Reply to Richard van Noorden

[Note I have switched laptops and this has caused delay – also I cannot yet do formatting].
Earlier this week I strongly criticised Nature News and Richard van Noorden ( for a post about Elsevier’s click-through licences. My concern was that the article was – [I agree not intentionally, and withdrew the “marketing”] – supportive of nature’s business interests. Richard has replied I’ll set the scene first and then reply to specific points.
I look to Nature News as a reliable source of scientific news and comment (unlike , say, the UK’s D**ly M**l). I suspect that many readers, including me, glance at the headlines and the first paragraph and then move on. So I read:
Elsevier opens its papers to text-mining

Researchers welcome easier access for harvesting content, but some spurn tight controls.
and the first paragraph…
Academics: prepare your computers for text-mining. Publishing giant Elsevier says that it has now made it easy for scientists to extract facts and data computationally from its more than 11 million online research papers. Other publishers are likely to follow suit this year, lowering barriers to the computer-based research technique. But some scientists object that even as publishers roll out improved technical infrastructure and allow greater access, they are exerting tight legal controls over the way text-mining is done.
I suspect that most readers would see this as a statement of a fait accompli. It’s going to happen the way the publishers say. Yes, a few people are carping; but the world is moving ahead
Nature has a vested interest in seeing this happen. For whatever reasons it supports the STM publishers in their intention to offer licences for content mining. Note that this is not the result of a negotiation – it is a unilateral move by the publishers. And it’s totally opposed by all major academic bodies and library organisations as I detailed.
This is not the only case where a publisher’s interests have coincided with a favourable story.
* Science Magazine did a “study” “showing” that Open Access peer-review was flawed.

Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?

A spoof paper concocted by Science reveals little or no scrutiny at many open-access journals. [PMR: Note Science appears to have a significant business interest in keeping the Toll-Access status quo]

* Taylor and Francis “surveyed” 71 K readers and reported that they preferred CC-NC licences over CC-BY. [PMR Note: T+F have an apparent business advantage in restricting APC licences to NC]
* and here NPG have an interest in licensing TDM rather than accepting copyright extensions.
My concerns with the piece were that it gave a completely unbalanced view. Richard notes, and I agree, that elsewhere he has reviewed the case for copyright reform, but it was not in the current piece. A casual reader would not go searching for history, but assume that the licence issue was relatively uncontroversial.
Nature News wields great power. It is therefore critical that where it has vested interests they are made clear.
The same story could have been reported very differently (e.g. by Alok Jha or George Monbiot of the Guardian). An organisation critical of TA-STM publishers might have written:
“Elsevier ignore coming copyright reform and create de facto approach to licensing”
“In an attempt to forestall coming legislation which would make content mixable by all scientists, Elsevier has rushed through a licence scheme to persuade scientists that they can content-mine their journals. Other publishers seem likely to follow. But our experts showed that the licence was designed to protect the publisher’s business interests rather than assist the researcher – who might unwittingly end up in court.”
Same story – different emphasis. It was critical that NN stayed objective and I don’t think it did.
Detailed comments:
Dear Peter,
I believe my article was fair, giving representation to pro and anti- sides in this debate.  Agreed there were two sides, but not that one was highly favourable to Nature.
Let’s dig into the detail: you suggest that the article was ‘biased reporting’ which ‘purports to be news’ and was ‘effectively an attempt … to promote publisher licenses as a benefit to science’. My article does not intend to make a case for or against publisher licenses. It is, quite simply, reporting: explaining what has happened, and how scientists reacted to Elsevier’s new policy (which was, of course, news).
I should rephrase. I do not question your motivation. FWIW I was also listened for an hour to John Bohannon and believed he was sincere. But the overall impression is a news story which is supportive of Science’s (and here NPG’s) interested
Far from a bias for publishers’ licenses, the article clearly states the objections that you raise against the license approach. The introduction says that ‘some scientists object that even as publishers roll out improved technical infrastructure and allow greater access, they are exerting tight legal controls over the way text-mining is done’. The final three paragraphs explain precisely the complaints that some researchers have with the way publishers are setting license-controls on text-mining activity, leaving the reader with Ross Mounce’s criticisms.
“Some scientists” is far too weak. It should be replaced with “major national scientific societies, major funders, and international library organisation ware all absolutely opposed to licences”
On the other hand, for all you might disagree with them, it is a fact that other scientists I spoke to – including Max Hauessler, who has been very critical of Elsevier in the past – were pleased about the API and the click-through license. They told me that this would open up TDM opportunities, albeit under restrictive conditions (conditions that the article explains). I had, as you know, contacted you for your reaction too. You pointed me to your first blog (written before your more detailed analysis, which wasn’t available at the time), and I judged that Ross Mounce had already provided a voice for that view in the article.
I have explained that some scientists would welcome this – that does not mean it’s acceptable. Have any of the scientists been asked “are you happy to answer in court if you impinge on Elsevier’s business interests?” “Is your library happy with the licence or may you be disciplined?”. This is no more reliable than T+F’s 71K readers.
It is particularly bewildering that you accuse Nature of “failing to report any of the Licenses4Europe discussion”, and ask for “a balanced account of the Licenses4Europe story”.
For as far as I am aware, Nature is the *only* mainstream media venue to have reported the Licenses4Europe issues. In March 2013, I covered the clash between scientists and publishers over licenses, and in June 2013, further reported on the divisions rife in the European Commission TDM discussions. What’s more, two years ago I wrote the first media coverage of Max Haeussler’s struggles to get permission from Elsevier to text-mine for biological sequences.
I didn’t consider that the Licenses4Europe discussion needed to be explained again in this article: for I had already explained the argument that ‘the right to read is the right to mine’, and noted that the European Commission was examining the issue. Of course, all the relevant previous coverage is linked to at the end of the story.
The problem is that the casual reader will not know the history and will regard the links as superfluous detail.
Where does this discussion of bias and reporting balance leave us? Your critique helps me think carefully about how I’m reporting my stories for our readers. And your campaigning is bringing the issue to wider attention; I’ll be as interested as you are to see how NPG responds to your call for the company to ‘publicly renounce the use of licenses to control TDM’. Your examination of Elsevier’s detailed legal terms is also very useful. So, broadly, I welcome your letter.
Thank you. And I welcome your critique here. If this gets a different response from NPG over TDM licences (and nature is well placed to do so). It will have been worth while.
Except this: you have conflated your antipathy to NPG’s (and other subscription publishers’) TDM policies, with the incorrect accusations that the reporting in Nature was an attempt to promote publisher licenses, and was somehow ‘marketing … under the guise of news’. I’m pleased that you have already retracted your implication that I was involved in a marketing exercise. I hope that in future you’ll keep separate your critiques of my reporting, from your critiques of NPG policies.
I have retracted this assertion that it was deliberate. There is however a danger that any large institution becomes corporatist and institutionalist and I think publishers have to be particularly careful.
I have high regard for almost everyone I have met in NPG – Philip Campbell, Timo Hannay, the New Technology Group and now Digital Science, and the Blogs and ScienceOnline teams. I would not say the same about other TA-STM publishers. But I think Nature – as an organisation – has to be very aware of its roots in the community.

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