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Nature journals debut open-access models

18 December 2020

Two newly announced options for authors bring the publications into compliance with Europe’s Plan S initiative, but the fees exceed those of other open-access journals.

Copies of Nature.
Photo courtesy of Nature

Joaquín Fernández-Rossier has authored about 200 scientific papers, with just over half a dozen in Nature-branded journals, including Nature, Nature Materials, Nature Nanotechnology, and Nature Communications. Although those do not represent a large proportion of his papers, they’re “a huge chunk of the reputation I have,” says Fernández-Rossier, a condensed-matter physicist at the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory in Braga, Portugal.

But Fernández-Rossier doesn’t know how easily he will be able to publish in Nature journals going forward. It depends on whether the agency funding him will require his papers to be published open access (OA)—and if so, whether it will be willing to pay the newly announced fees for doing that.

Last month publishing giant Springer Nature announced that in January 2021 many of its Nature-branded journals will start offering authors the option to make their papers OA immediately after publication. For an article processing charge (APC) of €9500 (around $11 500), authors submitting to Nature and the 32 other Nature research journals—including Nature Physics and Nature Astronomy—can make their papers free to read. The move makes the Nature journals compliant with Plan S, an ambitious European-led effort to make more scholarly literature OA quickly. The plan goes into effect in January.

Since the announcement, researchers have been expressing concerns on social media, saying in particular that the APC is too high. APCs at different journals have varied considerably, but the amount has not typically exceeded $6000 even at the most highly reputed journals. Nature Communications, which is already OA and not subject to the new policy, charges authors €4380, though that will rise slightly next month.

Robert Fisher, a physicist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, suspects there will be limited uptake of the new OA offer, at least initially. “There will be many, many researchers in the developing world, and even at institutions in Europe, the US, and the UK, who will not be able to afford those costs,” he believes.

Springer Nature says it won’t waive the new APCs for researchers who demonstrate financial need, unlike many OA publishers. The OA fees reflect the costs of producing the papers in the first place, says Andrea Taroni, chief editor of Nature Physics. “We have a lot of overhead,” he says, pointing out that his journal has a full-time team of professional editors as well as staff who work on art, production, and legal aspects, and that Nature Physics rejects around 90% of submissions.

Johan Rooryck, executive director of Coalition S, the group of funding agencies representing Plan S, says some of its member funders have indicated they will foot the bill for APCs at Nature journals at least initially, but many have said they won’t. Rooryck acknowledges that it’s an “encouraging move” for Springer Nature to start offering OA options at its more prestigious journals. “But that doesn’t mean we have signed a blank check and are willing to pay any price for the articles appearing in those journals.”

Under the current system, authors publishing in Nature journals are allowed to post early versions of their papers on preprint servers and online repositories, but final, copyedited versions of papers usually remain behind a paywall for an embargo period of six months before becoming free to access on journal sites. In that process, researchers are not required to pay anything; rather, institutional libraries pay annual subscription charges, which vary, for their researchers to access papers while they are paywalled. Nature-branded journals will continue to offer that option, which may be useful for authors who are funded by agencies that haven’t signed on to Plan S. But authors who are funded by agencies that are signatories of Plan S and want to publish in Nature research journals must use Springer Nature’s OA route or publish elsewhere.

Sylvain Gigan, a physicist at Sorbonne University in Paris who has published two papers in Nature Physics, says he would prefer to forgo OA and wait out the six-month embargo period, since he can post early versions of his papers on arXiv. But he is funded by the French National Research Agency, a signatory of Plan S, so he will have to go the OA route if he wants to publish in Nature journals in the future. “I don’t mind if I’m forced to and if I have the money, or if the funding agencies are paying directly,” he says.

In a separate effort, which scientists affected by Plan S will also be eligible for, Springer Nature is launching a pilot of a new publishing model that it calls guided open access. Beginning in January, authors submitting to Nature Physics, Nature Genetics, and Nature Methods will have the option of being assigned an editorial guide, who will champion every manuscript that passes an initial editorial scan, with the ultimate aim of getting it published in either those journals or one of three other Springer Nature titles. The guides “are committed to giving [authors] the best possible editorial outcome,” Taroni says.

Nature Physics.
Cover image courtesy of Springer Nature

For all manuscripts that pass the first scan, researchers will have to pay an editorial assessment charge of €2190, which is collected regardless of whether the paper is ultimately accepted. The publisher says the fee is for the expert judgment of its in-house editors, who will offer advice on issues such as strengthening the research design and navigating reviewer feedback.

If studies are thought to be solid but not suitable for the three abovementioned journals, they may be referred to Nature Communications, Communications Physics, and Communications Biology. To save time and effort, manuscripts will undergo peer review at only one journal, making the process more efficient than it is at present. Authors will pay an additional fee of €2600 if the paper is published by any Nature-branded journal or €800 for acceptance at a Communications journal. If the paper is ultimately rejected, the author gets an editorial assessment report that explains how the paper can be improved. At most, researchers pursuing the guided OA route will pay €4790, just over half the cost of the newly announced APC for Nature titles.

“Because we recognize that the cost of €9500 is high, we are experimenting with other ways to try and bring the cost down,” Taroni says. What’s more, he notes, all journals participating in the guided OA trial will publish referee reports, and by default reveal referee names. (Reviewers can opt out of disclosing their names if they wish.)

Fernández-Rossier says he won’t submit papers to the guided OA trial out of fear he’ll pay the editorial assessment charge and his papers will end up being rejected anyway. Scientists “are facing rejections all the time,” he says.

Gigan observes that authors may feel trapped in the Nature ecosystem when they are passed from one journal to another. Taroni counters by saying that researchers can, if they wish, pass on their editorial assessment reports to other journals they resubmit their papers to.

Springer Nature’s new OA options for all authors come on the heels of its more institution-specific approach. In October the publisher reached an agreement with the Max Planck Digital Library in Munich that allows researchers based at 120 German institutions that already subscribe to Nature-branded journals to publish papers under OA terms.

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