A journal reveals its true colors

Jordan Anaya
8 min readDec 23, 2016


This tweet showed up on my Twitter timeline:

The image looked slightly similar to another graph I had seen:

Actually, they might be more than slightly similar, let’s do a side by side:

Hot diggity, I do declare those images are the same!

Okay, fine, there are a few cosmetic changes. The one on the left does look better (sorry Jessica), and it has this weird symbol in the bottom left corner.

You may have thought this was going to be a post about copyright. Nope. I don’t care about copyright and don’t understand it. Both of these graphs utilize data from PrePubMed, data which I licensed under an MIT open license, and I am happy to see that people are using my data. I don’t work alone in my apartment for free to make things that people CAN’T use. I believe all work should be free to use, as long as it is used correctly and appropriately cited. But I’m not sure that happened here.

Typically if you are going to grab someone’s image and use it in your article you would cite the image by providing a link to the original location. Instead, this is how this Nature article cited the image:

No link to ASAPbio and Jessica Polka, who made the image.

Okay, they didn’t literally copy the image, they altered it with Photoshop. So technically what they did is probably perfectly legal. But the rest of the images in the article are reproduced without any changes and they cited them the same way, no hyperlinks in sight.

Okay, Jessica said they contacted her about using the image, so presumably Nature also contacted the owners of the other images and obtained their permission to use them. So again, everything checks out legally, although you have to wonder if the owners were expecting hyperlinks.

But Nature didn’t slap a giant copyright symbol on the images it reproduced, only on the graph it “added value” to.

And look, I get it, value was “added”. The Nature brand and color scheme is dope, fresh to death, on point, hyphee, lit, pussy on the motherfucking chainwax, or whatever the young’uns are saying these days.

Just as a basketball signed by Kobe Bryant is worth more than one signed by Sasha Vujačić, work that Nature slaps its brand on is more valuable than work another journal slaps its brand on. But the basketball signed by Kobe Bryant might be the exact same ball signed by Sasha Vujačić, or it may even be of lower quality. If you were to choose one to play with you might very well go the one that is worth less. Shit, the ball signed by Kobe Bryant might even be defective and unusable.

If you, like my friends, are shocked that Nature slapped its copyright on this slightly modified image you shouldn’t be. Because this is exactly what they, and journals like them, do every day. They take the work of scientists, add their typesetting and color scheme, and then slap their copyright on it. Wait, I forgot a step…oh right…and then profit.

Let’s discuss why Nature chose to use this image. The article in question is titled “2016 in news: The science events that shaped the year”. Clearly Nature was looking for the sexiest stories possible for this article, and the sexiest possible images. And the exponential increase in life science preprints the past year is definitely a sexy story. And they probably saw ASAPbio’s image somewhere (it has been extensively tweeted), and thought, “damn, that’s a sexy image, we should take it”.

Nature probably hoped that the sexy images of the sexy stories in their sexy article in their sexy journal would get their sexy article and sexy journal some more attention. And it looks like they were right:

97 retweets! I would give my left nut for 97 retweets.

Good for them, can’t hate the player.

But I do find the disingenuousness of the whole thing disgusting.

Does Nature really care about preprints and open science? If they did wouldn’t they have actually written about preprints in the article instead of just showing a sexy image? Wouldn’t they have linked to ASAPbio or other preprint resources?

I think the answer can be found if we take a closer look at their image. The image isn’t even accurate. In an attempt to make the image as sexy as possible they omitted the fact that the arXiv data is arXiv q-bio, not all of arXiv. arXiv q-bio only makes up around 1% of all arXiv articles. You can see this error in the text they provide. They state: “From 2008 to 2014, arXiv garnered half a million manuscripts”. If you take the integral of the arXiv graph in this image from 2008 to 2014 you’ll get around 7,000, not 500,000.

And Nature happily threw their copyright on this incorrectly presented data. Which isn’t surprising, it’s basically par for the course at this point.

So what can we deduce? Not only does Nature not give a shit about preprints, they don’t even give a shit about facts! They likely thought that if they labeled arXiv q-bio as arXiv it would then make it appear that there are more preprints being added to bioRxiv than being added to arXiv, which would make for one hell of a sexy image and story.

But bioRxiv does not receive more preprints than arXiv, it receives more preprints than arXiv q-bio. arXiv adds more than 8,000 preprints per month, bioRxiv only has 7,000 preprints TOTAL. I have doubts the bioRxiv infrastructure could even handle 8,000 preprints a month (I might also have to upgrade the PrePubMed server).

To be fair to Nature, they have been more supportive of preprints than some publishers such as Cell. In fact, they did have their own preprint server, Nature Precedings. However, my feeling is that they are only superficially supportive of preprints and open science in an attempt to earn brownie points with the open science community, and really only care about their bottom line. After all, the APC for their open science journal, Nature Communications, is $5,200.

So how did Nature look and feel after butchering this graph and slapping their copyright on it? I imagine something like this:

Caught red-handed and not giving a fuck.

I know I said this post wasn’t about copyright, but Daniel Himmelstein has gotten me thinking about copyright issues recently and I thought it might be interesting to think about the copyright issues here.

It is my understanding that if you write a blog post and include someone’s image it is probably sufficient to simply include a link to where the image lives. In contrast, for publications it is imperative journals obtain written permission from the owner of the image. The difference is that the journal will be slapping their copyright on the article, which implies they own the copyright to everything in the article. If they try to claim copyright of an image which is copyrighted by someone else then they are in clear violation of that person’s copyright. Blog posts typically don’t slap a huge “All rights reserved” at the end after using other peoples’ work. They also often don’t stand to profit from using other peoples’ work.

I think a similar thing happens with tweets. It is fine for Dr. Topol to tweet Nature’s image which they clearly copyrighted “All rights reserved” because he is not claiming ownership of it and can argue it is fair use (he is providing them free advertising after all). Now the interesting question is whether I am violating Nature’s copyright by including tweets that included a copyrighted image that was likely tweeted without permission from the copyright holder. Complicating this is the fact that the image cites me as the source of the data, and the image was only slightly modified from a CC-BY image, which also cited me. I would think that would give me the right to use it. Just in case I did link to the original article.

This is why I never bothered to try and understand copyright. If I get a DMCA notification I’ll just file a counter-notice faster than you can say “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine”.

You’ve got some nerve coming out here
Into the eye of the storm
with a noose ‘round your neck

  • Gurren Lagann, great anime, would recommend

Edit 20170122: The image by Nature is being used a lot so I thought I would make an updated (and correct) image. All data is from PrePubMed, and because of the issue with preprint revisions the numbers prior to 2016 may not depict the number of preprints deposited each month with 100% accuracy.

Update 20190206: The empire strikes again

Nature is back at it discussing preprints, and back to reappropriating figures. This time they didn’t just change the colors of one figure, but three!

So the Nature image has some numbers at the bottom making you think this was a custom analysis, but those numbers are just from a table in the preprint!

This next image isn’t as egregious since Nature cherry picked what they wanted, although it’s interesting that Nature decided to use the 42% figure since for recent preprints there hasn’t been enough time for them to get published.

This next one is just embarrassing.

Last time I said what Nature did was probably fine because Jessica gave them permission, but unless this tweet is a joke it doesn’t look as if they got permission this time.

Now again, I don’t know anything about copyright and don’t care, but the ND in CC-BY-ND stands for “NonDerivative”, and it seems these images are clearly derivatives. I’m fairly sure that if I were to write a review article for Nature and I took some images I liked from other journals and just changed the colors that wouldn’t fly, so I’m not sure why they think what they’re doing is kosher.