Dissembling Nature

Interesting that the Journal Nature is introducing a registration wall for its News pages. These pages have previously been free and, we’re told, will remain so. However, in order to access them one will now have to give a name and email address.

I heard about this On Wednesday (13th July) on  Twitter (via @NatureNews):

OK, we’ve got some news that may annoy: @NatureNews is going to start requiring registration to view some of our free news stories. (1/2)

Don’t panic! All the news is still free. We’re just going to ask for a name and an email. (2/2)

(For those of you not among the Twitterati I should point out that messages on Twitter have to be less than 140 characters long, hence the use of two tweets in this case).

My immediate reaction – and that of manyof my colleagues – is that this looks very much like the strategy pursued by the Times online edition. First introduce registration, then shortly afterwards turn it into a paywall. In the meantime can collect all the email addresses in order to send marketing spam to those who have registered.

I inquired as to what they were planning to do with the email addresses they would be harvesting in this way, but didn’t get a satisfactory reply. Then I received a message from another branch of the Nature twitter operation, @npgnews:

@telescoper Hi Peter. Thanks for your comments. We’re about to send a series of tweets in response to Nature News registration.

Being a reserved British type I was a bit annoyed by the  “Hi Peter”  from someone I don’t know and have never spoken to before, but didn’t respond. Instead I waited with baited breath for the in-depth explanation of what Nature is going to do. Eventually it came, in three tweets:

Thx for your comments about the Nature News registration system. We’re asking all readers to introduce themselves by registering once (1/3)

Registration enables free access to the Nature News content, which remains unchanged. (2/3)

We’re working hard to expand and introduce more tailored services for readers and registration is necessary for that (3/3)

To say I found this disappointing would be an understatement. What a load of flannel. Note the word “enables” in Tweet No. 2. Free access was previously enabled to everyone, but is apparently to be disabled in order to facilitate the collection of user data for some unspecified purpose. Tweet No. 3 is a masterpiece of non sequitur. Why does expansion of Nature News require a database of email addresses? And what can “more tailored services” mean other than restricting access? Needless to say, I won’t be registering. There are other plenty of other sources of science information

Nature is of course a business operation, and you have to see this move against the wider backdrop of traditional publishing companies trying to find the way forward in the digital age. As a commercial enterprise, they are entitled to charge customers, although I wish they would be a little more honest about their intention to do so. I would remind them however, that The Times‘ paywall has been an unmitigated disaster, in terms of the negative an effect it has had on the readership figures. Given the revelations of the past weeks about the behaviour of News International, I bet people who were foolish enough to register are now wondering who has their personal information now. Will Nature News go the same way?

More importantly, however, as a scientist, I think that Nature’s policy of copyrighting and restricting general access to scientific papers is fundamentally wrong and is actively damaging science. I believe that scientific results should be in the public domain, as should the data on which they are based. Open access is the way it should be. In the past, publishers greatly assisted in the dissemination of research both between academics and to the public. Now, I’m afraid, the academic publishing industry is simply parasitic, and it is a threat to the health of scientific research. Fortunately, I don’t think a drastic remedy is needed; it will wither away on it’s own. Let’s just let Nature take its course.


3 Responses to “Dissembling Nature”

  1. Doesnt the Times paywall still exist or did I miss that? I remember not long ago they produced some readership figures to defend it but there was clear double accounting etc. Nature trade on being the number 1 science journal with highest impact factor. They must love the way science has decided to measure its participants performance through impact factors, citation counts etc.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, it does, as far as I know. I don’t read the Times…

      The other point you make is a good one. The academic publishing industry has a vested interest in the insane bureauracy of research assessment that is strangling research in the sciences and elsewhere. Nature makes much of its “impact factor”, but a paper that winds up in journal with high impact isn’t necessarily a good one. In astronomy at any rate, it’s more reliable to calculate the impact of individual pieces of work using, e.g., citation counts from ADS. Who cares what journal they’re in – or even if they’re in a journal at all – if they are highly cited?

  2. telescoper Says:

    That’s a difference but not the only one. Science (or at least the sort that I do) is also paid for by the general public, something which also isn’t true of music. It’s only reasonable that results stemming from science funded this way should be wholly in the public domain.

    P.S. My breath is baited, as I had anchovies for lunch..

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