Scientific papers take a step outside Nature's paywall

A prestigious scientific journal, faced with pressure from paper-sharing sites on the Internet, has made it possible for subscribers to grant others access.

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Using technology from ReadCube, subscribers can grant others free access to scientific papers in Nature and 14 other journals. Without the sharing, people can buy access to individual papers.
Using technology from ReadCube, subscribers can grant others free access to scientific papers in Nature and 14 other journals. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

One of the most prestigious scientific journals, Nature, has embraced the share button to liberalize access to research papers that previously were available only to those who paid.

The journal's publisher, Macmillan Science and Education, announced Tuesday that subscribers now can share specific papers from Nature and 14 other journals at the company's Nature.com website. Subscribers to Nature and 49 other journals may share articles with others using technology from ReadCube, but those others can't copy, print or download the papers unless they pay.

It's an important shift for a community that has struggled to balance the restrictions of the publishing business with a centuries-old scientific culture based on information sharing. It's the Internet, of course, that's forcing the issue for publishers.

Scientific journals play a crucial role in disseminating information in the research world, letting scientists keep abreast of developments in their fields. But the expense of journal subscriptions limits who can see those papers. As a result, many researchers have turned to Internet sites like Arxiv, the Public Library of Science (PLOS), PubMed Central (PMC) and Academia.edu, which grant free access to papers.

Mamillan evidently is feeling the pressure.

"Nature was established in 1869 to help scientists share, and to bring science to the public. In today's global, Internet-enabled world, we think we can meet the needs of science and society better," said Steven Inchcoombe, chief executive of Nature Publishing Group, in a statement. "We know researchers are already sharing content, but not always optimally. We're committed to adapting to meet the needs of the community."

As the music and movie industries have shown, it's been tough to bottle up information once it's in digital form. And researchers, sometimes funded by governments for the public good, are often more keen to share their findings than Sony is to have its latest movies leak, for example.

Journals play an important role besides just publishing papers, though. They also organize and oversee the peer-review process under which researchers scrutinize papers to make sure they're up to snuff. Journals serve another editorial role, too, by selecting papers based on quality and importance. It's not easy to get a paper published in Nature, but a paper published there can carry more weight than one just shared online.

It's a role that continues to be important. Even Paul Ginsparg, a Cornell University physicist who founded the LANL Preprint Archive in 1991, which later grew into Cornell's Arxiv, sees journals as important. Arxiv publishes preprints -- the versions of papers that haven't necessarily passed the peer-review process.

"The easy part is the archiving and dissemination. The expensive part is the quality control," Ginsparg said. "We do know that researchers want the quality control. They're perfectly happy to use Arxiv for most things to get the instant dissemination and archival accessibility, but they're also submitting simultaneously to conventional journals."

Macmillan also won an endorsement from Nigel Shadbolt, co-founder of the Open Data Institute and a University of Southampton professor in the field of artificial intelligence. He said in a statement:

I'm impressed that Macmillan Science and Education has taken this step to make their content more shareable, and they should be applauded for taking a significant step towards greater openness. This will extend the reach of scientific articles and the research results they contain, making them more widely available across the world. I'm looking forward to seeing how today's announcement forces the pace of change in the academic publishing community. I anticipate the day when a majority of articles and supporting research data are published openly by default.