Nature journals reveal terms of landmark open-access option


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The journals will charge authors up to €9,500 to make research papers free to read, in a long-awaited alternative to subscription-only publishing.

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Nature and 32 other subscription titles in the Nature family will offer open-access publishing from 2021.Credit: Nature

Publisher Springer Nature has announced how scientists can make their papers in its most selective titles free to read as soon as they are published – part of a long-awaited move to offer open-access publishing in the Nature family of journals.

From 2021, the publisher will charge €9,500, US$11,390 or £8,290 to make a paper open access (OA) in Nature and 32 other journals that currently keep most of their articles behind paywalls and are financed by subscriptions. It is also trialling a scheme that would halve that price for some journals, under a common-review system that might guide papers to a number of titles.

OA advocates are pleased that the publisher has found ways to offer open access to all authors, which it first committed to in April. But they are concerned about the price. The development is a “very significant” moment in the movement to make scientific articles free for all to read, but “it looks very expensive”, says Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at Imperial College London.

The change was spurred by the ‘Plan S’ movement, in which funders are mandating that their grant recipients must make their work OA as soon as it is published; the funders will generally cover researchers’ costs for this in journals that meet their requirements. Last month, Springer Nature signed a deal that allowed some German scientists to publish openly in Nature-branded journals for free, with a €9,500-per-article price baked into their institutions’ subscription fees. But today’s announcement reveals the options for any author who wants to publish OA. (Nature is editorially independent of its publisher.)

Publishers of extremely selective journals, such as Nature and Science, have been trying to work out how to switch from subscriptions to OA since Plan S was announced. A large proportion of their production costs come from evaluating manuscripts that are ultimately rejected; when revenue can be collected only from the few articles that get published, the fee per article is high.

High price

No other journals charge as much as €9,500 per OA paper: the highest fees elsewhere are less than $6,000 (about €5,000). Some OA advocates criticize Springer Nature’s fee as too high. Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says it is a “prestige tax”, because it will pay for the journals’ high rejection rates, but will not, in his opinion, guarantee higher quality or discoverability. “I think it would be absurd for any funder, university or author to pay it,” he says. But Lisa Hinchliffe, a librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, says that the fees are not necessarily too high for authors. “I think many authors will find this to be an acceptable price for value,” she says.

Juan Pablo Alperin, a communications scholar at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, says that although the announcement “signals that universal open access is inevitable”, the costs are out of reach for researchers in poorer countries.

A Springer Nature spokesperson responds that costs are higher than at other titles because Nature-branded journals review many more papers than are published, and because they employ in-house editors and press officers, whose work is of “huge value” to researchers. “Making comparisons is difficult, as no other highly selective journal portfolio is offering OA on this scale,” they say. Authors who don’t choose OA can continue to freely publish their research behind a paywall, the spokesperson notes: these papers are available to subscribers, and authors can make their accepted manuscripts available online after a delay; for Nature that is six months after publication.

The group of funders backing Plan S, called cOAlition S, says publishers should provide data to break down how publishing fees relate to the services provided. “Once this information is available, the research community will be better placed to decide whether the fees levied by publishers are fair and reasonable,” says coalition coordinator Robert Kiley, who is also head of open research at the biomedical-research funder Wellcome in London.

‘Guided’ OA pilot

Springer Nature is also introducing a scheme that would roughly halve OA fees for some journals, which it is trialling with Nature Physics, Nature Genetics and Nature Methods. Under the scheme, called guided OA, authors submit manuscripts and — if they pass a suitability screen — pay a non-refundable fee of €2,190 to cover an editorial assessment and the peer-review process. In return, they get a review document, which the publisher says includes more detailed editorial evaluation than typical review reports, and they are told which Springer Nature title their work is recommended for.

Authors who submit to Nature Physics, for instance, might be accepted at that journal or told what revisions they need to make to reach it; they might be guided to the less-selective journals Nature Communications or Communications Physics; or their manuscript might be rejected. They can then walk away with their report or, if accepted, can pay a top-up fee of €2,600 to publish in Nature Physics or Nature Communications. The total fee of €4,790 is half the standard OA fee for Nature Physics, and a slight increase on the price of publishing in Nature Communications, the only Nature-branded title that is already fully OA. The top-up fee is €800 for Communications Physics, again making the total cost a slight increase on the current price in that OA journal; the increase is to cover the extra editorial work involved in the guided OA route compared to direct submissions to these journals, the publisher says.

This mechanism “shares the cost more evenly over multiple authors” and will save time by avoiding multiple rounds of review in different journals, says James Butcher, vice-president of journals at the Nature Portfolio and BMC, an imprint owned by Springer Nature. Hinchliffe sees it as “a creative experiment for authors and publisher to manage financial risk”.

The scheme could be tempting to researchers hoping to publish in a Nature-branded journal, says Alperin. Compared with the full-price OA option, it “offers a lower initial barrier of entry with a higher threshold of success”, he says. But peer reviewers who have appraised the manuscript under this scheme might feel that Nature titles are “essentially selling their free labour to authors” if a reviewed paper is not eventually published, says Curry.

Test run

Kiley will watch the idea with interest. “Ultimately, we believe that publishing costs need to be split so that they reflect the different services publishers provide, and this experiment by [Springer Nature] will help inform this approach,” he says.

Journals in the Nature family have committed to increasing their OA content over time, so most Plan S funders have said they will pay their OA fees, despite a general reluctance to support hybrid journals (which keep some papers behind a paywall and make others open). But some, including the European Commission and the Dutch Research Council (NWO), have not yet agreed to this.

Other publishers of highly-selective journals haven’t yet announced policies in response to Plan S. Cell Press (owned by Elsevier in Amsterdam) says that the journal Cell is finalizing its approach: it currently offers OA publishing at $5,900, but only to authors whose funding agency “has an appropriate agreement” with the journal. That policy doesn’t suit Plan S, Kiley says.

The publisher of Science-branded journals, the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC, says it is still thinking about how to adjust to Plan S. Since 2013, it has allowed authors to post an accepted version of their article in an online repository when their paper is published. But that doesn’t satisfy Plan S funders, who ask that manuscripts be shared under an open licence that allows anyone else to redistribute or adapt the work. Science’s policy does not currently permit this.

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