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Scientific journal Nature is making its papers free to read

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  1. The scientific journal Nature will make all of its academic papers free for the public to read, its publisher announced on December 1.
  2. Nature subscribers and media outlets will be able to share a link to a viewable — but not downloadable or printable — copy of any paper in the journal.
  3. The one-year pilot program also includes 48 other journals from the same publisher, such as Nature Medicine and Nature Genetics.
  4. More and more scientific journals are moving toward free public access — partially in response to pressure from organizations that have funded the research in the first place (including the US government).

How the new Nature policy works

The new policy doesn't mean that just anyone can log onto Nature.com and read whatever they want. To see a paper, you first need a web link to it. And the only people who can create those web links are Nature's subscribers and people from 100 media outlets and blogs.

Still, it's likely that links to digital papers will increasingly get passed around in news stories and blog posts and via social media.

The new policy covers not just Nature, but also 48 other scientific journals owned by the same publisher. That publisher, Macmillan, has a financial stake in the ReadCube platform that will be hosting the papers.

Nature Publishing Group CEO Steven Inchcoombe described the program as an experiment. Throughout the year, they will be tracking the identities of the papers shared and the subscribers who shared them and keeping an eye out for misuse, according to John Bohannon at Science Insider.

This move could be seen as a win for a growing movement called "open access" — which promotes making research findings and data freely available to the public. But not everyone's so sure. Richard Van Noorden at Nature News notes that this open-viewing system could possibly diminish the old practice of passing around printable pdfs, which is arguably more flexible. (Nature currently lets scientists share pdfs of their own manuscripts after an exclusive period of six months has elapsed.)

The growing trend toward open access

Researchers generally want their papers to be read by as many people as possible. But the journals that publish those papers are, in many cases, for-profit institutions — and they prefer charging for access.

Lately, however, the Open Access movement has been fighting to make more and more research free to the public. And they're succeeding — with some really high profile successes recently.

In 2008, the National Institutes of Health began requiring papers generated by the research it funds (which is taxpayer money) to be freely available to the public a year after publication or earlier.

And in November 2014, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which spends about $900 million each year on global-health research, announced that starting in 2017 it will require research it funds to be published in a manner that's free for the public to read. Not only that, but the articles will have to be free for anyone to use or build upon in any way, including for commercial purposes.

What does the Open Access landscape look like? Here's a snapshot of what was freely available to the public in 2010, sorted by discipline:

Open Access 2010

(Policy Guidelines for the Development and Promotion of Open Access, UNESCO)

The big black line shows the percentage of papers in all subjects published between 1998 and 2006 that was freely available. But there's also great variation between different types of research. Topping the open list are mathematics, social sciences, and Earth sciences — each has 30 percent or more of its 2006 papers free. But compare that to clinical medicine, which is less than 5 percent.

Some of this variation is because of different research cultures. For example, many physicists have been posting pre-publication manuscripts on a public website called arXiv since 1991, so it's not a surprise that physics (designated by blue crosses on the chart) also tends to have more of its peer-reviewed papers freely available.

By contrast, clinical medicine and biomedical papers were some of the least likely to be freely available — at least when this chart was made. One possible reason why? Many medical institutions are willing to pay big bucks for access.

It's worth noting that even that is changing, however. The new policy from the National Institutes of Health (and the Gates Foundation) has opened up a large chunk of biomedical research.

The chart comes from a 2012 UNESCO report on the practice of open access, which the organization strongly encourages as a way to spread knowledge and information worldwide:

Through Open Access, researchers and students from around the world gain increased access to knowledge, publications receive greater visibility and readership, and the potential impact of research is heightened. Increased access to, and sharing of knowledge leads to opportunities for equitable economic and social development, intercultural dialogue, and has the potential to spark innovation.

Further reading: Hat tip to Cristobal Cobo for calling my attention to this chart. Go to his website for a discussion of various business models that could keep open publishing sustainable.