Wiley's "Free to read" actually means "pay 35 USD"


I got the above unwanted Twitter from Wiley (I have checked as far as possible that it's genuine). It seems to be Wiley advertising a free to read article. I have pasted the message so you can try this at home:

Progress in #nanotechnology within the last several decades review from @unifr is #freetoread! http://ow.ly/FXDFQ

I check the poster https://twitter.com/ChemEurJ/status/544832871564050432/photo/1 and it seems to be a genuine site. So off I go to get my free copy (sorry, my free set of photons for sighted readers)...



I click the "View Full Article (HTML)" and get...


So Wiley equate "35 USD" with "free to read".

I don't.

I'm sure it's a BUMP-ON-THE-ROAD (Elsevier excuse).

But this is the independent fourth publisher foul-up I have got in the last four days. We pay them 20 Billion USD and they can't get it right.


How publishers destroy science: Elsevier's XML, API and the disappearing chemical bond. DO NOT BUY XML

TL;DR Elsevier typsetting turns double bonds into garbage.

Those of you who follow this blog will know that I contend that publishers corrupt manuscripts and thereby destroy science.

Those of you who follow this blog will know that Elsevier publicly stated that I could not use the new "Hargreaves" law to mine articles on their web page and I must do this through their API. Originally there were zillions of conditions, which - under our constant criticism - have gradually (but nowhere completely) disappeared. They now allow me to mine from the web page, but insist that their XML-API gives better content.

I have consistently refused to use Elsevier's API for legal, political and social reasons (I don't want to sign my rights away, be monitored, have to ask permission, etc.). But I also know from at least 5 years of trying to interpret publishers' PDFs and HTML that information is corrupted. By this I mean that what the author submits is turned into something different lexically, typographically and often semantics. (Yes, that means that by changing the way something looks , you can change its meaning).

Anyway yesterday Chris Shillum, who was part of the team I challenged, tweeted that he would let me have a paper - in XML format - from the Elsevier API. For those who don't know, XML is designed to hold information in a style-free form. It can be rendered by a stylesheet or program (e.g. FOP) into whatever font you like. I'm very familiar with XML having run the developers' list with Henry Rzepa in 1997 and been co-author of the universal SAX protocol. Henry and I have developed Chemical Markup Language (CML) precisely for the purpose of chemical publishing (among many other things).


But Elsevier don't use CML, they use typographers who know nothing about chemistry. At school you may have heard of a "double bond" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_bond). It's normally represented by two lines between the atoms. We used to draw these with rapidographs, but now we type them. So every chemist in the world will type Carbon Dioxide as


capital-O equals capital-C equals capital-O

You can do it - nothing terrible happens. You can even search chemical databases using this. They all understand "equals".

But that's not good enough for Elsevier (and most of the others). It has to look "pretty". It's more important that a publication looks pretty than that it's correct. And that's one of the major ways they corrupt information. So here's the paper that Chris Shillum sent me.

First as a PDF.


Can you see the C=O double bond in the middle? "(C=O stretching)". It's no longer an equals, but a special publisher-only symbol they think looks prettier. Among other things if I search for "C=O" I won't find the double bond in the text. That's bad enough. But what's far worse is that this symbol has been included in their XML. And this gets transmitted to the HTML - which looks like (you can try this yourself http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0014579301033130 ).



What's happened??? Do you also see a square? The double bond has disappeared.

The square is Firefox saying "I have been given a character I don't understand and the best I can do is draw a square" - sorry. Safari does the same. Do ANY of you get anything useful? I doubt it.

Because Elsevier has created a special Elsevier-only method of displaying chemistry. It probably only works inside Elsevier back-room - it won't work in any normal browser. Here's what has happened.

Elsevier wanted a symbol to display a double bond. "Equals" which all the rest of the world uses - isn't good enough. So they created their own special Elsevier-double-bond. It's not a standard Unicode codepoint - it's in a Private Use Area: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_Use_Areas). This is reserved for a single organisation to use. It is not intended for unrestricted public use. In certain cases groups, with mutual agreement, have developed communities of practice. But I know of no community outside Elsevier that uses this. (BTW the XML uses 6 Elsevier-only DTDs and can only be understood by reading a 500-page manual - the chemistry is hidden somewhere at the end. This is the monstrosity that Elsevier wishes to force us to use.

It's highly dangerous. If you change a double bond to a triple bond (ethylene => acetylene) it can explode and blow you up. But double and triple bonds are both represented by a hollow square if you try to view Elsevier-HTML. And goodness knows what else:

So Elsevier destroys information.

Chris Shillum tells me on Twitter that it's not a problem. But it is. Using the Private Use Area without the agreement of the community is utterly irresponsible. No one even knew that Elsevier was doing it.

Why's it irresponsible? Because many languages use it for other purposes. See Wikipedia above. Estonian, Tibetan, Chinese ... If an Elsevier-double-bond is used in these documents (e.g. an Estonian chemistry department) there will be certain corruption of both the chemistry and the Estonian. There are probably 10 million chemical compounds with double bonds and all will be corrupted.

But it's also arrogant. "We're Elsevier. We're not going to work with existing DTDs (XML specifications) - we're going to invent our own." Who uses it outside Elsevier? "And we are going to force text-miners to use this monstrosity."

And it's the combined arrogance and incompetence of publishers that destroys science during the manuscript processing. I've been through it. I know.



Publishers' typesetting destroys science: They are all as bad as each other. Can you spot the error?

I've just been trying to mine publicly visible scientific publications from scholarly publishers. (That's right - "publicly visible" - Hargreaves comes later).


They destroy the text. They destroy the images and diagrams. And we pay them money - usually more than a thousand dollars for this. Sometimes many thousands. And when I talk to them - which is regular - they all say something like:

"Oh, we can't change our workflow - it would take years" (or something similar). As if this was a law of the universe.

Unfortunately it's a law of publishing arrogance. They don't give a stuff about the reader. There's no market forces - the only thing that the PublisherAcademic complex worries about is the shh-don't-mention-the-Impact-Factor.

And it's not just the TollAccess ones but also the OpenAccess ones. So today's destruction of quality comes from BMC. (I shall be even handed in my criticism).

I'm trying to get my machines to read HTML from BMC's site. Why HTML? Well publisher's PDF is awful - I'll come to that tomorrow or sometime). Whereas HTML is a standard of many years and so it's straightforward to parse. Yes,

unless it comes from a Scholarly publisher...

PUZZLE TODAY. What's (seriously) wrong with the following. [Kaveh, you will spot it, but give the others a chance to puzzle!]. It's verbatim from http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2229/14/106 (I have added some CR's to make it readable

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" 
<html id="nojs" xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" 
    xmlns:og="http://ogp.me/ns#" xml:lang="en-GB" 
    lang="en-GB" xmlns:wb=“http://open.weibo.com/wb”>

<head> ... [rest of document snipped]

When you see it you'll be as horrified as I was. There is no excuse for this rubbish. Why do we put up with this?

Elsevier's Bumpy Road; Unacceptable licence metadata on "Open Access"

I am looking for Open Access articles to mine and since I have recently become an astrophysicist I started with http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1384107614000426

Can I mine it?

elsevierrights1 elsevierrights2

"Open Access" means virtually nothing. Let's try RightsLink, the tax-collector for the toll-access scholarly publishers. Normally a depressing experience, but here's a surprise.


Rightslink can't work out the licence.

(PMR can't work out the licence either). Sometimes it hides at the bottom of the document...


PMR still can't work it out? Is it Open.

The only certain thing is that even after years of mislabelling documents Elsevier is still incapable of reliably attaching licence information to document.






Content Mining; thoughts from den Haag - can we aspire to universal knowledge?

I'm in den Haag (The Hague) for a meeting run by LIBER - the association of European Research Libraries - about Content Mining. Content Mining is often called TDM - Text and Data Mining - but it also applies to images and other media which contain uncopyrightable facts. This meeting is not primarily technical - it's about the socio-politico-legal issues in doing mining.

Mining can create Universal knowledge. I've just read a wonderful post from Pierre Estienne


we share the same vision and the same deep-seated concern that publishers are destroying this vision. Just a few quotes - you should read it.

A Universal Library is a representation of science. Gathering all human knowledge in one place creates a monolithic artefact I call the Universal Library. It contains all of what Popper called the third world or world three: all of humankind’s literature.
As Popper said, “instead of growing better memories and brains, we grow paper, pens, pencils, typewriters, dictaphones, the printing press, and libraries.”, yet today brain-enhancing tools like libraries are scattered around the globe, and are (academic libraries especially) inaccessible for most of us. The Universal Library is the ultimate tool we can create in order to store and retrieve all of our knowledge easily.


“The internet is Gutenberg on steroids, a printing press without ink, overhead or delivery costs”. [Michael Scherer]... [PE continues]  Yet the internet isn’t seen this way by publishers. They still behave like books are a “scarce” commodity, while the internet allows unlimited distribution of books for free. If the publishers really embraced the internet, they would publish their books/journals for free, instead of charging exorbitant amounts of money for pdfs.


Google is a great tool, but it doesn’t have access to everything – scholarly publications especially are locked inside publishers’ databases and are behind paywalls – if you want to really get a good look at most of the literature, you have to switch between multiple tools: Google, Elsevier, Wiley, Springer’s databases, etc… It’s a very time consuming process the Universal Library should make fast and simple.


So, publishers. The “big three” (Wiley, Springer, Elsevier) and a few others retain a monopoly on scientific publications, and behave like a cartel, making deals to not compete with one another (just look at their prices, which are kept very high and are the same for all the different publishers). As they refuse to compete, they are very unlikely to change their business model. I’m surprised they haven’t been under investigation for antitrust… As they have the copyrights of most of the scientific publications in circulation, they can charge sky-high prices for simple pdfs, and they are quick to call “pirate” anyone who tries to make these papers more available.

[and lots more wonderfully clear, historically grounded stuff...]

Picking up immediate threads...

I am challenging Nature / Macmillan over their new "experiment" in releasing dumbed down (read-only) versions of the scholarly literature that "they own". They think it's a step forward. I think it's an assertion that they believe they control the scholarly literature. I'll blog more , but here's something to think about:

It costs Nature 30-25 THOUSAND dollars to process a single accepted article (usually 2-6 pages).

That's Nature's figures, this week. I'll rephrase that:

Nature take 30-45,000 USD out of the community (taxpayers and students-paying-fees) to create a single published article which, in most cases they control ("own")

There is no way this is moving towards a Universal Library. There are many dystopias which we can imagine - 1984, Fahrenheit451, The Lives Of Others, and the life and death of Aaron Swartz.

So in contentmine,org we are developing a part of the universal library. We are starting with Open Access articles and then moving to legally-minable-facts-in-UK. This is not Universal. It's severely restricted by the publishing industry. If I step outside the lines they have drawn we shall be challenged. Diderot was challenged by the establishment - they, including the printers, destroyed his work.

But his soul shines brightly today and Pierre and I and many others honour him.

And ContentMine is starting to catch on. We've had a great contribution from Magnus Manske + Wikidata and it deserves a complete post on its own.

Off to LIBER, via Bezuidenhout...



The Publisher-Academic Complex; "put your bodies upon the gears"

[term: tcPublisher - = traditional Closed Publisher such as Elsevier or Nature Publishing Group. oaPublisher, exemplified by PLoS, eLIfe, etc.]

In his final address to the nation, in 1961, President Dwight D Eisenhower coined a new phrase:

we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.

See Wikipedia The phrase may also have originated as "military–industrial–scientific complex" or , even more relevantly "military–industrial–academic complex". There are variants of the A-B (-C) complexes and they are characterised by uncontrolled and of secret feedback loops. Academia feeds the military / industry  with intellectual manpower and exclusive discoveries and they in return provide funding. 10 years ago MIT got 700 M USD- although it's out of scope here. The feedback loops are self-sustaining. There is an element of positive feedback in that each component is fed from and feeds back in increasing amount. It's noteworthy that although taxpayer money fuels this there is no direct control due to the secrecy.

I believe we have a similar, and pernicious, cycle in the close, uncontrolled ties between academia and tcPublishers. The same secrecy exists - fees and income are often governed by secrecy clauses and comparison of costs and prices is largely impossible. The tcPublishers are accountable only to their shareholders. Here's my analysis.


The taxpayer and student (yes students pay large fees) fuel academia who give raw material, reviews and money to the tcPublishers who in return provide academia with typeset versions of the supplied material, sometimes with additions from the academic reviewers. But the main modern return is now glory - branding and standing in the community. The standing is determined by arcane procedures such as impact factors which are secret and inaccurate and largely discredited. However this glory feeds the ability of the universities to recruit money and standing in another feedback cycle.

This cycle is completely uncontrolled. Almost all major industries are controlled. Banks, energy companies, transport, medicine. The scholarly publishing business now approaches 20 Billion USD, and I cannot easily think of other infrastructural industries which are completely unregulated. I compare this to luxury consumer goods where the price is arbitrary - fashion, mineral water, cosmetics. Yet, as I argue, this cycle exerts a pernicious stranglehold on the much larger flow of scientific knowledge. Much re-use is stifled, both by inertia and actual legal controls and the loss can be measured in hundreds of billions.

(Oh yes ; i assert that "Closed access means people die" but I'm accused of being emotive. I was even told that it's irresponsible without a double-blind trial (true)).

Among the problems of uncontrolled feedback loops is that they are uncontrolled. Humans have controlled machines for centuries and they have also controlled their societal creations.


[Credit : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centrifugal_governor]

Here the centrifugal governor rotates faster as the machine speeds up and thereby throttles back the fuel causing the speed to drop. Energy companies, train companies are regulated by government and cannot drive the system to excess [1]

But publishers have no restraints. There costs are low, because the manufacturing cost of glory is very low. True they have costs in lawyers, marketeers, lobbyists, but they can charge universities more each year (we keep getting told of shrinking budgets, but it's not the universities' money - it's ours). And now the system has become established and tcPublishers are driving the universities.

This greed results in waste and injustice. The biggest waste is young people, many of whom are broken in the lottery of the glory chase. But there is an increasing amount of duplication, retraction, and metric-chasing-driven "research".

As the feedback cycle speeds up, the wheels start to come off. This happened 50 years ago, shortly after Eisenhower had identified the Military-Industrial-Academic complex. Students were treated as items on a balance sheet and ultimately they screamed...

Read Mario Savio's story and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley

And here is his famous speech...

We were told the following: If President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the regents in his telephone conversation, why didn't he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received, from a well-meaning liberal, was the following: He said, 'Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?' That's the answer!

Well, I ask you to consider: If this is a firm, and if the board of regents are the board of directors; and if President Kerr in fact is the manager; then I'll tell you something. The faculty are a bunch of employees, and we're the raw material! But we're a bunch of raw materials that don't mean to be—have any process upon us. Don't mean to be made into any product. Don't mean… Don't mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We're human beings!

There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

[I spoke about this at #opencon2014 - see my slides recalling the 1960's and 1970's

I think we've come full cycle and that the Publisher-Academic Complex is becoming so odious, so sick at heart that we can't take part. It's not a question of cosmetic changes (like the irrelevant gesture from NPG in giving us back a tiny part of the commons under absurd rules [2]. It's about the injustice, the unanswerability of unrestricted quasi-monopolistic neo-capital.

[1] That's the theory. In the neo-liberal politics of UK they seem intent on removing the controls, which will, of course destroy significant parts of the society we have built up.

[2] The whole NPG #scishare project is flawed, overexaggerated by the Nature publicity machine and I shall deconstruct it in the next blog post.


Scholarly publishing is an Inhuman Machine, Out of Control, Enclosing the Digital Commons

TL;DR Scholarly publishing is an Inhuman Machine, Out of Control. It is pillaging the digital commons.

I've spent the last 2 days lying awake trying to get my thoughts in order about Macmillan's use of ReadCube to distribute "free" copies of closed access scholarly articles. I've blogged it here




There are more comprehensive (and you will probably say more balanced) comments in the excellent post by Scepticemia http://scepticemia.com/2014/12/06/beggaraccess-nature-dark-social-free-to-view-and-the-open-access-debate/ and links therein.

I am going to use "Macmillan" to cover both "Nature Publishing Group" and "Digital Science" (no WP entry, so see Timo Hannay and  ReadCube) as it owns (or at least controls) all of them. (Actually Macmillan is (?privately?) owned further by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georg_von_Holtzbrinck_Publishing_Group .  I've met the then owner some years ago at SciFoo ). I shall use the neologism "tcPublisher" to represent "traditional-closed Publisher". It's ugly but "publisher" is too general. tcPublishers include Macmillan, Science, ACS, Wiley, Springer, Elsevier. Their model is to sell subscriptions to scientific knowledge, protecting their market with legal, political, social, financial and technical barriers. By contrast the recent development of open-access only publishers (oaPublishers) is to generate revenue at the authorship stage and make content freely (Libre) available.

On the face of it Macmillan's action seems a valuable, altruistic, gesture and many people have rejoiced at it. But my analysis is that this is simply offering back a small , very small piece of the commons which has been enclosed by the tcPublishing industry. I use the analogy of the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highland_Clearances. I've written on this before, but in short the Scottish Highlands were ruthlessly appropriated by greedy landowners, houses were burnt, people were effectively killed or driven abroad.


(Credit WP + Geograph)

We love the remoteness now, but that was a community, people's houses. People died in the Clearances.  Frank Fraser Darling, the great naturalist, described the Highlands as  “a devastated landscape” - and a “wet desert”, And it's my contention that, unless we stop it, scientific scholarship - research as well as publications - will similarly become a devastated desert (if we are not already there).

Fundamental to this is the idea of the Commons. The commons is run by society for the benefit of society and traditionally applied to land, water, ecosystem, etc. The fundamental principle is that it's available for everyone (or a societally valuable subset, such as farmers) who use the resources for the benefit of society. This almost always means a system of community managed rules and commons are still in existence today.

However because there is great value in a good commons it is always underthreat of appropriation by non-community entities. Historically these were often privileged invididuals (e.g. aristocrats) but now they include corporations. This is Enclosure; some snippets from Wikipedia:

An anonymous protest poem from the 17th century summed up the anti-enclosure feeling, and has been repeated in many variants since, even being applied to the contemporary privatization of the Internet:[30]

The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater felon loose

Who steals the common from off the goose

... George Orwell wrote in 1944

Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.

George OrwellAs I Please, Tribune, 18 August 1944[32]


I believe that the same is happening (or has happened) in Scholarly publishing. It's typified by closed access, with social, legal, economic and technical barriers.


"Anytime that someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you but won't give you the key, that lock's not there for you." Cory Doctorow.

Here's my picture of enclosure. commons

The blue line is a society that manages its commons. The red line is enclosure, which is not being done for society's benefit. Enclosure is an unjust process and leads to continuing injustice. Many of today's nation-political problems are caused current or historical colonisation and perpetuated by neo-colonialisation, of which TTIP is a typical manifestation. I argue that we have already lost much of the digital commons and we must reclaim as much as we can. Scientific knowledge is, I believe, a basic human right, especially when funded by the commons (nations, societies, charities). tcPublishers have enclosed it.

It's possible to have commercial organizations who make a reasonable income by managing commons for the benefit of society. Management costs money and needs to be recovered. The problem with tcPublishing is that society has very little (if any control) over what is managed, how, and at what cost. Individuals like me have no say. I am an economic chattel regarded by tcPublishers as a free source of manuscripts for their machine, a free source of reviews and with no power in any of this. (Even a large oaPublisher has told me that their raw material is authors and that they market to them, not readers).

I'm going to develop the theme that tcPublishing is now an inhuman machine, out of control, but I will need another post and I have to write some code. [The mess in scholarly publishing is incredibly destructive of our creative abilities.]




STOP TTIP in Cambridge; Great presentation by John Hilary


[AMI and Brenda]

We had a very well attended (full Unitarian Church) of Cambridge people wishing to hear about TTIP ("Tee-tip") the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnershipl. I have been very very worried about this for some time, informed at regular intervals by G;yn Moody's blog and other outlets.

TTIP is awful. I learnt a new word "neo-liberalism" : (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoliberalism:   Robert W. McChesney defines neoliberalism as "capitalism with the gloves off" ). The idea is to release all constraints in multinational trade (and thereby multinational corporations who will then generate untold wealth...

for them, not us);

The thing that most concerns me is ISDS , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Investor-state_dispute_settlement  This allows multinationals to sue governments if they don't like what they do, and the odds are heavily weighted in favour of companies.

And the negotiations are in secret. 

I am not a historian but TTIP/ISDS seems as catastrophic as the Highland Clearances. where the whole  population and ecology of half of Scotland was destroyed by foreign greed.

The modern problem is worse, because it's invisible. Governments support neo-liberalism, but it will destroy public services, such as the NHS in UK, and it seems irreversible. It has to be stopped now.

1 MILLION Europeans have signed a petition aganist TTIP. The commission has said it will ignore this (European Citizens Initiative). They won't be able to ignore us on the streets.

Go along to hear John when he next speaks. it will be worth it.

And, if you are lucky, you'l get swag like AMI and Brenda.



Some Background Material prior to writing about Nature's SciShare; reprints cost the earth

We've had a long and thoughtful reply from Timo Hannay about the SciShare/ReadCube "free access". I shall reply to it. It gives the impression that Nature is a progressive publisher committed to Open Access. That may be true in parts. But Nature also has a  very strong commercial effort and it's useful to see some of this. Rather than quoting subscription prices, I'm going to look at re-use. Re-use of material that is paid for by subscriptions.

I've looked at today's Nature. I can't read any of it as it's behind a paywall, so there are some guesses. Of the main scientific articles/letters (ca 16 in http://www.nature.com/nature/index.html) I don't see any labelled as Open Access or similar.  Let's see if they can be re-used?

I choose a reasonably believable scenario; an NGO in sub-Saharan Africa interested  in human genomic variation. This is likely to be of interest to politicians, medics, historians and citizens-with-curious-minds.

And education.

Here's the first landing page:


OK - the new "free" access means you can get it without paying IFF:

  • you find a friend to send you the link. I don't know how to do this ATM. But let's say it takes 15 mins on twitter. (actually you'll probably get #icanhazpdf that way, but that's illegal so I won't do it.
  • get the link. I have no idea what happens but I assume it says "do you want to download and install ReadCube and give it permission to read your filestore". (another 10-15 mins).
  • Assume I read it and want my 10 colleague teachers to read it. They don't have Internet (they have mobile phones) so I'll send them paper. Yes, paper is still strong in SubSahara. I am a law abiding citizen and so follow Rights and Permissions


Which charges me 1600 USD to reprint it, even for 10 copies. It's probably 1 page long. That's for PERMISSION. 160 USD for each page reused. It's not for the actual paper.

I'm a non-profit, non-commercial, organization and ten schools have to pay 1600 USD for a paper which is about ME.

SciShare doesn't help, does it?

And who does the copyright belong to. Since I can't read the paper I don't know (it's behind a paywall). But we have the ambiguous "Rights Managed by Nature Publishing Group".

That's new on me. Some of the publishers' copyrights seem deliberately obtuse.

So how would I get a copy of the paper.

On paper?

another 18 USD... which means we don't use ReadCube at all....

Is this fair? you decide...


Can Readcube (Macmillan's fauxpen access client) snoop on readers?

Prof. Henry Rzepa recounts his recent experience with installing and running Macmillan's Readcube; a device to allow DRM'ed access to read-only scholarly literature. [I have not used it myself (and will not) but trust Henry absolutely to give an accurate account. Moreover Henry is not a scaremonger.  He looks for the unusual, and probes relentlessly, but if he was happy he would have said so.

Readcube is (I assume) closed source software so we don't know how it works (and if you try to disassemble it you might end up in criminal court as it's a DRM machine). It appears that you have to install it on your machine and also grant it privileges.


Re ReadCube and harvesting. I thought I might spend a few minutes carefully going through its application preferences searching for anonymity flags or other controls on what information might be sent by the program whilst it is open. I could not find any. I was looking for eg the type of setting in eg the Chrome browser "Send a do not track request with your browsing traffic", the Safari "Ask websites not to track me" or Firefox "Tell sites that I do not want to be tracked".

One might presume then that ReadCube and their greater organisation probably WILL be informed that a particular article has been loaded, along with its title etc. It would be an act of trust that eg the IP address being used has not been tracked. This information of course is not limited just to a particular publisher's journal, but presumably to all content from multiple publishers loaded into ReadCube. Thus when I pointed ReadCube at a folder to see what it might do, I noticed entrained in that folder were flight boarding passes (yes I know they should not have been there), lecture notes, research progress reports, theatre tickets, and even the risk of a bank statement etc. Most of the digital-detritus of modern life! A lot of it inadvertent. All of course no doubt anonymised by ReadCube before statistical processing (a process controlled by an algorithm we know nothing about).

PS After a little effort, I managed to bulk-delete all the bulk-autoloaded entries in my ReadCube library, but probably not before any harvested metadata had been sent.

PMR: This worries me greatly. Why should Readcube be looking at client-side disks in the first place?? I'll wait for other informed comments (I can't investigate myself as I would almost certainly have to sign away rights to Macmillan). By I ask them:

(a) has ANY independent body certified that Readcube is "safe" to use or do we just "trust Macmillan"

(b) has ANY independent body certified that Macmillan's use of community data adheres to acceptable standards.