Nature makes a big change

This is a surprise: Nature has gone to a limited open access model. Or has it?

All research papers from Nature will be made free to read in a proprietary screen-view format that can be annotated but not copied, printed or downloaded, the journal’s publisher Macmillan announced on 2 December.

The content-sharing policy, which also applies to 48 other journals in Macmillan’s Nature Publishing Group (NPG) division, including Nature Genetics, Nature Medicine and Nature Physics, marks an attempt to let scientists freely read and share articles while preserving NPG’s primary source of income — the subscription fees libraries and individuals pay to gain access to articles.

I just tried it from home, and was disappointed. I went to a random article, and there are new options: you can subscribe to Nature for a year for $199, or you can buy an individual article PDF for $18, or you can…buy 48 hour ReadCube access for $4.99.

Somebody needs to tell Nature that $4.99 is not “free”.

Or maybe there’s something I’m missing. Try going to Nature and browsing their articles, and let me know if there is some trick to it all.

Michael Eisen explains it. You peons don’t actually have free access. Gatekeepers, a few institutions given the ability and people who already subscribe, have the power to get links to ReadCube versions of the articles that they can then share with others.

It seems silly. So, if someone asks me, a person with institutional access to the journal, for a copy of a given article, I have a choice: I can download and send them the pdf I am able to get for free, or I can send them the more limited link to a ReadCube version of the article. Why would I do the latter? It’s kind of insulting.

It might be useful in a blog post if I could provide ReadCube links to articles I write about. It’s still a strange way to manage content, and clearly, as they state upfront, it’s to protect their financial interests.

OK, let’s try it. I logged in to my institutional account, picked a random article, and got a ReadCube link to it. Here it is: A beast of the southern wild. Can everyone read it now?


  1. raym says

    The headline reads thus:
    Publisher permits subscribers and media to share read-only versions of its papers.

    Note the word ‘subscribers’.

  2. mal099 says

    There is something you’re missing… sorta. I haven’t tried it out yet, but as the article states, you, as a subscriber, can get a link for any article, and you can then share the link with anyone. So if your normal person off the street wants access, they either need to know someone who is a subscriber, or search the Internet for a link that has already been shared. How is this different from you just sharing a PDF file as you already had the opportunity, you may ask? Well, it’s more legal this way, and also more annoying because of their proprietary software thing.
    Also, Nature has investments in this proprietary software thing and really wants to force people to install it.

  3. Marshall handheld Flax says

    Is this proprietary reader compatible with screen readers for blind users? I doubt it!

  4. mal099 says

    Don’t know. Getting to those links seems sorta hard too. Found a comment on reddit explaining it, maybe there’s an easier way:

    “It does seem to work. This is a link to an article in this week’s edition:

    I first tried to access the full text in incognito mode through the Nature website and was unable to do so. Then I checked to see if I had access through my institution, which I did.

    To share the link, I had to have a) a ReadCube account, b) ReadCube installed on computer, and c) the PDF downloaded from the institutional website. Then I was able to add the PDF to ReadCube (like any reference manager). When I click on the title in ReadCube, a sidebar pops up with options to annotate, cite and share.

    Edit: I tested the link in incognito, and it looks like it works.”

  5. Ben Wright says

    Meanwhile, in the real world, if an academic wants to share a paper with anyone, they just email the damn pdf and have done with it.

    I can’t imagine what management buffoonery makes people think anyone would be prepared to put up with this kind of nonsense instead. Particularly when something like Zotero can attach the pdf to share with anyone you invite to your Zotero group.

  6. anym says

    Can everyone read it now?

    I get to see a single page (27 NOVEMBER 2014 | VOL 515 | NATURE | 495) with text and pictures and stuff. Only the one page though, which means I can’t see all of the article. Is that just the way it works, or did you just share a single page link? (or is the platform a bit buggy?)

    #3, Marshall handheld Flax:

    Is this proprietary reader compatible with screen readers for blind users? I doubt it!

    I don’t have a screenreader, but I can tell you that the readcube stuff appears to use javascript for presentation rather than a proprietary plugin, and I am able to freely copy and paste text and the web-browsers increase/decrease font size controls affect the output. So screen readers may not be totally out of luck.

  7. mkoormtbaalt says

    With your new link, I get to see page 495, a blurred out page 496 (I think), and options to pay money. I tried signing in to see if that would change anything and it did not. $4.99 for a 48-hour rental, $9.99 for cloud access, and $18 to buy the PDF.

  8. mkoormtbaalt says

    Oh wait. There was a tab I missed on the ReadCube interface. If I install their app I can supposedly read it, but this seems basically useless to me so I’m no longer going to bother.

  9. anym says

  10. Merlin says

    From your link I get the first page, then the second half of the article is blurred and I get a sidebar asking me to pay them money.

  11. wcorvi says

    You should be able to go to a library which subscribes to the journal, and download the pdf file for free. This is no worse than going there to photocopy the article, and has the advantage that subscriptions are much less expensive, so more libraries will have them. I hope.

  12. lesofa says

    I can see the whole article from PZ’s link. I’m using Firefox with no add-ons and I didn’t install or sign up for anything.

  13. inflection says

    I can see the ReadCube article without signing in to anything — although I am browsing from a university IP, which might plausibly have been given access for some other reason.

  14. Mikel Zaratiegui says

    Same as Merlin, and I’m in an institution with full access subscription to Nature.

    However, pdf for 18$ is getting closer to the impulse buy area. 2$ and I’d buy it. They’d make oodles of money that way, from people that can’t be bothered VPNning back to their institutions while on the road.

  15. magistramarla says

    I’m using Firefox, and I was only able to see only the first page, with a menu of prices to rent or buy the pdf on the left hand side.

  16. scottjohnson says

    PZ- You have to grab a different link. If you click the sharing icon next to the email button (top right), it should generate a unique, shareable link at the top.

  17. says

    It doesn’t support reading through a mobile device browser (using my iPhone right now). But there’s a ReadCube app I can download for free.

  18. Usernames! ☞ ♭ says


    …proprietary screen-view format that can be annotated but not copied, printed or downloaded…

    Translated from marketing babble: “We don’t know how technology works, but our vendor said no one can break our ‘elite’ security!”

    I note that with a bit of fiddling, one can grab the underlying assets used to render the page…
    — anym (#9)

    Ding, ding, ding! WINNER!!

  19. says

    #18: Ah, OK. Found that. I’ve replaced the link to “beast” with the shareable link now, so it should work for everyone. I hope.

    It’s weirdly convoluted. Far easier to just grab the whole PDF.

  20. Usernames! ☞ ♭ says

    Okay, I spent about 15 minutes hacking out a 9-line script and got it all. The formatting bugs are because I don’t care to do a little more work to make it pretty. Here’s a sample:

    ANNE WEIL W hat were the gondwanatheres? Even the
    palaeontologists who study them have been wondering for decades. Restricted
    to the southern conti- nents, the Gondwanatheria were a mammalian
    oddity that have been found in mid-Creta- ceous to early Eocene sediments
    from around 110 million years ago up to 45 million years ago. Until now,
    they were known only from the most fragmentary pieces — teeth here and
    there, and, rarely, a piece of mandible. Their distinc- tive, specialized,
    high-crowned cheek teeth revealed them to be omnivores and herbivores,
    but obscured their relationship to other mem- bers of the mammalian
    tree. The discovery of an entire skull of a new gondwanathere genus
    and species, preserved in three dimensions and described by…

    Thanks for playing, Nature. How much money did you spend to implement your “security”?

  21. Kevin Kehres says

    I got the whole article. Couldn’t kluge my way into a solution of copying anything from it.

    For someone like me, who makes his living using stuff published in the scientific literature, this is slightly more helpful than reading the abstract. In order to use the material, I still have to pay for the article…but I guess with articles that don’t have abstracts, it’s better than the “nothing” that’s currently available. Frankly, I usually ignore articles without abstracts because they’re usually letters or commentary or otherwise not original research.

    I’ll let you know. My guess is that I’ll probably use it once or twice a year. Nature Medicine’s a pretty good journal. Nature is too, but rarely publishes anything in my current field.

  22. Ben Lutgens says

    Looks like I just get 2 pages of it. I too think Nature needs to look up what Free actually means.

  23. joeschoeler says

    Works for me in Chromium and Internet Explorer, but when I try in Firefox or Iceweasel (Debian’s rebranded Firefox), I get a blurred second page and a popup asking me to buy the article.

  24. ricko says

    Yeah, I used Firefox and my iMac (2011, 27″) and I got it, I don’t know if having the new OS was important. What a system.

  25. Donnie says

    I just read opened it. the first time, clear. the second time to verify, the first page clear then the 2nd page blurry like described above then it “refocused” and I could see both pages clearly. Could be a network issue with delayed response? Same thing happened on a third attempt same as the second attempt.

  26. blgmnts says

    Firefox 34.0.5 (on Arch Linux) with PZ’s supposedly shareable link:
    – 1st page ok
    – 2nd page blurry
    – cursor / pageup/down keys work (kind of), mouse controls don’t
    – scrolling down too far caused a pay-us message to overlay the article frame
    Verdict: For me not worth the bother.

  27. blgmnts says

    Further experiments:
    Opera: works
    Konqueror/Rekonq: work not at all

    And the winner is:
    Luakit (yes, that’s a thing:-): works

  28. One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login says

    Same as @Donnie, Firefox 33, second page momentarily blurred, then cleared up.

    Possibly relevant: I have Firefox set to disable Flash without explicit clicks (makes the FTB sidebar ads tolerable). Could that affect the readcube thing?

  29. Usernames! ☞ ♭ says

    I have Firefox set to disable Flash…. Could that affect the readcube thing?
    — One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login (#30)

    Unlikely. They use CSS and Javascript trickery to obfuscate the plaintext and prevent copying/printing. The text is all there, just interspaced with junk that isn’t shown when your browser displays it.

  30. woozy says

    Wait… so the idea is (doesn’t work for me either but the idea if it did work would be) that anyone who subscribes could make a “free” link that the entire world would be able to read and link to the entire article simply because one arbitrary subscriber chose to make one arbitrary article available?

    That’s kind of a weird model. But then again all pricing models are kind of weird.

  31. Kevin Kehres says

    @32 woozy…

    I can see where it would be helpful to me in a specific instance where one of my scientific advisors forwarded me a link of an article he/she wanted me to look at. That way, I could review the material without plunking down the $30 in advance for the paid article.

    I purchase hundreds of journal articles a year. A small percentage — 10% or so — don’t get used in my materials because the article itself is more disappointing than the abstract leads me to believe. So, maybe a savings of $1000 a year? Not trivial. If every journal had the same policy, of course. Which they don’t.

    But a lot of articles are now becoming free as soon as they’re published through the National Library of Medicine. And others have a 6 month wait. At least on the medicine side of it, it’s getting better. Don’t know about other disciplines.

    I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth.

  32. zmidponk says

    I’m using Chrome with Scriptblock, and, once I allow the script for, I get the first page, with the second page being blurry at first, but it seems to figure out I have ‘complimentary online access’ after a few seconds and deblurs the second page.

    I don’t really get the point of this. If they’re trying to not give us ordinary folk the ability to download articles or make copies of them, even via the ‘gatekeepers’, then they’ve forgotten one thing – the ‘Print Screen’ button. I can simply use that to make a copy of the article from the readcube link, if I so wish.

  33. PatrickG says

    they’ve forgotten one thing – the ‘Print Screen’ button

    Even stupider than that: You can just download the current page as an html file, which comes complete with text, images, css, hell, even the js scripts they use to display the page. Opening the page locally gives me exactly what displays in the ‘Cube.

    Seriously, what IS the point?

  34. says

    The link works fine. I can read the entire text no problem. There is a banner at the top and sidebar with links for ReadCube stuff. BFD.

    I think the difference between sharing a link that everyone can click on and having to send individual pdfs to everyone, or putting a pdf on a server, is pretty big.

  35. zmidponk says

    Area Man:

    I think the difference between sharing a link that everyone can click on and having to send individual pdfs to everyone, or putting a pdf on a server, is pretty big.

    Why have that link point at this Readcube thing? Why not have a link pointing to a PDF?

  36. F.O. says

    Yup, I can see it.
    It tells me that I can’t download it. Gotta love how content gatekeepers try to provide and not provide you with information at the same time and hope it will work.
    I wonder how much did they pay to set up this system that doesn’t actually prevent users to copy and share the articles.

  37. Markita Lynda—threadrupt says

    I get an offer of a tour of ReadCube and then the chance to buy 48-h access for $5 and so on. I’m using Firefox.

  38. says

    “Why have that link point at this Readcube thing? Why not have a link pointing to a PDF?”

    I’m guessing it’s so they can get you to click on stuff. If the current option were between Readcube and free pdf, the latter would be preferable. But for now it’s Readcube vs. a subscriber having to share the pdf with everyone individually, or host it on their own server, which is both illegal and a PIA.

  39. David Marjanović says

    Works for me! Firefox. I’m at home, not at my institution, and don’t have ReadCube installed.

    Looks like I just get 2 pages of it.

    Uh, this is a News & Views article. It only has two pages. Read it, it’s interesting :-)

    I can see where it would be helpful to me in a specific instance where one of my scientific advisors forwarded me a link of an article he/she wanted me to look at.

    That’s very inconsiderate of them; why don’t they send you the pdf?

    I purchase hundreds of journal articles a year.


    I was wondering if anybody purchased articles. Last time I saw the question asked, somebody said for-profit corporations do that…

  40. latsot says

    For the first time in decades I don’t have institutional access to academic papers. It feels like losing a super power :(

    On the upside, I still seem to have access to eduroam so it seems only right that I *cane* it whenever I’m in line of sight of an institute of higher learning.

  41. John Horstman says

    All research papers from Nature will be made free to read in a proprietary screen-view format that can be annotated but not copied, printed or downloaded, the journal’s publisher Macmillan announced on 2 December.

    Ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! Sorry, folks – if it can be viewed, it can ALWAYS be copied, via the analog ‘loophole’ at minimum (but usually with digital capture from the frame buffer).

    Works fine for me (FF 33.1, home internet – had to let scripts through NoScript). Looking at the page source now…

    I see, they break each line in each column into a separate div element with a randomized class attribute with empty span elements with random class attributes breaking up the characters in each line. I was able to recover the full plaintext from the page source using a half dozen regular expressions for search/replace to remove the extraneous tags and reference tags. The images are directly identified in the source, so with a few minutes work in any layout program, I could re-create the full article with formatting and images. It’s probably better than Sage’s old, broken validation system that one could bypass by blocking scripts and recovering the direct PDF link from the page source, but it took all of ten minutes to get the full (clean!) text of this article with just Firefox and Notepad++. I could probably write a script that would use their own formatting cues and strip out the bullshit to recreate the article in identical format without any copy protection of any sort, but then I’m pretty lazy.

    Just give up on copy protection, everyone.

  42. saganite says

    Erm. I just tried your link, PZ. I can TECHNICALLY read it. All the text is huge, though. So huge that the different columns blend into each other, making it pointless to try and read in practice. Maybe that’s a bug, I lack a necessary plugin or some such. Or maybe it’s a way to say “screw you” to peons like me?

  43. numerobis says

    They chop the page into a bazillion little pieces for some reason. I’d have thought it would be so that you couldn’t cut and paste, and yet, this worked:

    Until now, they were known only from the most fragmentary pieces — teeth here and there, and, rarely, a piece of mandible

    What did they pay those programmers to do? Just snow them with promises of fake DRM?

  44. numerobis says

    Actually, maybe the main point of the fake DRM is just so that spiders don’t index the pages. So people mostly can get access for free as promised, but only people who know someone — others can’t easily google to find a link someone they don’t know shared somewhere.

  45. Steven Brown: Man of Mediocrity says

    When will these people learn? The reason Steam gets such a large chunk of so many peoples cash is because they offer things conveniently, cheap, and make it stupidly easy to buy from them.

    If I could pay a few dollars to read a published paper I would probably shell out for one now and again just for something interesting to read.

  46. Steven Brown: Man of Mediocrity says

    And by ‘these people’ I mean anyone who wants to sell me something on the internet.