Nature boss warns Plan S could put journal out of business

Springer Nature says highly selective titles need special treatment under European-led open access initiative

February 13, 2019
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The chief publishing officer of Nature’s parent company has warned that the flagship journal’s future could be imperilled if research funders do not make major changes to Plan S, the European-led open access initiative.

Thirteen European national funders, the European Commission, and three charitable funders, including the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have said that they will in effect bar research that they have supported from being published in subscription periodicals such as Nature from next January, by requiring outputs to be made freely available at the point of publication.

Other funding agencies, including in North America and Asia, have also expressed an interest in signing up.

But Steven Inchcoombe, chief publishing officer at Springer Nature, told Times Higher Education that forcing a switch to open access publishing could be damaging. He was speaking as Springer Nature submitted its response to the consultation on the Plan S proposals, which says that many academics still wanted to publish in subscription titles. It adds that many funders are not yet prepared to pay the article processing charges associated with open access publishing and that there should be a “global level playing field” on open access.

“All the focus [of Plan S] is on the supply side and we think a lot more focus should be on demand – by which I mean the researchers themselves, and other funding agencies that are not yet signed up with Plan S,” Mr Inchcoombe said. “Just changing the supply will mean you can lead the horse to water but I’m afraid, unless the horse is going to drink, it’s pointless.”

In its submission, Springer Nature argues that titles such as Nature should be treated as a special case under Plan S, highlighting that the use of in-house professional editors and its high refusal rate meant that average costs per article were estimated to be between €10,000 and €30,000 (£8,770 and £26,300), which would be “very difficult” to recover via an article processing charge. Having open access versions of articles available elsewhere would put “at risk” Springer Nature’s ability “to sustain these investments via the subscription model”.

Mr Inchcoombe said that he did not think Plan S’ creators “realise[d] what the consequences of their principles would be when applied to this very specific case” of Nature. “I have a responsibility to make sure Nature continues to serve its readers and its authors and therefore I have to prevent it being accidentally damaged or put out of business because of the unintended consequences of these policies,” he said.

Asked whether there was a possibility that Nature could go out of business if Plan S was implemented widely without major changes, Mr Inchcoombe said: “Yes. I don’t know why libraries would pay for subscriptions if there are free, aggregated services of all the author-accepted versions of papers immediately available on multiple websites around the world – which these principles would enable.”

While Springer Nature was fully on board with “the goal of transitioning to open access as quickly and as effectively as possible”, the group was calling for “flexibility…so that researchers’ needs can be genuinely met”, Mr Inchcoombe said.

The company’s submission calls for academics to be allowed to continue publishing in hybrid journals – which make some articles freely available in return for a processing charge and keep others behind a paywall – and for highly selective titles to shift towards this model. Another option would be for the creation of open access “sister” titles.

Springer Nature also calls for the use of six-month embargo periods before versions of articles in highly selective journals are made freely available, and for journalistic and review content to remain paid for via subscriptions.

Mr Inchcoombe pointed to the results of a Springer Nature survey which indicated that open access was a low priority for researchers when asked what had made them submit their paper to one of the company’s journals. The title’s relevance to the discipline, its reputation, its impact factor and its readership were more important.

Without “much stronger promotion” of the benefits of open access, these factors were unlikely to change, he argued.

“It takes years, many years to build up the trust, to build up the track record and editorial relationships [at leading journals],” Mr Inchcoombe said. “It’s not about throwing money at it. Use what’s already there.

“These are journals that the community trusts. Those prestigious journals are very different from the vast majority. We need to have a joined-up conversation about the options.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Nature boss warns Plan S could put prestigious journal out of business

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Reader's comments (4)

"Mr Inchcoombe pointed to the results of a Springer Nature survey which indicated that open access was a low priority for researchers .... The title’s relevance to the discipline, its reputation, its impact factor and its readership were more important". That simply reflects the mindless, tick-box approach of so many grant awarding bodies and their focus on "prestigious" journal titles when assessing research merit. And, happily, that is precisely what is now being challenged under Plan S. “Those prestigious journals are very different from the vast majority". Well, one can't argue with that; their penchant for publishing headline-grabbing tripe that is subsequently retracted has been well-established; see eg Fang & Casadevall 2011 https://iai.asm.org/content/79/10/3855.full (esp Fig 1).
I do the work day night in the lab, generate data, and I pay to publish it, and sadly I have to pay to read my own work. this whole publishing business has been abused by Nature and its like wise. this must stop.
I agree with robmat59 that the case made in https://iai.asm.org/content/79/10/3855.full is reasonably compelling.
> Another option would be for the creation of open access “sister” titles. No it wouldn't. Plan S has explicitly ruled them out. > Inchcoombe: “Yes. I don’t know why libraries would pay for subscriptions if there are free, aggregated services of all the author-accepted versions of papers immediately available on multiple websites around the world – which these principles would enable.” Plan S funders account for < 10% of published articles. No librarian in their right mind would cancel on the basis of such a small number of green OA articles. I'm afraid Nature has to do something. The status quo is not an option. If they don't want to lose all these valuable Plan S authored papers from Jan 2020 they will have to either a) flip to OA; b) allow unembargoed green OA with a CC-BY licence. I'd recommend the latter as the former is impractical

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