A crappy thing about Nature (the journal, not the concept)
August 15, 2012, 5:55 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m very happy to have worked for Nature. I’m proud of some of the stuff I did in my time as Chief News and Features Editor there and — even more so — of the stuff I helped my excellent colleagues there to do. I have huge affection for many of the people who work there, and I think it is a great magazine and journal. I think that by and large it navigates the difficult territory that comes from being a profit-making organisation providing a public good and a cultural necessity reasonably well. I think it has served science faithfully for 143 years, and that the world would be a much worse place without it it.

However the fact that a personal subscription to Nature does not allow you access to its archive is simply crappy.

Yes, you get access to articles back to 1997, which is better than nothing. But science didn’t start in 1997. Nature didn’t start in 1997. Ideas that are important today are not all rooted in the very shallow post-1997 horizon of intellectual history. The random selection of articles I just looked at  in a recent issue all had references to pre-1997 work, some of it published in Nature.

Sometimes pre-1997 observations are as current as they come. Today I was looking into various aspects of the Pinatubo eruption of 1991. Around the world scientists looked into the eruption and sent their observations and ideas to Nature. The best of them got published. Have there been any better observations since? No – there haven’t been any comparable eruptions to observe since. So I can’t read the most recent relevant observations on a topic of current interest  in a journal to which I have paid to subscribe.

Not an isolated instance. A friend recently asked me about the origin of a fundamental concept in molecular biology. With a little work, I tracked it down to a Nature paper from the 1960s. That was helpful to him — but I couldn’t get the full context because I couldn’t get the bloody paper. (The friend could – irony of ironies, he works for Nature.)

I admit that I’m probably unusual in the amount of pre-1997 stuff that I want to read.  I have a greater interest in the roots of scientific discussions than most. I am interested in the continuities and lack of same between science now and science in its past. I like the day before yesterday.

But a) I think, all other things being equal, it would be better if more people moved a little way towards my approach to these things. Too many people read only the most recent publications in their field, and lack a long perspective.

And b) I BOUGHT A SUBSCRIPTION. I should be able to read the archive.

Now, I should note that this policy, while stupid, is not sneaky. The subscription page makes it clear that you don’t get the archive. And I should also note that the subscription is worth it anyway for a beautifully produced magazine that never fails to inform and fascinate.

But it is still a bad policy. And not just because it inconveniences me and leaves me feeling ripped off by an institution I esteem so highly. Because Nature should be about all of Nature. It should be about making you a part of the process of which it is, and has been, a great exemplar. And it shouldn’t salami slice that process in search of a quick buck.

I remember speaking with quite fierce pride at my leaving party about the experience of being at the head of a spear  with a haft centuries long behind it. But if you want to appreciate the haft, it will cost you £22 quid a glimpse, even if you’re a paid up member of the spearhead. That’s wrong. If you’re part of Nature‘s wonderful ongoing conversation you should be part of all of Nature‘s wonderful ongoing conversation.



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