Saturday, January 29, 2011

Nature's publishing machine really wants you to pay for stuff, even if it is supposed to be free #OA #fb

Well, this is annoying. I recently published a paper in Nature for which I was senior and corresponding author on "A phylogeny driven genomic encyclopedia of bacteria and archaea." Though I did not want to submit it to Nature, the project involved a large large large number of other people and in fairness to their contribution to the project I agreed to submit it to Nature. However, the reason I agreed in the end was that Nature said they would use their Genome Paper open license for it. For papers reporting genome sequence data, Nature claims to make the papers available at no charge and supposedly uses a Creative Commons license for publishing the paper. In addition, I note, that as the work was done my many US Government employees, we did not sign over Copyright to Nature.

On the html version of the paper, this "semi-openness" of the paper is described:
"This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike licence (, which permits distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. This licence does not permit commercial exploitation, and derivative works must be licensed under the same or similar licence."
Other than the strange spelling of license, this seems good. However, Nature's machine seems to not be set up to make the copyright/license issues clear in every place/way. For example: if you go to the Nature site for my paper, it seems Nature is now claiming Copyright for the paper. For example see the PDF here.

And then if you click on the "Rights" link from the paper you get this which makes no mention of the Creative Commons license:

But wait. It gets better. If you go through the rights page and fill out the form asking to use the paper in an academic setting, you find out it will cost hundreds of dollars to use, according to this:

I suppose you could say that this all could be part of the Nature publishing machine just making a mistake here or there.  In fact, I would bet that this is in essence what has happened.  The system is designed for articles for which Nature holds the Copyright and has the rights to sell.  And the papers that do not follow that model get caught up in the machinery.  Nevertheless, it is annoying.  And it  makes me worry a bit about what is going to happen with Nature's new supposedly "open access" journal "Scientific Reports" which actually is not quite as open as it might seem. (The journal uses a somewhat restrictive Creative Commons license which does not fit the standard definition of "Open Access").

This seems to be YARFOA - Yet another reason for (full) open access.  If you set something free, even if someone claimed they had rights to it, it would seem more obvious to everyone out there that such a claim would be inappropriate.

I note - I am not saying Nature is trying to steal rights here.  In fact, in the past Nature has done a decent job at making sure that papers that were supposed to be available at no cost were.  For example, I looked into papers I published in Nature that Nature told us would be freely available for ever more?  This is what we were told for papers reporting genome sequence data years ago.  It was a very nice policy of Nature's that helped spread knowledge about genome papers and also helped convince me publishing in Nature was not so bad in terms of openness while I was starting to become a more openaccess advocate.  So I decided to take a look at some of the papers that I was an author on that were supposedly made freely available forever.  Here is a sampling:
Every once in a while, I had noticed in the past some of these papers were not freely available and Nature quickly corrected this so I do think they are trying not to violate their commitments.  But again, in their system, buying access is a key component and alas if the switch is going to be set wrong, it seems that it is set on "you have to pay for this" as a default.  I hope they use a different default setting for their new semi-open journal ....  

Meanwhile, if you want to do something non -commercial with our paper, feel free to do so, regardless of what the Nature website says.  


  1. Ouch, that hurts! The first copyright notice might just be bad boilerplate, but the rest seems deliberate.

    In British English and many of its derivatives, the noun (a licence) is distinguished from the verb (to license) by how it's spelled. Americans have lost that useful distinction.

  2. I hope that you inquire about it and let us know.

  3. I think it is mostly reflecting a real drive to get these things right. They are likely fighting their own corporate software which was design that charge, charge, charge. At some point they decided to change the rules (or forced to), but rewriting large corporate software is impossible, so they patch where they can. What they need is unit tests to run every day, to make sure the the HTML returned by the corporate software is doing the right thing. In fact, anyone can run such tests, and report. It will make a nice graph showing how often these kind of mistakes happen over a year.


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