Nature science writing paywalls are pissing me off

Please forgive me for the cranky. I am still confined to bed and am only writing between fits of coughing that still occasionally drive me near unconsciousness due to hypoxia. I’m stuck at home trying to read some research literature across the VPN and proxy servers from my three faculty appointments that give me access to much biomedical research literature.
However, some journals are now no longer granting access if one’s IP address does not come directly from the university, even if you are using the university VPN server. And then there’s my love-hate relationship with Nature Publishing. I absolutely loved when Nature expanded to Nature Medicine and the Nature Reviews journals have been spectacular, particularly Nature Reviews Drug Discovery and Nature Reviews Cancer. But as each of these came out, it was costing another $199-265/year or so for each of these sources. Still, the content was worth it.
But today, I am cranky. Not because of lack of access to research publications but rather because I have been shut out to a book review and a news review by two of my favorite science writers, Steve Silberman and Melinda Wenner Moyer, respectively. One of these episodes on any other day and I’d probably be fine. But two? On the same day?
Steve just wrote for Nature a review of Rebecca Skloot’s new book while Melinda apparently has a killer article in Nature Medicine on the search for drugs beyond statins to manage cardiovascular disease.
But to gain access to these, I need to pay $32. Each.
This is really just plain bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong – I support Steve’s and Melinda’s need for livelihood more than the average scientist might. They are each gifted writers and deserve to be rewarded handsomely for their craft. But $32? Each?
Now, I don’t want anyone sending me PDFs of these articles. Really. No. Don’t.
I raise this issue because I am a (reasonably) well-compensated faculty member at a small state university so I can afford to buy some personal subscriptions but I didn’t take Nature this year and I’ve usually relied on my institutional subscription to Nature Medicine. As I said earlier, I do have access to online resources at a couple of R1 institutions yet because I am holed up in bed on doctor’s orders, I cannot access these articles. As much as I love Steve and Melinda, I’m not paying $64 to read their work.
This is where the OpenAccessEleventy movement has me converted: if I can’t get access to this information for a reasonable cost, what does that say about the rest of my colleagues at universities here and abroad who may not even have institutional access if they are physically on-campus?
Listen, I’m not begrudging Nature or any paywall publication for paying their staff, hiring freelancers, covering their costs, and making a profit. But for God’s sake? $32? Each?
Yes, I know that Steve and Melinda were not researchers who, as with a research publication, would pay “page charges” to have their work published. Instead, they had to be paid some magnitude of compensation for their work. But even without me being an economist, I am certain that Nature could make these works available for, say, $3.99 and still make a decent profit. And if they’re charging $32 each, Steve and Melinda had better be having filet mignon and Silver Oak cabernet tonight. I’m sure that Nature is rewarding them handsomely. Right?
I’m sorry – I’m just furious. And, no, I’m really not feeling any better. In fact, I’m more frustrated these days because my pneumonia does not seem to be improving. The longer I am home and struggling to do work, the more cranky I shall become. But for those of you who come here for positive and enlightening posts, I’ll try not to make a habit of this.


26 thoughts on “Nature science writing paywalls are pissing me off

  1. Right now, I’m *wishing* I was “a well-compensated faculty member at a small state university.” Instead what I am is a 52-year old journalist who recently lost his contract at Wired after 14 years of full-time writing for the magazine in a wave of cost-cutting measures that I would bet don’t include a cut in the editor-in-chief’s extravagant CondĂ© Nast-style salary. I have been enthusiastically invited to continue writing for the magazine… as a freelancer. As far as the payment from Nature goes, after doing research for about two weeks on that little review, I will be paid what Nature accurately described as a “token honorarium.” In this case, I consider simply being published in Nature for the first time to be an honor. But yes — if about four people pay to download that article, it covers what I made from it.
    I’m not against paywalls in general because I grew up paying for magazine subscriptions and hope, someday, to have a real job again. But first, magazines have to figure out how to make money. Nature has figured it out, though most of their subscribers are probably institutions.
    (By the way, instead of cabernet and filet mignon, we’re eating cheap Chinese food tonight, because my partner is currently supporting us on a middle-school science teacher’s salary.)
    I hope you feel better!

  2. Steve, you are an amazingly talented writer and hearty congratulations on having your review published in Nature. In my rant, I neglected to note that it is a great honor to be have work in a Nature publication regardless of whether it’s research, commentary, news, or reviews. Same for Melinda.
    It goes without saying that the payment model has to work for the writers, first and foremost. This is a challenge for all press as you have sadly witnessed firsthand (also reminds me of my 50-ish relatives being let go by tech and mfr companies then welcomed back as contractors).
    I’m lucky to have a good job, for now, but my point was that even academics of reasonable means and resources might not otherwise have access to your work. As I said, you’d think that more downloads at a more reasonable price would work but I guess NPG has already run the pricing and demand models.
    In any case, it’s an honor for me to field your comment. By the way, if any editors reading are looking for a great freelance science writer, commission Steve Silberman.
    Best to you and Keith – I’m buying dinner next time I’m out in S.F. – when I’m better, of course. Thanks for the kind wishes.

  3. Oh, one other thing: while most readers here will know Steve as a science writer, he is an accomplished music writer as well with some remarkable credits. From his website:

    Music-Related Links:
    I got a gold record in 1999 for co-producing the Grateful Dead’s 5-CD box set of previously unreleased recordings, So Many Roads (1965-1995) — which was Rolling Stone’s Box Set of the Year — and a second one in 2001 for my liner notes for the Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and Europe ’72 in The Golden Road (1965-73). I also wrote essays for Dead Set in Beyond Description (1973-1989); the Dead Ahead DVD; Reflections in the Jerry Garcia box set All Good Things; the Jerry Garcia Band album How Sweet It Is and concert DVD Live at Shoreline; and David Crosby and Graham Nash’s Wind on the Water, Whistling Down the Wire, Crosby/Nash Live, and Another Stoney Evening. A biographical essay called “A Thread from the Weave” is the primary text in David Crosby’s Voyage, a box set spanning his career from the Byrds to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, CPR and beyond. An abridged version of “Singing Their Way Home” appears in Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Greatest Hits. Beck: The Wired Outtakes is a mostly-unpublished interview about Guero, multimedia art, and the future of music from April 2005. Also see the interviews with Crosby, Trey Anastasio, Mickey Hart, and Bruce Hornsby linked below.

    Pretty awesome, eh?

  4. I’m not arguing any of your points about costs and access. I think there’s actually an issue with your institution’s vpn or proxy server because I can authenticate to those from off campus using EZ Proxy from my institution.
    If you are on VPN, then your IP does appear to be from the university. Some very expensive clinical tools don’t allow off campus access (Up to Date) but NPG stuff is not in that category. I hope when you contacted your librarian they were able to help you?

  5. The VPN problems have been really, really annoying me, too. Wiley appears to now have a blanket ‘no access on VPN’ policy: my affiliation shows on the page but I can’t get the papers. [Even some of *my* papers, which is especially vexing!]
    @Chrstina, #4: I would have thought so, too [i.e. VPN being specifically designed to avoid these issues] but if multiple folks at multiple institutions are having issues, I guess they’re real. I tried via multiple VPN systems on which I am authorised, also, with identical results.

  6. Hope your pneumonia is getting better soon. I believe that the $32 per article are meant to discourage people to purchase individual articles. DeepDyve lets you rent articles for $0.99, but doesn’t cover a lot of journals.
    As of this week you have another option if you own an iPhone (Android phones in April). The iPhone app currently gives access to the fulltext articles without institutional subscription.

  7. @Ewan – Wiley does not have a no VPN policy. First, I hope they would have e-mailed me because that’s a big deal. Second, I just connected via SSL VPN to my institution and had no problem wandering around JASIST and pulling articles
    Are you sure your institution still subscribes to that journal? Remember: Wiley does *not* mark subscriptions in any way (no green dot, no check mark, etc) so you may not have access. If your catalog, metasearch, or link resolver says you’re supposed to, you should contact the library.

  8. as an unemployed scientist, this has been *my life* for the past 5.5 years — and there’s no relief in sight, either. so tell me how an unemployed and impoverished scientist is supposed to “stay in the game” when she can’t access the fucking literature??

  9. Gee, if you are getting some of these Nature Journals for $199-265 a year then you are getting a steal. Please be aware that the starting price that Libraries pay for some of their publications is MUCH higher. Nature Medicine costs libraries $3,060 a year while their subscription to Nature will cost $2,920 a year. Don’t forget that Nature Publishing is also responsible for raising the price of Scientific American, which publishes popular science articles that might inspire future doctors and scientists. Libraries now pay somewhere between $1,000 to $1,5000 a year (and were given no warning about the price increase). While I understand the need for writers to make money off of their product, I firmly believe that knowledge is a common pool resource that should be available to all. Next time, find an open access journal please.

  10. Abel, thanks for your generous comments and your link to my “other” writing life, which will discredit me in the science community for decades . This year I will be doing two long-overdue things: launching a blog (I had one in 1996 at HotWired, before the term existed, but not since) and writing a book proposal, both science-related. Neither is the road to riches, but they will give me avenues of expression that do not depend upon Wired, as this Nature review did. Thanks so much.

  11. Yikes! I had no idea Nature was charging $32 for my piece. Those pay walls are just as annoying for reporters, by the way. Yesterday I must have spent three hours emailing the authors of studies I don’t have access to (studies relevant to pieces I’m reporting), asking them if they would be kind enough to send me PDFs. Half of the time I’m sure my emails end up in their spam boxes, because I don’t hear back from them, and then those studies (however important) don’t make it into my reporting as they should. The end result? My writing suffers. It’s soooo frustrating.
    I had leftovers last night, by the way.

  12. $32 for a PDF of a single article is definitely in WTF territory.
    I don’t have any copies of Nature on hand at the moment, but I do have a subscription to Science through my AAAS membership. According to the front cover of a recent issue I have on my “to read” pile (22 January 2010), the cost of a single issue of Science is $10. That’s the entire issue, dead tree version, including shipping costs and retail markup. I assume that Nature has a similar price structure.
    I get the idea of charging more for institutional subscriptions than for individual subscriptions (my primary scientific society, the American Geophysical Union, has been doing this since before I entered the field), but I don’t see how they can justify a subscription price that exceeds the cost of buying single issues (in the case of Science, that would be $510 per year: weekly issues, but they take a week off at Christmas).

  13. As with most publishers single article downloads at Nature are most probably priced for pharma reps who want reprints. “normal” readers are pushed towards buying a personal subscription or asking their library for an institutional subscription instead.

  14. To add to Christina’s comments, if your library does not have these titles and you need them, please do share that with your librarian. Also, see about your interlibrary loan options – we can often get our users electronic copies of articles from unsubscribed titles in just a day or two. Here, we subsidize ILL requests for things we don’t subscribe to, so the article would be free to our primary users – you may have something similar (free or a cost

  15. Sorry, that last one was cut off – you may have a free or reduced cost option available through your library even if they don’t have a subscription.
    And, I ran into an article a week or two ago for which the charge was $73! I don’t know what the reasonable charge threshold is, but I’m pretty sure $73 is above it.

  16. Abel- I note that, adding insult to injury, the book review costs more than the book!
    I am surprised that you don’t have off-campus access to those journals.

  17. Firstly, I hope you feel better soon. I am a big fan of your blog and I was sorry to hear that you were feeling under the weather.
    Second, as an undergraduate interested in medical anthropology and currently deciding on a grad school, access to medical journals is a major factor. My current school doesn’t have a med school, and the schools in the consortium (DC area if you’re keeping score) that do have access don’t have the right to lend them to students from other consortium schools. I kind of thought that was the point of having a consortium but there you have it.
    The thing is that I can get these articles if I physically go to the other school to pick them up–my AU student ID gets me into the GWU library— but their library staff aren’t allowed to email me their electronic version. The limitation doesn’t prevent me from getting the article, it just makes it a pain in the #@! to get the article.
    I mean, I guess I’m an example of the paywalls working, since schools buy subscriptions to attract students, but I don’t like this tactic. It seems like they’re annoying people into paying them, kind of like an electronic version of a bad street musician.

  18. @culturegeek, you should see about inter-library loan (ILL) through your school. Today it is very fast, and you may be able to fill out the forms OnLine.
    The same for Abel, even if your library doesn’t have subscriptions, ILL is fast and free (to you, the cost comes out of the library budget, so the journal/author is not cheated). You may even be able to do it OnLine, from home, via a form or your e-mail account.
    I don’t mean to tell you stuff you already know. However, all the time that I did research I was totally self-sufficient in the library (pre- electronic era) and I had no idea of the services they offered. I thought librarians just checked-out books and pointed us to the correct shelves.

  19. I’m fortunate to have off-campus access to journals…however, I have to use a different university than the one I teach at, so I use a friend’s passcode to her university library (I review her stats and papers, and she provides me with her code). For whatever reason my university no longer subscribes to Nature or Science–I’m just sessional for a year so I haven’t bothered finding out why they stopped subscribing to these journals.
    However, it makes me wonder if Nature is slowly pricing themselves out of the market. When universities stop subscribing maybe you’re doing something wrong?
    I never know when or where (or if) my next contract is coming from so I can’t afford to start laying out money for subscriptions. And that leaves me rather frustrated–I need to stay up-to-date in my field, I need to do literature searches to publish papers, but I can’t access the very sources that will help me be more competitive (e.g. publishing more papers, doing more research) for full-time jobs. I can’t even legitimately access the journals in which we just published two papers last year.
    Without friends, contacts and generous authors who send me their pdfs I’d be more than frustrated, I’d be angry.
    Actually, I am angry…companies, universities, gov’t ministries would rather hire contract workers than replace retiring workers, and us contract workers have no benefits, no retirement plan, no job security, no way to plan a vacation (I might need to cancel and take that 1-year contract), and we have difficulty buying a house or even renting long-term because we move to where the jobs are (so if there’s no field house or sponsored housing available, that means renting another place in another province, and most places want you to sign a 1-year lease, which is not feasible if your job only goes 2 to 8 months), and on top of all that, journals price their wares as if people had steady high-paying jobs (so do various training conferences, but that’s another complaint…). Oh, and I didn’t mention our gov’t is cutting science funding for the environment, biology, natural resources, monitoring programs, climate……
    Sigh. Ok, rant done. Think I need to change careers to medicine of some type. At least politicians recognize the need for health care.

  20. Wow, that IS a lot of money. Outrageous! Also… Why not pay the writers a little better if they charge that much per article? o.O
    Thankfully I live in student society housing here in Trondheim, meaning that the Norwegian University of Science and Technology is my ISP, and it appears they do have a subscription to Nature that works even off-campus. As a poor university student, there’s no way in hell I could afford two articles like that, even as good as they were. I couldn’t even justify the cost because while I’m an all-round geek and I love this sort of thinig, I’m still in computer science. Thanks for the links, and I think I’ll go hug my University (or at least, go hug the Electro building on campus) tomorrow for letting me read interesting articles like that.
    Also, more importantly: Get well 🙂

  21. @Joe
    First, thanks for the reply.
    Unfortunately, the ILL system is part of the problem—I have to do ILL requests twice for virtually everything, because I have to do a CLS (local mini-ILL) request first for anything that any consortium school has. This request is often rejected because a school that is supposed to be sharing information with us, and has the article, is not permitted to share that information.
    ILL is not particularly fast for articles from journals that guard their content so jealously either, because it takes a long time to find a library that has the right to make the journal available through ILL.

  22. I maintain adjunct or clinical faculty status each year in large part so that I can have full library access. (OK, I also like to have students around, I admit…) The cost of articles is now such that I probably benefit more from the library access than the actual stipend.
    Nature is pricing itself out of MY library’s market, however, for some of their publications. I ended up subscribing to Nature Neuroscience on my own. We have ended up starting a little mini-library of specialty journals in the medical staff lounge. I think there are more NPG ones in there this year than last; I’ll have to look.
    I am mystified by the “one-year lockout for online access” for certain publication groups. Since I live many miles away from the actual campus and work weird hours, it’s often difficult for me to make it to the physical library. I’m not going to use my students’ time to fetch articles. So the outcomes are either a) I go to different articles, when the topic permits, or b) I contact a friend at a better-funded institution, and she or he finds the article for me, and I enlist him or her into the project.
    I take the ILL desk people cookies or similar treats every month, though. I think being nice to them is in my best interests.
    As to whether or not they sometimes come raid our staff lounge journal collection for stat-request/clinical-urgency-request articles, cough, I really couldn’t comment. Other than to say they have the code to the lounge.
    As I have online access, I would probably just donate my NN subscription, but I’m not sure if they’re allowed to accept it, let students reproduce it, etc.?

  23. On a related point, I just noticed that a scientific obituary was posted for a well-known cannabinoid researcher Billy R. Martin from the Medical College of Virginia who died in the summer of 2008 at the young age of 65. He was involved in some research I wanted to post on so I dialed up the obituary in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.
    But, alas, Neuropsychopharmacology is a Nature journal – that’ll be $32 please – for an obituary.

  24. @Abel,
    Hope you’re on the mend!
    If it helps, I know where your rant is coming from. Working independently is very hard.
    I’m investigating something akin to this for myself as a solution for related reasons.
    @All (and sundry, the cat, the dog, the lab animals, whatever),
    As an independent scientist / consultant, access to the literature is an issue (and one I have meant to blog about for some time). Certainly buying the articles I need one by one given the costs the journals charge is out of the question.

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