July 4, 2008

Nature vs. PLoS

So, it seems that Declan Butler of Nature has taken a potshot at the business model and publishing practices of the Open Access publisher Public Library of Science.

Now, I'm not going to comment on the truth and accuracy of Butler's claims about PLoS in particular or OA in general. Not surprisingly, Bora does a great job of summarizing that. Of course, I am a staunch OA supporter but I also recognize that there's a wide variety of publisher business models that are valid and that we have to deal with. As most science librarians, I am somewhat critical of Nature's tendency to charge boatloads of money for their journals and journal backfiles, but I do accept that what they do costs money and that they have a right to run their company as they see fit. I don't have a problem paying for stuff that has real value.

However, I do have to say I am very disappointed with this turn of events. Notwithstanding their journal business, I have always been very impressed by the web group at Nature and the fine work they have done on products like Scintilla, PostGenomic, Precedings, Connotea, Nature Network and others. Those are, for the most part, fine products that are really pushing the edges and trying new and exciting things. They are of of the few commercial publishers that really seems to get doing science on the web and I've been happy to promote those products and services in my community here and to present about them to a wider audience. Of course, OA is a very important piece of the puzzle of doing science on the web and PLoS is also trying new and exciting things and really seems to get it. There's a real conflict there. Perhaps Nature's left hand should be telling it's right hand what's really going on out here.

On a side note, related to the previous post on science blogging communities, there's a bit of an exchange in the comments between Hank of ScientificBlogging and GrrlScientist of Scienceblogs, mostly around who owns what and "political litmus tests" for science bloggers. It's worth noting that as far as I can tell, no one on Nature Network Blogs has blogged or commented on the Nature vs. PLoS controversy. Make of that what you will.

Update 2008.07.08: Two very reasonable and sensible posts providing a bit of clarification from the Nature point of view by Timo Hannay and John Wilbanks. Both the posts also have a lot of interesting conversation in the comments.


Anonymous said...

The Nature Network bloggers in general are quite a tame bunch and rarely jump to immediate outrage. It may be that someone still decides to write about it later, but right now we're all busy drawing maps of where we work: http://network.nature.com/blogs/tag/sciencemap

See also "Are We All So Genteel?" on Bob O'Hara's blog http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/boboh/2008/07/01/are-we-all-so-genteel
and Henry Gee's experience of posting comments on Pharyngula (and related comments) http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/henrygee/2008/07/02/mistaken-identity

These are typical NN blog posts.

I suspect everyone will wait until the discussion has blown over and then joke about it.

Anonymous said...

I am soundly in the camp of PLoS and open science.

So Nature publishes something saying PLoS' business model doesn't work. ok, how about Nature's. Yes, while they have their content subsidized by those funding research (the governments around the world, HHMI, Stanford, CERN...) how is Nature's attempts to restrict science going to work when those funding science research do not allow private gain by restricting science knowledge? It is sensless today for those in favor of promoting science to continue to harm science to help outdated journals maintain their old business models.

I think PLoS will succeed. Maybe it won't. If Nature wants to support the closed science model, they should start funding their own research and then they can keep it behind closed doors if they want. Those that understand science is about openness will abandon the past support for Nature and others building a business on taking the fruits of research funded by others.

HHMI and others are coming along, even with the attempts of those that don't want to change their business models based on a changed world. It no longer makes sense to restrict access to information just to benefit a few people at journals.

What is Nature's business model if others stop funding closed research? My guess, is those funding science will realize that it is a dumb practice to try and promote research by publicizing it through organizations more concerned with their old business practices than what is in the best interest of science.

I gave the journals quite awhile to finally see how their outdated views need to change. I understand some people are poor at adapting to changes. About a year ago I finally gave up, and believe it is time for those that support science to give up on those that refuse to take advantage of what is now available with open access to science.

John Dupuis said...


Does this genteel politeness on NN mean that they're all Canadian? Surely that means that Toronto is a shoe-in for the next hub.


Thanks for the comment -- I agree completely. I must admit I hadn't thought of the angle of Nature funding their own research.

Unknown said...

Well said Eva !!!

Anonymous said...

Of course, the news story appeared in the news section of Nature, which is completely separate from the "back half" editorial section, and even more independent of the publishers who make the decisions about policy and what to charge for what. And the people making the products like Scintilla don't work for "Nature"; they work for Nature Publishing Group, which if possible is even further removed from Nature the magazine itself. So it's not accurate to lump them all together here or on any of the other tens of blog entries about this, unfortunately.

John Dupuis said...

Hi girlscientists2,

Thanks for the comment.

First of all, I'm not sure it matters where the article appeared. It may be labeled news but it's clearly an opinion/editorial piece that's trying to send a message. I'm pretty sure the publishers and senior editors would have approved such a strongly worded piece for publication and if they didn't, they certainly should have.

I think I was also pretty clear in drawing the distinction between the web group and the journal business and if I didn't that was certainly my intention. In fact, it's not my intention to attack or demean anybody that works for Nature. The strongest language I use above is "very disappointed" and "somewhat critical" -- hardly the stuff of trolls.

My intention with this post was to draw the contrast between the adventurous, progressive Web group and the seemingly opposite message sent by the journal people. Again, the exact opposite of what you imply I'm doing.

Anna Treadway said...

I do not envisage a world where the peer-reviewed journal ceases to exist, but even if the open access, pay to publish model is viable in the long term, does the scientific community agree to paying to publish all of their work in the future, rather than pay to read the work of others? The fact is, publishing a journal is a costly business and the money has to come from somewhere. Publishers are accused of placing scientific research behind ‘commercial barriers’, but surely the same argument could be applied to the pay to publish model. Is it fair that only authors with funding can afford to have it published? Will this lead to a bias in the literature towards sponsored research, not even so much through the choices of the Editor, but through the fact that only authors who can pay can publish? Or is there an alternative, free to publish, free to read, sustainable model for open access publishing that still maintains high standards of peer review and editorial quality? Surely someone, somewhere has to pay something?

John Dupuis said...


Yes, someone has to pay. Of course there are lots of different OA business models, not all of which involve author payment, which is probably best suited for fields where researchers get significant grants and can use that for paying. Also, in many cases, the scholar's library can pick up the tab; in the long term, moving money from subscriptions to author fees is possibly a viable alternative to what we currently have.

Here are some ideas on business models: http://oad.simmons.edu/oadwiki/OA_journal_business_models