Macmillan may now offer ‘free access’, but is it really open?

Just make your access open, and do away with the silly wrapper. biblioteekje, CC BY-NC-SA

Earlier this week the publisher Macmillan announced (in somewhat breathless prose) that subscribers to 49 of its Nature journals would be able to share links to the full text of articles that would otherwise be locked behind a subscription paywall.

This sounds like an admirable move – after all, reporting of science in the mainstream media can be extremely poor when it prioritises sensationalist headlines over accuracy. This is made worse by the inability of the media and the public to access scientific research or provide useful references to supporting material. There’s also the question of cost: even many universities themselves cannot afford to buy all the subscriptions their researchers need to do their work. So Macmillan’s decision is a step in the right direction.

However, in a way that will perhaps not be surprising to those versed in academic publishing politics, this has not met with universal warmth. In fact a number of hashtags quickly circulated on Twitter disparaging the effort, including #brokenaccess (Mike Taylor), #beggaraccess (Ross Mounce) and #nopenaccess (David Carroll).

Each of these tags is a pun on the name of the open access movement, which seeks to make academic research freely available. The call for open access has gained considerable traction over the past decade and it is now the policy of many bodies to require researchers to publish openly if they accept public funds.

However in this case, the critics’ gripe is that Macmillan’s policy falls far short of their ideals. The new scheme, initially a one-year trial, requires a paid-up subscriber or institution to share a link – and some media outlets have also been granted rights to do so. The material, in other words, is not available for anyone to just find and read. Nor is the archive material openly licensed, which makes it hard – if not impossible – for those wishing to use programmatic techniques to scan the literature.

The access is also stipulated as being only for personal, non-commercial purposes and it disallows printing or saving. And lastly, the material in question is presented through Macmillan’s proprietary software viewer, rather than a standard web browser – an approach derided for being overly restrictive and also incompatible with assisted reading software for partially-sighted and blind people.

More vociferous critics feel Macmillan is using these half-measures as a substitute for full open access, rather than a move towards it. Something for which there is precedent: in evidence to the House of Commons in 2004, Nature Group claimed that to go open access, it would require a fee of £30,000 per paper published. When asked to justify this figure, its response was: “The £30,000 figure was arrived at simply by dividing the annual income of Nature (£30m) by the number of research papers published (1,000).”

Among the most strident critics of their recent initiative is Michael Eisen, who branded Macmillan’s offering as “a pretty cynical move”. To Eisen’s mind, the direction is wrong. As he writes: “First we had ‘open access’ in which people can download, read, reuse and redistribute content … Now we have ‘free access’ in which people can read for free in a proprietary browser, and can’t download or print”.

Eisen is most well known for co-founding the immensely successful open-access publisher, the Public Library of Science (PLOS). Macmillan’s trumpeting claims of “groundbreaking” and “unprecedented” must ring somewhat hollow in his ears: PLOS was groundbreaking and unprecedented; Macmillan is merely playing catch up: the Nature Group (owned by Macmillan) launched its open access Scientific Reports journal, and the group’s Nature Communications journal is due to be made open access in 2015.

The unstoppable rise of research published in open access journals. Laakso, M, Björk, BC, CC BY

But while it’s possible to see this as a cynical move or less then fully desirable, we should also acknowledge that it represents progress. In offering its content to read, free and in full, Macmillan has acknowledged the contradictions in its model. As Annette Thomas, the CEO of Macmillan Science and Education, stated in the announcement, the company claims “to serve the information needs of researchers”.

If researchers cannot get access, then those needs are not being met. Likewise, Steven Inchcoombe, the CEO of Nature Publishing Group noted that “scientists have always shared their work, it is essential to advancing progress”.

So even if the solution Macmillan has proposed is far from ideal, the cat is out of the bag. Paywalls are simply incompatible with serving the “information needs of researchers” if they block the search for information.

Call it cynical. Call it beggar/broken/nopen access. Continue to protest for open access in full. But what it looks like to me is something else: King Canute standing before the sea and commanding that it recede, knowing full well its impossibility – and acknowledging the greater good that is served by opening up the fruits of our scientific and scholarly labour to all.

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