Fine Structure

Nature, Set Your News Free

Last week on Twitter, I called out Nature on their article paywall for an article on Fermilab's plans to build a new muon collider on their existing space in Batavia, Illinois. Let me start by saying that I had originally intended that tweet to be a one-off mini-rant on my frustrations that I couldn't access an article on Nature News. It was one of those tweets that, even though it was directed at Nature's twitter account, I didn't actually expect anyone to respond.

However, the internet is a wonderful place and someone behind Nature's twitter account wanted to have a conversation about the pay wall and why they use it. It's a great example of how a large company can connect with individuals who would otherwise be frustrated in a vacuum. I wanted to bring up the entire issue on Fine Structure since journal access is one of those issues that's near and dear to my heart.

Nature is in a particularly difficult situation. While they're clearly one of the foremost journals for science, their subscription base is quite small compared to some of the pop science magazines that dominate your local news stands. This leads Nature to believe that they cannot support the same sort of free online article access that New Scientist or Popular Science have. I won't go so far as to suggest that the Nature should be entirely free (not yet, at least), but I will argue that they benefit from their news articles being set free.

Firstly, we should differentiate between Nature News and Nature (the Journal). Nature News is an online-only publication that releases anywhere from zero to 10 articles in a day. They're not too technical, but they have some good science content not unlike symmetry magazine's blog, symmetry breaking, if they had more staff. Articles on Nature News are free for about five days and then they disappear behind the paywall.

Nature News can be subscribed to alone for $95 a year, but it also comes free with a subscription to the Journal (~$200 a year). Now, if you run into an article from Nature News and it's past that five-day grace period, you are notified that you have to sign in with a subscription account in order to view the article. At this point you're shown three options: the first is a single-article purchase for $8, the second is a full subscription to the Journal for $200 and the third is a $10 monthly subscription to Nature News.

How much do you think Nature News makes from selling single articles for $8? I don't have actual numbers but I would bet that the revenue from single-article purchases is under 0.5% of their total subscription revenue. If you're really dedicated to getting that article, there's not much of an incentive to purchase only that article if you can have access to every article on Nature News for a month for only $2 more. On the other hand, if you're just a casual reader and you don't require access to that article, $8 is far too steep for readers that are used to free. Yes, you may upsell someone to the monthly $10 Nature News subscription every once in a while but for every upsell you probably turn away 1000 other readers who would be interested in your content.

So who are the articles on Nature News for? Not for casual science readers on the internet since the articles disappear fairly quickly and they're not the demographic to pay anything for content, let alone $8. Nature subscribers? Easily the largest group that has unlimited access to Nature News but Nature doesn't gain anything by giving away extra articles to a subscriber that is already paying for a magazine. That is to say, no one signs up for Nature instead of Science because Nature gives access to Nature News. Nature News is targeted at some strange in-between user that pays $100 a year for access to articles about recent news, a demographic that I'm not sure exists in any significant form.

Editors of Nature, I suggest this to you: set Nature News free. I mean really free. Articles accessible forever. The compromise is that you can still keep your articles behind a wall, but it's simply a registration wall. Give your readers an easy (read: as few questions as possible) registration page and let them have access to all the Nature News articles they want while they're signed in. You'll increase your readership and you'll have a large base of interested readers for you to up-sell on subscriptions to the Journal. Look at your conversions per pageview and see what happens when you take away the $8 and $10 subscriptions and add more pageviews. I'll bet it works out in your favor.

Finally, I want to finish by again noting that the person behind your Twitter account is doing a really fantastic job. They turned a snarky rant into a conversation in a most professional way and I think the end result of that is a positive discussion about Nature News articles and not just random bitching.

I should mention that during writing, I was unable to find a way to register for the monthly $10 Nature News subscription. Either a potential subscriber has to follow a mislabeled $95/year link and then downgrade to $10/mo somewhere or it's not actually possible to get this $10/mo subscription. That's either a usability issue or misinformation and if Nature is concerned about subscription numbers and readership, they need to be concerned with these things.