Nature publisher to continue free paper-sharing service

In December 2014, the publisher of Nature and its 48 sister journals launched a 1-year experiment: an online tool called ReadCube that allowed subscribers to share a read-only version of the subscription journal content with anyone, for free. One year later, the results are in. Although the publisher says use of the new sharing option was only "modest," the free ReadCube option is here to stay.

One of the motivations of providing free read-only links to articles was to cut down on "dark sharing," in which researchers share PDF versions of journal articles by email or cloud services like Dropbox. Some publishers frown on such sharing. It is impossible to track, injecting more uncertainty into their usage statistics. And it may be cutting into their profits by relieving pressure on readers who do not pay for access.

The trial had some strings attached. For example, whereas individual subscribers could freely share links to papers, only 100 news sites and bloggers on a whitelist were allowed. And mass-sharing, for example automatically tweeting a link to every Nature article, was not allowed. But otherwise, the system made the entire fleet of 49 Nature journals effectively open access for reading—as long as a link got shared.

According to a report released today by the publisher, links to read-only articles were shared 815,000 times over the 12-month trial. "The total numbers were modest, which was not a huge surprise to us given that as a trial, we let it run with no marketing support to see what natural usage would be," says Lisa Hulme, a spokesperson for Digital Science, the London-based company that provides the ReadCube technology and ran the trial.

Not surprisingly, the media drove most of the traffic through ReadCube, compared with subscribers. The biggest single paper by far was this year's Nature paper describing a powerful new antibiotic. And, in general, Science's news site was one of the top five referrers to Nature's content.

Did the read-only access cut down on dark sharing? "The volume of dark sharing is really unknown to us," Hulme says. "We wish we knew!" But ReadCube had no impact on profits, according to a press release: "The trial had no adverse implications for subscription-based journals either in terms of institutional business or individual article sales." So read-only ReadCube access is now permanent for the Nature journals.

Nature’s publisher is now known as Springer Nature after a corporate megamerger in January. Will the read-only access be extended to the hundreds of Springer journals? "No decision yet has been made," says Rachel Scheer of Springer Nature public relations. "One of our aims of the trial was to collect data and information about how researchers are reading and sharing our content. We’re looking at the results now."

ReadCube may be a win in the short-term for researchers, but some insiders see it as part of a darker trend. "Digital Sciences is looking at a model where the local control of content-based services is moved out onto the Internet in a consolidated manner," says Joe Esposito, a publishing industry management consultant in New York City. "This means that libraries, with their attempts to create such things as institutional repositories or data archives, not to mention open-access publishing platforms, are now competing with commercial interests. … From a publisher's perspective, the strategy is to reduce libraries to a checkbook. Digital Science is a shrewd investment strategy designed to take advantage of that emergent trend."