Two days ago Nature/Macmillan (heareafter "Nature") announced a new form of "access" (or better "barrier") to scientific scholarship - "SciShare". It's utterly unacceptable in several ways and Michael Eisen, Ross Mounce ("beggars-access") have castigated it; Glyn Moody gathers these and adds his own, always spot-on, analysis (http://www.computerworlduk.com/blogs/open-enterprise/open-access-3589444/).
Please read Glyn (and Michael and Ross). I won't repeat their analyses. TL;DR Macmillan have unilaterally "made all articles free to view". The scholarly poor have to find a rich academic and beg them for a DRM'ed copy of a paper. This copy:
- cannot be printed
- cannot be downloaded
- cannot be cut and pasted
- CANNOT BE READ BY BLIND PEOPLE OR VISUALLY IMPAIRED
- CANNOT BE READ BY MACHINES (i.e all semantics are destroyed)
- Cannot be read on mobile devices (which are common in the Global Soutrh)
There are so many reasons why this is odious - here are some more beyond Michael, Ross and Glyn...
- It announces, arrogantly, that Nature makes the rules for the scientific community. Publishers have a role (possibly) in the digital age in promoting communication, but Nature has now no role for me. It's now an analogue of Apple in telecoms - unaswerable to anyone (Macmillan is a private company).
- Like Apple, Nature now intends to sell its "products" as a branded empire. (Recall that the authors write the papers, the reviewers review them, all for free. The taxpayer and the students pay Macmillan for the privilege of having this published. Earlier Nature said it costs about 20,000 USD to publish a paper - it costs arxiv 7 USD and Cameron Neylon's estimate is that it shoudl be about 400 +- 50 %. This huge figure is simply for branding - in the same way that people pay huge anounts for branded H2O+CO2. Private empires are very very bad for a just society.
- It is deeply wrenchingly divisive. Some of us are struggling to reach science out to citizens - to create systems where there is joint ownership of the scientific knowledge of the planet - a planet which badly needs it. Nature has created an underclass who are expected to grovel to the academics, some of whom are arrogant enough already. It perpetuates the dea that science is only done in rich Western universities of the global North. This is not a mistake; Timo Hannay of Digital Science (part of Macmillan) wrote recently that there was too much science to publish and the way forward was to have an elite set of journals for the "best" science and an underclass (my word) for the rest. In fact Nature does not publish better science than other journals and actually has a higher retraction rate (Bjorn Brembs' work).
- It is highly likely to create incompatible platform-empires of the sort we see in mobile phones. ReadCube is a Digital Science company. Will Elsevier or the ACS use it and handing over control of publication to the monopoly of a competitor. Increasingly those who control the means of communication influence the way we work, think and act. ReadCube destroys our freedom. So 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.
- It destroys semantics. Simply, it says that if a sighted human can read it, that's good enough. This takes us back 30 years. It's been difficult enough to convince scientists that semantics are important - that we should publish our data and text so that machines can't read and understand. At a time when scientific output is increasing too fast for single humans to understand, we desperately need machines to help us. And Nature says - "get lost".
- Of course there will be machines to "help" scientists (but not citizens) read science. They'll be controlled by Nature (through Digital Science) or Elsevier (through Mendeley and whoever else it buys up). Their machines will tell us how to think. Or cut us out completely...
So I'm very angry. To see corporates who don't care destroyingthe basis of modern scientific information. I'm used to being angry.
But in this case I'm also sad. Sad, because I used to work with Nature; because I respected Timo Hannay's vision. We had joint projects together, they financed summer students and were industrial partners in an EPSRC project. I used to praise them. And I was honoured to be invited 3 times to SciFoo, run by Google, Timo and Tim O'Reilly.
And I was proud that two of my group went to work with Digital Science.
But now it's clear that Digital Science doesn't care about people - only about technology to control and generate income. Nature's New Technology Group used to produce experiments - Coonotea, Urchin, ... that were useful to the community - and they were good experiments.
But no longer. I'm considering whether Nature are in the same position as Elsevier - where we boycott them - refuse to review, to author. It's close, and the decision may depend on whether they take notice of the current criticism.
But what makes me even sadder is that Nigel Shadbolt - who I also know - has praised Macmillan's venture "Sir @Nigel_Shadbolt endorses our #SciShare initiative... @npgnews @digitalsci" https://twitter.com/MacmillanSandE/status/539774902526824448/photo/1 . I can't cut and paste what Nigel has said because, like ReadCube, it's an image. It's non semantic. It's useless for blind people. And Nigel has masses of gushing praise for how this advances scientific communication.
Which makes me very very sad.