Nature and University of California expand open-access pact

California continues trailblazing push with major publishers but sees fundamental cost problem still unresolved

July 27, 2022
Academic journals
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The University of California system has reached an open-access agreement with the Nature journals, growing UC’s transformative series of publisher pacts but also showing its persistent cost-based limits.

UC’s new arrangement expands a relationship first reached in 2020 with Springer Nature by adding the company’s prestigious Nature family of journals to the open-access options available to UC authors.

The 2020 agreement led to a tripling of open-access articles by UC authors publishing in the journals that Springer Nature made eligible for it, the company said in its announcement of the expansion.

“It has been clear that together we are supporting the transition to gold OA and all that is the future of open science,” said the company’s chief commercial officer, Carolyn Honour.

Gold open-access is a term meaning that published articles are permanently and freely available online for anyone to read. That’s usually achieved – as it is in the Springer Nature agreement with the UC system – by the author paying an APC, or article publishing charge, to cover the journal’s production costs.

UC leaders also see the expanded Springer Nature agreement as representing progress, although with that success greatly limited by the high APC charges – more than $11,000 (£9,100) per article in the flagship Nature journal and more than $5,000 per article in most other Nature titles.

Under UC’s standard arrangement with Springer Nature and other publishers, the California library system automatically contributes $1,000 for any author who chooses to publish in an open-access format. For any journals charging more than that amount – as most do – the author must cover the APC through grant support or other resources.

The California system often will pay those additional costs for authors who lack the necessary funds, said Jeff MacKie-Mason, a professor of economics and university librarian at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-leads the UC system’s negotiations with publishers.

But, Professor MacKie-Mason said of the Nature arrangement, the subsidy for authors “is something we simply cannot afford when the publishing fees are this high”.

“Nevertheless,” he added, “we see this as a stepping stone and, as with any pilot, we will learn from it.”

Just as it outlined the Nature agreement, the UC system also announced a four-year pact with IEEE covering the 200 journals of the world’s largest technical professional organisation. The IEEE agreement also calls on the UC library system to pay the APCs for authors who lack the necessary funds, and gives UC scholars access to IEEE content.

The UC system produces nearly 10 per cent of all published US academic science and Professor MacKie-Mason and the UC team have used that power to push virtually all leading journals – including all five of the biggest publishers of UC research – into open-access formats, while encouraging other universities to do the same.

Worldwide, he noted, universities and other research institutions have now reached more than 530 agreements to change journal subscription models into open-access formats, up from fewer than 100 just three years ago.

The UC system’s toughest fight involved a two-year stalemate with academic publishing giant Elsevier, which cut off UC researchers from its 2,600 journals, before accepting a contract that reduced UC’s overall costs and put research by UC authors in free-to-read formats.

The expanded agreement between UC and Springer Nature begins next month and runs through the end of 2024. Under the existing arrangement, the company said, UC researchers last year published more than 1,300 open-access articles, up from 400 in 2020. Those figures cover more than 2,200 hybrid journals and 500 fully open-access journals at Springer Nature, the company said.

Among just the hybrid journals, where the author can choose between subscription-only and open-access, the number of UC articles published in an open-access format jumped more than ten-fold from 83 in 2019 to 900 in 2021, Professor MacKie-Mason said. “Results appear to be comparable for other publishers so far,” he added.

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