Thoughts on Springer-Nature’s New Article Sharing Trial

A few days ago Springer-Nature announced that they are extending their Nature Journals’ Article Sharing Trial to include all of Springer-Nature’s 2,700 journals. I think it’s got some interesting implications. I thought I’d share some things that have been kicking around in my head since I read their press release.


The original trial with Nature Journals allowed anyone with subscription access to any  Nature Journal to share full text – but read-only – articles with people without a subscription. Subscribers were able to access a legitimate and shareable link which they could then copy and paste over to a colleague or paste on social media. Media outlets and blogs were also allowed to post these shareable links so that their readers could view the articles.

This original trial went over quite well, as can been seen from their press release. They saw 200 extra uses for each of the 6,000 articles included in the trial and (more importantly for them) had no adverse implications on their article sales or business end.

The lack of damage on the business end isn’t really all that surprising. The large majority of article views (77%) came from media outlets and blogs, and if readers from those sites had come across a paywall after clicking the article link, instead of the full-text, only a very small percentage of them would have gone through the process of trying to purchase the article.Most readers from those sites are just coming to browse, and a paywall would be a tiny annoyance rather than a barrier they would spend the effort to get past. Nature wouldn’t be losing any money to these readers because they wouldn’t have purchased the article anyways.

But what about individuals who do read the articles and have a interest in gaining access? Are they more likely to purchase the articles and is Nature losing a potential profit on this group by putting in place these shareable links?

I doubt it. For individuals with institutional affiliations (i.e. they have a library and scholarly databases), they can perhaps access the articles through their own institutions subscriptions, or they can use interlibrary loan. Nature isn’t losing any money there. Sure, a few researchers from one institution might have accessed multiple shareable links to the same Nature Journal that could have been interlibrary loaned instead. And this series of interlibrary loans might have informed the library that they needed to subscribe to this Nature Journal and thus resulted in Nature getting another customer. But we are working with a very small sample size here, only 49 journals out of 100,000s. It is very unlikely that there were more than a handful of articles from the same journal that were accessed by a shareable link from individuals from the same institution. A handful of interlibrary loan requests for the same journal is also not enough for a library to decide to subscribe to that journal.

As for individuals without institutional affiliations who want access. Well… chances are they will find access by other means, and it’s very unlikely they would have spent $30 or so on purchasing the article from Nature.

In general I think the original Nature Journals shareable link trial is a good thing. Not because Nature didn’t lose any money on it, but because any step toward increasing public and free access to scholarly published materials is a good one.

Now we can get into the fun stuff:

For original Nature Journals trial and the soon-to-begin trial of all of Springer-Nature’s journal content, the full-text version of the article linked too is a view-only ReadCube Enhanced PDF. It doesn’t allow the user to download, save, or print the article. PDF stands for Portable Document Format. The ReadCube Enhanced “PDF” doesn’t allow you that portable feature. As Ross Mounce said in a tweet; “It’s not PDF. It’s javascript rendering made to look like PDF. DRM-rights restricted, yuck”

For those readers who just want to browse the article, having this enhanced PDF – instead of no access at all – works just fine. For readers who want to download and save this article in order to cite it or reference it the future… no luck.

The idea of having access to an article that you can only view through the cloud, one that you can’t save to your own personal computer, is an idea I’ve talked before. As people get more and more used to having just-in-time access to digital copies (e.g. Netflix movies, Spotify songs, Kindle Unlimited eBooks) instead of physical copies they can own and save, will this carry over to journal articles? Or are journal articles something that readers prefer to own?

I don’t think it’ll be an either/or choice. One of the exciting things about enhanced PDFs is it means enhanced readership statistics. Over the past couple years or so multiple news organizations have been reporting ‘in shock’ that a large number of eBooks were going unread or unfinished by readers after download. This, of course, is actually nothing new, the large majority of all books have always gone unfinished, we just never had the stats to measure it. With eBooks we do.

We’ve never really been able to get accurate stats on how journal articles are read because users would download PDFs. What does a download mean? Does it mean it was used/read/cited? Or were the first few sentences read and then abandoned? Hopefully enhanced PDF stats can give us some more understanding of what happens. But getting back to my point, I’d bet that most journal articles are read like eBooks are, that is, most go unread.

When a researcher downloads an article, she doesn’t know for sure if it is actually a relevant article, or maybe she just needs to copy a small section from it. Is it really worth purchasing an article or having her library interlibrary loan (ILL) her a copy just for that? It seems in these cases perhaps a Enhanced PDF will suffice, and downloadable, actual, PDF can be requested if needed.

So this is where Springer-Nature Resource Sharing initiative gets interesting. Researchers can now legitimately receive access to Springer-Nature articles from colleagues, or from using the twitter hashtag #icanhazpdf , without having to worry about breaking copyright law. Will this result in an increase of this kind of sharing? Or does it just legitimize and bring in to the light all the article sharing already happening?

If a large company is offering you something for free, that generally means you are the product. Perhaps Springer-Nature has realized that all this article sharing is happening anyway, with or without them, and that they might as well capitalize on it so they can get some usage data and promotion of their brand.

How will this article sharing initiative affect ILL departments? ILL has gotten pretty sleek over the past few years with collective article sharing infrastructure like DocLine and Illiad, but journal license restrictions and copyright law still slow it down. This Springer -Nature trial seems like it will allow libraries to skip these extra and often confusing steps, and make it easier for a library to just shoot off a link to an article to a library that has no access. Of course, all this is only for enhanced PDFs. If a researcher wants access to the real PDF,  the library will still have ILL it the old fashioned way.

If the Springer-Nature article sharing project becomes widely adopted among publishers, it seems we will have a new, second-tier open access format on our hands. A format that allows easy ‘read-only’ access to closed articles. A format that has the reader viewing an article on the publisher’s terms and restrictions, instead of letting the reader move and access the PDF as they want.

In a recent episode of the great library podcast Circulating Ideas, Steve Thomas interviews the Librarian’s Librarian, Barbara Fister, who discusses how in the past couple decades, as libraries have moved from ownership of material to increasing access to material (with collection management models like Big Deals and Demand Driven Acquisition (DDA)) we have let user rights slide away in order to increase the amount of material we can provide. This has resulted in librarians having eBooks in their collections that are almost inaccessible or readable for some patrons. Fister talks about how librarians need to focus more on access to content instead of just its discovery in the future. The implications of a widespread adoption of these ‘read-only’ enhanced PDFs, helping discovery but creating access restrictions, is something librarians need to be wary about.

Spring-Nature allowing shareable, enhanced PDFs might just be another half-victory in the half-revolution of the Open Access Movement.

Published by Ryan Regier

Doing lots of different stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier

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