After 350 years in the slow-moving world of print, scientific publishing has been thrust into a fast-paced online realm of cloud computing and ubiquitous sharing. The result has been an era of ferment, as established practices are challenged by new ones — most notably, the open-access model in which the author pays publication fees upfront. Last month, US President Barack Obama's administration declared that government-funded research papers should be made freely available within 12 months of publication (see Nature 494, 414–415; 2013 ). And from 1 April, research councils in the United Kingdom will require the results of government-funded research to be open access on publication.

In this special issue, Nature explores the changing landscape. A News Feature weighs claims that online, author-pays publishing can drastically cut costs (see page 426). Several authors discuss the nuts and bolts of making open-access publishing work well — including copyright pioneer John Wilbanks on open licensing agreements (see pages 440 and 442). A report explores the dark side of open access: publishers whose tactics lead authors to feel disgruntled or duped (see page 433). And a Careers Feature offers advice for researchers trying to balance prestige, cost and career implications in deciding where to submit manuscripts (see page 539).

The special also looks at broader aspects of publishing. Information scientist Jason Priem describes how the concepts of journal and article are being superseded by algorithms that filter, rate and disseminate scholarship as it happens (see page 437). A News Feature investigates how some university libraries are reinventing themselves to help scientists to archive and make accessible a new kind of publication: data sets (see page 430). And Robert Darnton, director of the library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, talks about the soon-to-be launched Digital Public Library of America, which could ultimately hold 5 million books (see page 447). Science itself is changing rapidly; the means by which it is shared must keep up.