, and to me broken access looks like an offer with very low value, and carrying several significant threats.
What I would really like to see from NPG — an unequivocal good that I could celebrate unreservedly — would be for them to make all their articles properly open access (CC By) after one year. That would be a genuine and valuable contribution to the progress of research.