Nature's fauxpen access leaves me very sad and very angry.

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.

 

 

 

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24 Responses to Nature's fauxpen access leaves me very sad and very angry.

  1. Henry Rzepa says:

    I had a good look at ReadCube, the walled-garden container for articles that is part of the "free access" announcement. It is indeed DRM-armour. If you download the software, it immediately becomes apparent you cannot launch it without either creating an account or using eg Google+ to enter the garden. So, no true anonymity there then? Once in, you can get it to scoop up all your drive-resident PDFs, and it proceeds to harvest the metadata for each of them. Title, authors, keywords, and probably more. This appears to be then sent to the cloud, since you can access it from any device (for which ReadCube is supported). Much like Mendeley. And we presume that Nature/Macmillan has access to this data (the privacy statement, which is available in very small print if you hunt for it, asserts that the metadata is anonymised before being aggregated). What happens to this (meta)data after the individual has (possibly unknowingly) contributed to this aggregation? We might presume that acquiring this data is core to the business plan for launching this project.

    "Nature makes the rules for the scientific community. " Well certainly, the user appears to have little control over what a tool such as ReadCube does, silently, when running.

    I am certainly with Peter here in wondering quite where the ethos and practice of doing science is going.

  2. Michel Wesseling says:

    I can only share your anger and sadness. The battle for real OA should be taken up even more drstically. There is a 19 billion market for scientific journals, with --as an example Elsevier-- making 34% PBT.

  3. Henry Rzepa says:

    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.

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  6. Timo Hannay says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for your comments, though I think you're being far too negative. I havea longer post here, but to respond to a few of your specific points:

    * Nature already does a lot to provide machine-readable data (see http://data.nature.com/) and content that's accessible to disabled and other disadvantaged readers (e.g. those on poor countries). This initiative wasn't set up to solve those particular problems, though I should mention that the shareable article pages use HTML5, so from a web standards points of view they are better (IMHO) than PDFs. That said, I’ll look into what we can do to make the shareable article pages useful to screen readers.

    * In what way does this announce "that Nature makes the rules for the scientific community"? Its just a new feature on nature.com. If you don't like it then don't use it, but nothing you could do last week is any harder for you to do this week.

    * You misunderstand and therefore misrepresent my opinion about elite journals and how many papers should be published. I argued (see http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/aug/05/why-we-should-publish-less-scientific-research) that more research should be published, but that most of it should be published in more machine-readable forms than journals currently allow. Based on our previous discussions, I would have expected you to largely agree with this, but I guess I didn't make my point clearly enough.

    * I completely agree that we don't want to see a platform battle in this space. ReadCube uses web standards (see above) and already serves over 30 journal publishers, but my professional responsibilities notwithstanding, it's more important to me that the industry settles on a common approach that serves researchers’ interests than for everyone to use ReadCube.

    Once again, I appreciate your comments and I hope we can find some common ground on this topic.

    Best,

    Timo

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks Timo,

      >>Thanks for your comments, though I think you're being far too negative. I havea longer post here, but to respond to a few of your specific points:

      I'll respond to it

      >>* Nature already does a lot to provide machine-readable data (see http://data.nature.com/) and content that's accessible to disabled and other disadvantaged readers (e.g. those on poor countries). This initiative wasn't set up to solve those particular problems, though I should mention that the shareable article pages use HTML5, so from a web standards points of view they are better (IMHO) than PDFs. That said, I’ll look into what we can do to make the shareable article pages useful to screen readers.

      Thank you.

      >>* In what way does this announce "that Nature makes the rules for the scientific community"? Its just a new feature on nature.com. If you don't like it then don't use it, but nothing you could do last week is any harder for you to do this week.

      I'll address this. It's not just Nature. But this was unilateral, without any consultation.

      >>* You misunderstand and therefore misrepresent my opinion about elite journals and how many papers should be published. I argued (see http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/aug/05/why-we-should-publish-less-scientific-research) that more research should be published, but that most of it should be published in more machine-readable forms than journals currently allow. Based on our previous discussions, I would have expected you to largely agree with this, but I guess I didn't make my point clearly enough.

      I have clearly misunderstood it. I will re-read with a deliberately sympathetic eye.

      >>* I completely agree that we don't want to see a platform battle in this space. ReadCube uses web standards (see above) and already serves over 30 journal publishers, but my professional responsibilities notwithstanding, it's more important to me that the industry settles on a common approach that serves researchers’ interests than for everyone to use ReadCube.

      >> Once again, I appreciate your comments and I hope we can find some common ground on this topic.

      As I said I respect you greatly. I believe your believe what you say. But that isn't enough as I'll explain

  7. Timo Hannay says:

    Hi again Peter.

    I promised to look into the screen reader question. Having spoken with the ReadCube team about this, we believe that these article pages should work with screen readers and our (admittedly non-comprehensive) testing seems to confirm this. They're just HTML5 pages and the text is not obfuscated or encrypted. In any case, it's certainly not our intention to prevent them working with screen readers, so anyone who has problems can write to "support AT readcube DOT com" and we'll look into it.

    Thanks for raising this important question.

    Best wishes,

    Timo

  8. Henry Rzepa says:

    Timo,

    I am not sure I understand your statement "Having spoken with the ReadCube team about this, we believe that these article pages should work with screen readers and our (admittedly non-comprehensive) testing seems to confirm this. They're just HTML5 pages and the text is not obfuscated or encrypted."

    In http://www.nature.com/news/nature-promotes-read-only-sharing-by-subscribers-1.16460 we read that freeview articles "cannot be... copied, printed or downloaded"

    There are occasional suggestions that the successors to HTML5 should have some form of DRM which might limit one's ability to view the markup source code, and possibly restrict printing or downloading, but that is not currently the case. So if one is screen reading, there is nothing to prevent that screen from being eg printed (or its source copied)? Of course, even if the content finds itself inside a DRMed environment where eg printing is disabled, one could always invoke a screen dump. I presume any such action might be considered a contravention of the conditions accepted at the start?

    I would like an explicit answer to my other query: is there the equivalent of "private browsing" in ReadCube, whereby one can be assured that NO information about this activity is being captured and sent elsewhere (anonymised or not)? I appreciate that one might simply pull the ethernet cable or switch off the WiFi to ensure this, but that would be an unreasonable solution to ensuring private reading.

    • Timo Hannay says:

      Hi Henry,

      Thanks for seeking clarification on these points.

      As I said, the shareable article pages are just HTML5 formatted to look like the PDF (because the PDF view is evidently what most readers want). There's no DRM in the cryptographic sense that that term is usually used: the text is in the web page, making it searchable, indexable and accessible to screen readers. We also use HTML5 features to provide functionality not available in the PDF, such as links to related resources, in-line reference details, and user highlights/annotations. Given that they're not actually PDFs, you obviously can't use these pages to download the PDF. Also, in order to make the pages consistent with NPG's sharing policy, we've used HTML5 to disable copying and printing. As you suggest there are potential workarounds, but anyone going to those lengths may well be better off just searching for a free copy of the PDF instead. True, either of those approaches would technically against NPG's terms of use, but unless you're doing them on an industrial scale and/or for commercial purposes, the chances of NPG actually doing anything about it seem slim. (Please note: IANAL, still less an NPG lawyer, and I do not speak for NPG; I'm just giving my personal view based on experience.)

      Regarding your second question, ReadCube doesn't currently have a 'private' mode, but it's certainly something we've discussed. We appreciate that people value their privacy and we like the idea of allowing users to opt out of tracking. But that would also inhibit our ability to provide features like personalised recommendations, as well as our ability to simply understand how people use our product so that we can make it better for them. Other comparable products certainly do a lot of tracking, making it the de facto norm in this area. But it's a complex issue and personally I'd value a debate to clarify what people expect and what's appropriate for products like ReadCube.

      I hope that helps.

      Best wishes,

      Timo

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  10. Timo Hannay says:

    Peter,

    I'd like to respond to your comment: "It's not just Nature. But this was unilateral, without any consultation."

    On what basis do you say that? In fact, Nature Publishing Group and Digital Science spoke with plenty of researchers, librarians and other publishers before we released these features. Now NPG has engaged in a self-declared experiment and is listening to feedback. Also, I'm sitting here in the middle of the night trying to respond to your criticisms. I'd call that pretty open.

    Best wishes

    Timo

    • pm286 says:

      I will attempt to be objective in my reply which I will blog later...

      >>On what basis do you say that? In fact, Nature Publishing Group and Digital Science spoke with plenty of researchers, librarians and other publishers before we released these features.

      It would be useful to see these. I am not expecting to be personally consulted, but I would like to see what concerns were raised.

      >>Now NPG has engaged in a self-declared experiment and is listening to feedback.

      In that case I am glad. The hype (especially from Nature News which seriously misreported the facts) was one-sided. It is difficult to distinguish between an experiment and a new-product-plug...

      I am particularly concerned about Nature News. They misreported text mining earlier this year in favour of the publishing industry. I wrote to Philip Campbell twice and , although he got it, he didn't reply. Now Mature News has seriously misreported this experiment. and had to retract. At best it's unprofessional. The world can be excused for being completely confused about what is and what is not the case.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        While we're criticising recent Nature News articles, I might mention the clickbait title "Open access is tiring out peer reviewers" on this article: http://www.nature.com/news/open-access-is-tiring-out-peer-reviewers-1.16403

        Whatever else is happening here, it's clear that Nature News is eroding its reputation as a sober, unbiased source of science news.

        More positively, it's great to see Timo Hannay's comments and explanations here and elsewhere -- a rare and very welcome example of someone in his position genuinely engaging with a disgruntled community.

  11. Henry Rzepa says:

    Thanks Timo.

    So just so no confusion remains, the HTML5-based screen view option DOES implement DRM to prevent copying and printing (presumably not using HTML5 per se but via Javascript functionality). One might imagine that these restrictions would also prevent eg text or content mining of the article (unless presumably via any API provided and controlled by the publisher).

    Re Other comparable products certainly do a lot of tracking, making it the de facto norm in this area. I would note that nowadays, most HTML5 Web browsers DO have some sort of privacy mode (although arguably a weak one), but that this took years to achieve. At least there are now niche browsers which exists precisely because they provide strong private browsing for those who especially value it. In the case of ReadCube, it seems unlikely that any independent viewer of FreeView Nature articles might emerge which would offer private viewing; we are entirely in your hands for that provision.

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  13. r says:

    Recently an invitation from a similar legacy publisher was received, to review a journal article. Since the terms of publication were not declared, an offer was made to review either gratis for open access, or a nominal fee for subscription access.

    Reviewers and authors have to avoid these publishers. However, promotion seems based upon publication in said journals...therein lies a problem.

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