Nature: Bad Puppy!


The flap that started with the ill advised commentary by Delcan Butler started out looking like it MIGHT be an Orwellian, perhaps Nixononian attempt by a well established publishing icon in the fields of science to damage an up and coming competitor, the Public Libary of Science in particular, and the Open Access Movement more generally. As time goes by, however, I start to get the impression that it does not merely look this way, but may actually be this way.

I think it is very important for people who are interested in defending Open Access as a concept and perhaps PLoS in particular to avoid getting into a fight over the specific arguments asserted by Butler. Keep the high ground. Fight about and for the concept, not the nit picking.

Part of the reason for this is that Butler’s argument, and the arguments that follow being made by other individuals with direct connections to Nature Publishing Group are irrelevant and meant to be distractions. For instance, Butler made a “financial analysis” of PLoS, but it turns out that he was using records avialble in June 2006 (from Open Access News). It is now July 2008. In case you didn’t notice.


Nature Publishing Group, INC.
Even setting aside the fact that Butler’s data, the source of which he did not specify, validity he did not confirm, and so on, is irrelevant, and looking at the larger issue of viabilty of the business model PLoS uses, Butler’s piece comes off as either very badly researched or as bullhookey.

From one major publisher with experience in author-pays and paid subscription models:

Based on our experience as a publisher of both subscription-based journals and author-pays open access journals, I would not only argue that the author-pays publishing model is sustainable, but also that it has many economic advantages over the subscription model. Even though our open access journal collection is only a few years old, we have already achieved profitability for the collection as a whole. Moreover, using a business model based on publication charges has enabled us to expand our publishing program in a much more sustainable way than we were able to using a subscription model.


Also, apparently, lost on Nature Publishing Group and it’s hit men (Butler and his defenders who are affiliated with Nature) the community as a whole likes Open Access and wants to see it succeed. Good wishes may not pay the bill, but good wishes backed by involvement and support can help. From the same source as the above quote, but a different commenter:

As scientists we want our research results to be widely read and used. For breakthrough results, that is best accomplished by publishing in top journals with a huge subscription base and media relations activities, such as Nature or NEJM. Considering their young age, PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine is moving amazingly fast towards this top tier of journals. For more narrowly focused research, I see no reason to publish it in a traditional journal with a limited subscription base rather than in an open access journal that anyone can read. Why hide the research behind a subscription wall? Most open access journals do not charge author fees. When we do have to pay this fee from our grants, the charge is conceptually no different from the reprint charges that we used to pay during the old pre-electronic days, in order to send paper copies to colleagues without subscription access. I just wish there were open access journals in all scientific fields and their sub-specialties so that open access was always an option.

And, as I believe I said somewhere in relation to this issue, PLoS is new. Do we expect a new publishing enterprise to be on its feet at this stage? No. Another commenter in this debate puts it well:

The fact that the PLoS is not breaking even at this stage is not surprising. There seems to be a consensus in the publishing world that new journals – at least in the traditional subscription model – take about seven years to reach break-even. I personally think it’s more like 10 years; if ever. And here we are talking not just of new journals, but of new journals published in a new publishing model. The PLoS has done remarkably well, given all that.


It is also annoying that Butler as well as Nature Publishing Group Blogger Timo Hannay directly state or insinuate that PLoS is of low quality. But there is evidence that this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

There has also been discussion as to who is working with whom, who is linked to what entity, and why certain individuals (mainly bloggers) have lined up one way or another on this issue. Let me tell you the truth on this:

A diversity of bloggers, from all over the science blogosphere, read Butler’s piece as a cheap shot at best, or something worse. One blogger that I know of does not like PLoS and is making claims that bloggers are affiliated with Nature and PLoS and sees it all as very confusing. That individual’s post is interesting but highly enigmatic (Sb is not affiliated with PLoS or Nature). And then there is a very small minority of bloggers who are defending Butler and throwing in kicks against PLoS. They all write for Nature Publishing Group though this is in at least one case being denied. Denied!

For your edification, I supply all of the links here:

On the Nature of PLoS….

Nature News looks at PLoS’ finances
Nature offers a completely objective and unbiased review of PLoS
Only Nature could turn the success of PLoS One into a model of failure
Nature versus nurturing open-access
Nature vs. everyone else?
Nature Versus Open Access
Nature targets financial weakness of PLoS journals
Sadly substandard reporting at Nature
Nature takes a look at PLoS finances & business model
Open source model in scientific research publising: A revisit to the financial future
Lie down with pit bulls, wake up with a blogospheric flea in your ear.
Harvard University headed for financial disaster!
Naturally opposed
Didn’t they learn anything from Encyclopdeia Britannica vs Wikipedia?
When Journals Pounce
Clash of the business models
Why I support open access
Nature: PLoS a threatening success
Nature vs. PLoS
Bitter, snarling, flamewar catfight breaks out over science publishing
PLoS ONE: Take Two
Open-access journal hits rocky times
Is PLoS Coming of Age?
The Nature of PLoS
Nature Re-Attacks Open Access and PLoS
Put Down The Fucking Crack Pipe
Commentary: Open access equals bulk publishing?


  1. #1 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    July 5, 2008

    As an outsider and a member of the general public who doesn’t belong to an organization which pays for my subscription fees, the beauty of Open-Access publication is the fact that if I read a popular article that refers to a study I can go read the original to try to understand it better.

    Sure, in many cases I don’t have the training to understand or critique the study; but at least I can compare the author’s conclusions to the pop article’s take. I have some understanding of methodology, and so I would rather have the opportunity to see if I understand it rather than just take a journalist’s word for it.

    Secondly, while Nature is a general focus journal, many other journals are narrow focus. If I could afford an independent subscription to one or two of the journals, I don’t know that I would have access to a study that is published in another journal.

    I like the fact that many grants include author fees.

    Soviet-era physicists decried the fact that many of their results were sequestered by their government in the name of secrecy; keeping them from being able to share their work with American or Western European physicists. How often are paid-access journals having the same effect?

    Keep pushing on this, Greg! (As if you could help yourself.)

  2. #2 Dr Vector
    July 5, 2008

    Greg, thanks in general for fighting the good fight, and thanks specifically for including all these links. I’m having a blast seeing who is saying what–and who they’re affiliated with. Keep ’em coming!

  3. #3 Oldfart
    July 6, 2008

    Somehow your arguments against Butler would have sounded much better had they not been couched in the child-like marxist evil-corporation terms you used. There is no inherent evil or goodness in corporations any more than there is inherent evil or goodness in PLOS. Given that authors pay to have their articles published in PLOS, one could argue that great evil could raise it’s head at PLOS at some future date. So that whole group of silly statements had no effective meaning whatsoever.
    Otherwise, the whole argument sounds, to a layman like myself, similar to the Microsoft vs. Open Source arguments that are probably still on-going. Expect a long fight.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    July 6, 2008

    There is an inherent potential evil in corporations. Maybe an inherent. Corporations are entities with more power than most other entities but with an entrenched, manefest as a legal requirement, determination to place the corporate (self) interest above other interests that come along when there is a conflict. The amount of “good” a corporation does independent of its mission (charity, etc.) is limited … legally in most cases. For instance, it may be illegal (in a US based corporation) to put water into the river or smoke into the air that is cleaner than regulations require, even if individual (humans)in the corporation want to do that. In order to make a decision to pollute less than legally bound to (continuing with the same example) a board of directors would need to document the fact that the net loss to stockholders is zero. Otherwise any subset of stockholders could sue them

    That is for publically held corporations chartered in the US. This does not apply to all corporations. But evil comes in many ways.

    No, if we do not assume that corporations are inherently potentially evil then we are bending over.

    I have no doubt that great evil could arise in PLoS. Also, I don’t think that Nature is particularly evil as corporations go.

    I was very, very annoyed by Timo Hannay’s remark that everyone things that publishers are evil and that this is simply not true. Some of the super evil thing publishers have done have dampened down, not because they were over the top but because of market forces, regulations, or fear of future repositories, and so on. Beyond that, the publishing world has simply gotten it’s act together to explain how they are not evil. Timo’s statement is so deeply wrong that I assume either a payoff or ignorance, or some major self interest. I’m assuming a highly localized ignorance surrounding this particular issue. As I say, the publishers have a good story to tell now.

    As far as your Microsfoft vs. OpenSource differnece: Exactly!! In fact, if you look at all of my posts on Open Access publihsing, on this blog, the first few are tagged with OpenSoruce rather than OpenAccess because I was too lazy to add a new tag and I see them as so similar. (Then I realized that other people may be interested in one and not the other so I made a new tag).

  5. #5 Peter Suber
    July 7, 2008

    Hi Greg: In my my blog post (to which you refer), I wasn’t saying that Butler’s new analysis is based on 2006 tax records. I was saying that it’s his second analysis. The first came out in 2006, presumably using 2005 records. The new one in 2008 uses 2007 records.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    July 7, 2008

    Thanks for the correction.

    My understanding is that there will be new data (more up to date, more relevant, and so on) available at some time in the future.