Springer Nature proposes model for open access transition

Suggested approach could see content from Nature made freely available

May 10, 2019
Butterfly cocoons

Springer Nature has proposed a model to accelerate the shift towards open access publishing, in a move that could see research papers from prestigious Nature titles made freely available.

The UK-based firm had previously promoted hybrid journals as a key part of the transition to open access, and warned that European funders’ demand for the results of publicly funded research to be made freely available at the point of publication could put its flagship Nature out of business. It has also questioned some researchers’ enthusiasm for publishing in non-paywalled outlets.

But Steven Inchcoombe, Springer Nature’s chief publishing officer, said its alternative models “clearly didn’t fly” with the architects of the Plan S initiative, the European-led open access mandate that is set to come into force in January, and so it had gone “back to the drawing board”.

The move comes ahead of the publication of updated guidelines for Plan S, due at the end of this month. The scheme’s leaders have indicated that there is unlikely to be a softening of the bar on open access embargoes for funded research, or of their attitude to hybrid journals, which make some content freely available in return for an article processing charge but reserve some content for subscribing readers. Funded research will be able to appear only in hybrid journals during a three-year transition period, and if they were part of a “transformative agreement” under which they were moving towards full open access.

Under Springer Nature’s new proposal, publishers could term themselves “transformative publishers”, under which they would commit to increasing the average level of open access take-up across their titles “at least at the rate of research funding bodies, institutions and consortia”, and would promote open access to researchers by releasing aggregated article metrics showing how they, for example, get more readers and citations than closed access papers.

At the end of a transition period, all of the publishers’ papers – in titles that were formerly hybrid or subscription – would be available open access, even titles such as Nature. Mr Inchcoombe said that, in the case of Nature, this would probably mean researchers being allowed to place their papers in open access depositories, with the journal’s editorial content continuing to be sold via subscriptions.

The transition would be managed through “read and publish” deals with university consortia, similar to Springer Nature’s agreement with the UK which was extended last month – and which currently excludes Nature titles. These charge a set fee for reading all of a publisher’s content, and publishing papers with them.

“We respect academics,” Mr Inchcoombe told Times Higher Education, “but it’s become increasingly clear…that unless we can move from being a passive enabler for academics and researchers to make their choices, to become a driver enabler, the transition is going to happen at a snail’s pace.

“We are not claiming this is some kind of silver bullet, but we do believe that transformative deals are a much more effective way forward.”

Mr Inchcoombe said that Springer Nature had shared its ideas with Plan S and some of the funders that support it.

The announcement was met with some scepticism, however. Jon Tennant, a researcher at the Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education, rejected the notion that the company was acting as a leader on open access.

“Springer Nature are the definition of bandwagon jumpers,” he said. “They have been dragged kicking and screaming into the open access space.”

Mr Inchcoombe said that “someone had to go first”, and that he hoped the move would encourage rival publishers to follow suit. “Our job is not to be the most popular in the room,” he said. “But I would hope people consider this model with an open mind – we can’t do it by ourselves.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

SpringerNature aims to make transformative deals (i.e. read and publish deals) a permanent rather than temporary part of the Plan-S open access policy, to allow authors to continue to pay for gold open access in hybrid journals. However, many institutions in receipt of research funding from Coalition-S partners are not currently signed up to such deals as they are prohibitively expensive. Specialist research institutions cannot justify the increased subscription costs read and publish deals would present, since they are likely to involve paying for access to a large range of irrelevant journals. These deals also concentrate subscription spend with major publishers, making less available to spend on perhaps more relevant smaller publishers. In addition, smaller or less wealthy universities, with smaller overall subscription and open access budgets would likely be prevented from signing up for deals regardless of whether they desired the range of journals. As a result of the library being unable to sign up to the package deals, researchers at those universities would be barred from publishing in those hybrid journals, reducing the range of journals they are permitted to publish in. Plan-S is clear in stating that compliant routes to open access for funded authors include publishing in fully open access journals or publishing in subscription/hybrid journals as long as they offer a liberal green open access policy with a 0-month embargo. It is not, as publishers such as SpringerNature have argued, necessary to impose a wholesale flip of all hybrid journals to open access journals nor to rely on complex transformative deals. Major publishers such as SAGE, Emerald and Cambridge University Press have demonstrated that 0-month embargoes are possible and profitable. SpringerNature’s latest statement also continues to equate open access with some kind of payment being involved. It ignores that open access can be free, either via green open access or via the increasing range of free-to-read/free-to-publish funder, university or scholar-led platforms. As a result, Coalition-S should press ahead with its commitment to phasing out paying for open access in hybrid journals.

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