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Why I am disappointed with Nature Communications

24 January 2010 24 Comments

Towards the end of last year I wrote up some initial reactions to the announcement of Nature Communications and the communications team at NPG were kind enough to do a Q&A to look at some of the issues and concerns I raised. Specifically I was concerned about two things. The licence that would be used for the “Open Access” option and the way that journal would be positioned in terms of “quality”, particularly as it related to the other NPG journals and the approach to peer review.

Unfortunately I have to say that I feel these have been fudged, and this is unfortunate because there was a real opportunity here to do something different and quite exciting.  I get the impression that that may even have been the original intention. But from my perspective what has resulted is a poor compromise between my hopes and commercial concerns.

At the centre of my problem is the use of a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial licence for the “Open Access” option. This doesn’t qualify under the BBB declarations on Open Access publication and it doesn’t qualify for the SPARC seal for Open Access. But does this really matter or is it just a side issue for a bunch of hard core zealots? After all if people can see it that’s a good start isn’t it? Well yes, it is a good start but non-commercial terms raise serious problems. Putting aside the fact that there is an argument that universities are commercial entities and therefore can’t legitimately use content with non-commercial licences the problem is that NC terms limit the ability of people to create new business models that re-use content and are capable of scaling.

We need these business models because the current model of scholarly publication is simply unaffordable. The argument is often made that if you are unsure whether you are allowed to use content then you can just ask, but this simply doesn’t scale. And lets be clear about some of the things that NC means you’re not licensed for: using a paper for commercially funded research even within a university, using the content of paper to support a grant application, using the paper to judge a patent application, using a paper to assess the viability of a business idea…the list goes on and on. Yes you can ask if you’re not sure, but asking each and every time does not scale. This is the central point of the BBB declarations. For scientific communication to scale it must allow the free movement and re-use of content.

Now if this were coming from any old toll access publisher I would just roll my eyes and move on, but NPG sets itself up to be judged by a higher standard. NPG is a privately held company, not beholden to share holders. It is a company that states that it is committed to advancing scientific communication not simply traditional publication. Non-commercial licences do not do this. From the Q&A:

Q: Would you accept that a CC-BY-NC(ND) licence does not qualify as Open Access under the terms of the Budapest and Bethesda Declarations because it limits the fields and types of re-use?

A: Yes, we do accept that. But we believe that we are offering authors and their funders the choices they require.Our licensing terms enable authors to comply with, or exceed, the public access mandates of all major funders.

NPG is offering the minimum that allows compliance. Not what will most effectively advance scientific communication. Again, I would expect this of a shareholder-controlled profit-driven toll access dead tree publisher but I am holding NPG to a higher standard. Even so there is a legitimate argument to be made that non-commercial licences are needed to make sure that NPG can continue to support these and other activities. This is why I asked in the Q&A whether NPG made significant money off re-licensing of content for commercial purposes. This is a discussion we could have on the substance – the balance between a commercial entity providing a valuable service and the necessary limitations we might accept as the price of ensuring the continued provision of that service. It is a value for money judgement. But not one we can make without a clear view of the costs and benefits.

So I’m calling NPG on this one. Make a case for why non-commercial licences are necessary or even beneficial, not why they are acceptable. They damage scientific communication, they create unnecessary confusion about rights, and more importantly they damage the development of new business models to support scientific communication. Explain why it is commercially necessary for the development of these new activities, or roll it back, and take a lead on driving the development of science communication forward. Don’t take the kind of small steps we expect from other, more traditional, publishers. Above all, lets have that discussion. What is the price we would have to pay to change the license terms?

Because I think it goes deeper. I think that NPG are actually limiting their potential income by focussing on the protection of their income from legacy forms of commercial re-use. They could make more money off this content by growing the pie than by protecting their piece of a specific income stream. It goes to the heart of a misunderstanding about how to effectively exploit content on the web. There is money to be made through re-packaging content for new purposes. The content is obviously key but the real value offering is the Nature brand. Which is much better protected as a trademark than through licensing. Others could re-package and sell on the content but they can never put the Nature brand on it.

By making the material available for commercial re-use NPG would help to expand a high value market for re-packaged content which they would be poised to dominate. Sure, if you’re a business you could print off your OA Nature articles and put them on the coffee table, but if you want to present them to investors you want that Nature logo and Nature packaging that you can only get from one place.  And that NPG does damn well. NPG often makes the case that it adds value through selection, presentation, and aggregation. It is the editorial brand that is of value. Let’s see that demonstrated though monetization of the brand, rather than through unnecessarily restricting the re-use of the content, especially where authors are being charged $5000 to cover the editorial costs.

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  • http://dysplastic-brain.blogspot.com b_calder

    Consider their subsidiaries and the whole databroker business model. It isn't directly involved, but the minds that guide everything have chosen to buy into this other business. It's as if your hamburger vendor bought an undertaker, “Just in case.” And you say “In case of WHAT?” And he nods and says, “Just so.” wisely.

  • davidgerard

    This is the same reason Wikipedia considers -NC just plain not good enough. http://freedomdefined.org/NC

  • jeevan sheaker

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  • http://miningdrugs.blogspot.com/ joergkurtwegner

    For me the most critical sentence is the following, but is there sufficient data to make this point?

    “I think that NPG are actually limiting their potential income by focussing on the protection of their income from legacy forms of commercial re-use.”

  • http://cameronneylon.net Cameron Neylon

    It's a very good question – which is why I phrased it as opinion. There are many examples where it has been shown that putting material in the public domain creates more overall economic activity. James Doyle from the Center for the Study of Public Domain talks about the specfic case of meterological data where the US authority makes a much bigger return on investment than many of its European counterparts who have a tendency to try to lock down their data. Other examples where US industries have flourished without the protection of either copyright or database rights (aggregating court reports and other government data) but there are lots of confounding factors there. Very difficult to get good control data though.

    And the answer today (or last year) is probably not the same as it will be in a few years as the whole economic and funding situation shifts.

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  • http://andypowe11.net/ Andy Powell

    I wonder if there's a granularity issue here (from the perspective of NPG)?

    What we want (as scholars), I think, is that researchers can take individual articles and use them under the terms of BBB open access (i.e. that a NC restriction should not apply).

    However, I don't consider it unreasonable for NPG to try and take steps to prevent the wholesale consumption of a large collection of their articles being used to set up a commercially competitive alternative to their overall offering.

    In that sense, I think there are similar issues here to those with the licences that OCLC tried to assert on their library catalogue (WorldCat) records.

    What CC offers us, a simple C vs NC divide, is perhaps too simplistic??

  • http://cameronneylon.net Cameron Neylon

    Andy, from a business perspective it is not unreasonable for a publisher to try and maintain exclusivity any more than you would expect any business to try and avoid becoming a monopoly player. But from the perspective of creating and protecting a knowledge commons any limitations on rights to use and re-use are extremely problematic. As soon as you try to limit types of or classes of re-use you have split the commons. This is why, amongst any other disagreements, Science Commons and Open Knowledge Foundation agree strongly that non-commercial terms are so dangerous. The consequences are difficult to predict precisely but you can be confident that they will limit the ability of entrepreneurs, as well as incumbent businesses, to develop new forms of business models.

    More complex licences are the last thing we need. No-one understands non-commercial terms as it is, make them more granular and no-one will be happy except the lawyers. None of which should be taken as saying that NPG don't have a perfect right to do whatever they please to protect their business. I just think the approach is misguided from a long term business perspective, and not compatible with the mission of an organisation that holds the advancement of scientific communication at its heart.