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Does "free" really mean FREE?

March 2nd, 2015, by Guy Harris

“Nature makes all articles free to view” is the title of a recent Nature News article ( However, while this seems exciting on first glance, the next line (in smaller print) reveals important limitations:

“Publisher permits subscribers and media to share read-only versions of its papers.”

Further reading clarifies that old Nature articles dating back to 1869 will be free to share for online reading, but not for printing or downloading for offline reading. But even “online reading” is a bit misleading, as in actuality, readers will have to use Nature’s proprietary screen-view format, which can be annotated but not copied, printed, or downloaded. Clearly, “all articles are free to view” is not entirely true.

Among other limitations, the service is limited to subscribers; institutional subscribers will have access to papers dating back to 1869 (the journal’s foundation), while individuals will have access only to articles from 1997 on. These subscribers can only share papers that they choose to—so technically articles from 1869 on are available to share for some people, just not openly accessible to all. This means most subscribers will have no access to an enormous volume of papers published earlier than 1997. Further, no explanation is provided about the significance of this cutoff date.

However, once a subscriber (institutional or individual) has made a link publicly accessible, anyone can subsequently repost and share the link, which will lead to read-only PDF versions of the papers. Some 100 media outlets and blogs will also be able to share links to these PDFs. This means, if you can find a shared link or receive one from a Nature institutional subscriber (or from a personal subscriber for papers from 1997), you are in luck. Further, if you prefer offline access, these articles can also be saved to a free desktop version of the proprietary ReadCube software, similarly to how music files can be saved in iTunes.

It should be noted that Nature and its sister journals already allow submitters to personally archive their peer-reviewed manuscripts online, but only after a delay of six months following publication. In addition, papers published in some NPG journals can already be read immediately on publication, for free, using a ‘gold open-access’ model in which publishers charge authors, rather than subscribers, to publish their paper.

Regardless of feelings on the program, “Nature makes all articles free to view” seems to be a misleading article title, since there are many limitations. However, despite the noted shortcomings, this is an admirable attempt by the Nature Publishing Group to promote the dissemination of basic research findings while preserving the company’s financial integrity.

We are very interested in learning about your experiences with the Nature sharing program!