We've been talking a lot about the power and importance of open access
for academic (and especially government funded) research. More and more universities have agreed, with some even having general open access policies for their academics, requiring them to release research under open access policies. This makes sense, because one of the key aspects of education and knowledge is the ability to share it freely and to build on the work of others. Without open access, this is made much more difficult. So it's immensely troubling to discover that one of the biggest science publishers out there, Nature Publishing Group, has started telling academics that they need to get a "waiver" from their university's open access policies
. The issue was raised by Duke's Scholarly Communications Officer, Kevin Smith, though it's likely happening at other universities as well:
A new thing started happening here at Duke this week; we began getting inquiries from some faculty authors about how to obtain a formal waiver of our faculty open access policy. We have had that policy in place for over three years, but for the first time a single publisher — the Nature Publishing Group — is telling all authors at Duke that they must obtain a waiver of the policy before their accepted articles can be published. It is not clear why NPG suddenly requires these waivers after publishing many articles in the past three years by Duke authors, while the policy was in force and without waivers.
Indeed, the waivers are essentially meaningless because of the way Duke has implemented its open access policy. When the policy was adopted unanimously by our Academic Council in March 2010, the statement in favor of openness was pretty clear, but so was the instruction that implementing the policy not become a burden to our faculty authors. So throughout the ensuing years we have tried to ensure that all archiving of published work in our repository be done in compliance with any publisher policies to which our authors have agreed. NPG allows authors to archive final submitted manuscripts after a six month delay, so that is what we would do, whether or not the author sought a policy waiver. But suddenly that is not good enough; Nature wants a formal waiver even though it will have no practical effect. The demand seems to be an effort to punish authors at institutions that adopt open access policies.
As noted above, there seems to be no need for such a waiver in the first place, given current policies, but it's still quite troubling that Nature would push for such a thing. Smith notes that the effort in many ways backfires, since it's really only served to remind Duke's faculty that Duke has this open access policy -- perhaps leading more of them to remember to "self-archive" papers they've gotten published in Nature. But, still, the request from Nature is quite troubling, as Smith again details:
This effort to punish faculty who have voted for an internal and perfectly legal open access policy is nothing less than an attack on one of the core principles of academic freedom, faculty governance. NPG thinks it has the right to tell faculties what policies are good for them and which are not, and to punish those who disagree.
As my sense of outrage grew, I began to explore the NPG website. Initially I was looking to see if authors were told about the waiver requirement upfront. As far as I can tell, they are not, in spite of rhetoric about transparency in the “information for authors” page. The need for a waiver is not even mentioned on the checklist that is supposed to guide authors through the publication process. It seems that this requirement is communicated to authors only after their papers have been accepted. I suspect that NPG is ashamed of their stratagem, and in my opinion they should be.
Smith also notes that as he explored Nature's terms more carefully, he realized that they also play some other questionable games, including getting anyone having a paper published in Nature to waive their moral rights. As he notes, moral rights (except in a few specific instances) are not recognized in the US, but they are common elsewhere. And he wonders why Nature could possibly want authors to waive the attribution right that is embedded within moral rights:
But my point here is to wonder why NPG requires all of its authors to waive their right of attribution. This is not an incidental matter; the clause is carefully structured to attempt to get authors even from the countries that do not allow the waiver of moral rights — they are considered that important – still to promise not to assert those rights (whether or not that would be enforceable in those countries). Nature actively does not want its authors to be able to insist that their names always be associated with their work. Why? Does NPG imagine reusing articles it is given to publish in other ways, without providing proper attribution? If this seems like a remote possibility, it remains the only conceivable reason that NPG would insert this bizarre clause.
All of this leads Smith to point out that Nature seems to be attacking two separate, but fundamental values in academic publishing: both attribution and open access to knowledge. It should make many academics think twice about whether or not they wish to have their articles published in such an enterprise.