Today (November 24), the academic publisher Springer Nature announced that, starting in January, authors whose articles are accepted into a Nature-branded journal will have an open-access option for €9,500 (approximately $11,300 US).
The publisher also revealed a pilot project in which authors pay a nonrefundable assessment fee of €2,190 (approximately $2,600 US) to determine whether a manuscript is suitable for a selection of Nature-branded journals, but acceptance is not guaranteed. If a match is found, the authors then pay the remainder of the publication charge and the paper is made open access.
Most Nature titles are subscription journals, meaning that their content sits behind a paywall. Springer Nature has inked contracts with institutions to expand open-access (OA) offerings of its titles, but the Nature suite has typically been excluded. This latest move marks a shift toward making the content in those journals freely accessible to the public.
In April, Springer Nature stated that it would be offering ways to publish open access in its Nature-branded journals in order to be compliant with Plan S, an initiative to make all the scholarly literature freely accessible immediately upon publication, led by a group of funding organizations dubbed cOAlition S. The announcement came shortly after the coalition softened its stance on transformative journals (those that commit to eventually becoming fully open access)—introducing various changes, such as dropping the obligation to flip to 100 percent open access by 2024 and reducing the required annual increase in open-access content.
“Springer Nature continues to attempt to position itself as a leading [open access] publisher,” says Lisa Hinchliffe, a professor and the coordinator of information literacy services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They are clearly open to trying a large number of models. Which of these models will succeed . . . remains to be seen.”
Last month, Springer Nature unveiled its first open-access deal for its Nature-branded journals with the Max Planck Society, an association of German research institutes. The agreement, which comes into effect in January, will enable academics from those participating institutions to read content and publish open access articles in Nature journals for a lump sum. The fee is based on a per-article fee of €9,500 to make articles freely accessible upon publication.
The €9,500 price tag has drawn criticism from those who say the amount is too steep to widely benefit the scholarly community. “Agreements that arrange for paying exorbitant amounts for publishing OA in prestigious journals do nothing to improve the accessibility and equitability of the scholarly publishing system, and merely show everything can be had if you just throw enough money at it,” Jeroen Bosman and Bianca Kramer, two librarians and scholarly communication researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, wrote in an email to Nature last month.
Today’s announcement has also drawn disapproval from academics on social media. Michael Marks, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine called the €9,500 fee “insane and indefensible” on Twitter. “Paying 2190€ just for the possibility of peer review, or 9500€ for publishing is not an option for researchers in lower income countries,” tweeted Atay Vural, a professor at Koç University in Turkey. “This is not the solution for open science. This makes the situation even worse.”
“Journals will charge authors up to €9,500 to make research papers free to read...” I have paid some crazy submission fees to international journals & can attest that it definitely worsens the entry barrier for scholars from countries like India.https://t.co/jSfMma9i68— Prof Shamika Ravi (@ShamikaRavi) November 24, 2020
There is currently no waiver for those who cannot afford the €9,500 fee for submissions to Nature journals, with the exception of the already open-access journal Nature Communications. But according to James Butcher, the vice president of journals at Nature Research and BMC, another journal collection belonging to Springer Nature, a waiver will be introduced once those journals become fully open access. “During [the transition period], we will not be offering waivers because authors could choose to publish subscription if they want, in the standard way,” Butcher says. “Once the journal becomes fully open access, which would probably be quite a few years down the line, then there will be a waiver policy.”
Piloting a new model
Starting in the new year, Springer Nature also plans to pilot a system that will give authors the option of publishing open-access articles in Nature titles for half the fee. Under the new scheme, dubbed “Guided Open Access,” authors can submit a paper to a Nature journal (Nature Physics, for example) and the manuscript will be simultaneously considered for that journal as well as two other associated, lower-tier journals that are already open access, in this case, Nature Communications and Communications Physics.
Once the article passes through a basic quality check, it will be sent for an “editorial assessment,” at which point a nonrefundable charge of €2,190 will be payable by the authors. At this stage, editors will determine whether the paper is suitable for publication in one of the three journals and peer reviewers will read the manuscript. If the article is accepted into one of the journals, authors who choose to publish will pay the remainder of the fee (which in this scenario would be €2,600 for Nature Physics and Nature Communications, and €800 in Communication Physics).
I think this is innovative because it is a step in the direction of charging for services.—Bodo Stern, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
“It’s an efficient peer-review service,” says Butcher. “Effectively what we’re doing is assessing the submitted paper across multiple journals at the same time, which should make the process faster and cut out some of the inefficiency.” At the moment, approximately 15–20 percent of papers submitted to Nature journals are sent out for peer review, and around 8 percent are accepted. Under the new model, all papers that pass the initial quality screen will get peer-reviewed, Butcher adds. “I suspect it will be about three-quarters [of submissions], but I don’t know for sure.”
According to Butcher, another upside of the system is that it provides a way to spread the cost across publications. “Because everyone pays for that initial editorial assessment report, that means we’re able to spread the cost across multiple offers rather than just the ones that are ultimately accepted.” (Butcher notes that the current acceptance rates are approximately 16 percent at Nature Communications and 30 percent at the other Communications titles.)
For now, the “Guided Open Access” option is only available for submissions to Nature Genetics, Nature Methods, and Nature Physics. Butcher says that the length of the pilot will depend on how many authors opt to submit via this new method.
“I think this is innovative because it is a step in the direction of charging for services,” says Bodo Stern, the chief of strategic initiatives at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a private biomedical research institution and funder that joined cOAlition S in October. “I hope it’s successful, but it is not going to be popular with authors.” (Journals don’t typically ask authors to pay if their manuscripts are not accepted, although there are a handful of publications that collect modest submission fees.) Stern adds that from his perspective, it’s fair for publishers to charge for assessments, since it is a service they are providing. In Stern’s view, in the long run, the publishing system should change so that researchers immediately post all their all papers onto preprint servers and journal publishers act primarily as curators rather than a publication service.
Hinchliffe says the big question is whether cOAlition S will accept the Nature journals as transformative journals. “This sets their transformative journal APC [article processing charge] at €9,500,” she adds. “If Plan S approves their application to be transformative journals, they will be indicating that they have accepted this as a fair and reasonable APC.”
COI statement: Diana Kwon has received payments from Springer Nature as a freelance reporter for Scientific American and Nature, editorially independent publications owned by the publisher.