Nature Publishing Group has announced today that research papers in Nature, and other journals published by NPG, will be free_to_read via links that can be shared by subscribers. Using these special links, content going back to 1869 will be available to view using special software that allows reading on screen through a browser, but not downloading, printing or other re-use.
This is an interesting development in the transition towards open access, though perhaps not as well-received as Nature might have hoped. Open Access advocate John Wilbanks has commented on the limitations of this approach, comparing it to the technological protection imposed by Apple's iTunes. The free research papers will still reside only on Nature's website, and not be available under Creative Commons licences or for depositing into institutional repositories.
This model, being run as a trial, appears to go some way to legitimise a practice of sharing that is already common through informal mechanisms. Nature Publishing has also made efforts to help researchers share their work through options such as their Manuscript Deposition service, available for research supported by certain funders. Both options do however leave control over re-use in the hands of the publisher, with the underlying business model remaining based on subscriptions. Meanwhile, Nature Communications has become fully open access, so NPG are definitely making moves to see what works best in the changing realities of scientific publishing.