Good News: Academics Can Make Their Articles Published In Top Journal Nature Freely Available As Open Access. Bad News: They Must Pay $11,000 For Each One

from the free-but-not-free dept

Two years ago, Techdirt wrote about Plan S, an initiative from top research funders that requires all work they support to be published as open access. It’s one of the most important moves to get publicly-funded work made freely available, and as such has been widely welcomed. Except by publishers, of course, who have enjoyed profit margins of 35-40% under the current system, which sees libraries and others pay for subscriptions in order to read public research. But Plan S is too big to ignore, not least after the powerful Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation joined the coalition behind it. So publishers have instead come up with ways to subvert the whole idea of making knowledge freely available in order to maintain profits. The latest and perhaps most blatant example of this has come from Springer Nature, the publisher of the journal Nature, widely regarded as one of the top two science titles in the world (the other being Science). Here’s what Nature the publisher is doing, reported by Nature the journal:

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 trialing 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 research will indeed by freely available to the world, but the authors’ institutions have to cough up the massive sum of $11,000 for every article. That will make Nature compliant with Plan S, while ensuring that loads of money continues to roll in. It also means that educational institutions won’t be saving any money when their researchers can read some Nature publishing papers for free, since they must pay out huge sums for their own academics to appear in these titles. This is a classic example of double-dipping — what is more politely called “hybrid open access.” Nature the publisher will get paid by institutions to make some articles freely available, but it will continue to be paid by subscribers to access material that has already been paid for. Plan S may mean that Nature and other publishers make even more money.

That’s problematic, because more money for Nature and other journals means more money that the academic world has to pay as whole. One of the big hopes was that open access would not only provide free access to all publicly-funded research, but that the overall cost to institutions would come down dramatically. If they don’t, then researchers in poorer countries are unlikely to be able to publish their work in leading journals, because their universities can’t afford charges of $11,000 per article. Waiver schemes exist in some cases, but are unsatisfactory, because they effectively require researchers to beg for charity — hardly what global access to knowledge is supposed to bring about.

At the heart of the problem lies the issue of a title’s supposed prestige. Nature can probably get away with charging its extremely high open access rate because researchers are so keen to appear in it for the sake of their careers:

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.

A possible solution is to move to a publishing system based around preprints, which have proved invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way of getting important research out fast. With this approach, the issue of prestige is irrelevant, since papers are simply placed online directly, for anyone to access freely. That’s going to be a hard transition. Not because there are deep problems with the idea, but because academics prefer to appear in journals like Nature and Science. Open access won’t succeed until they realize that this is not just selfish but also ultimately harmful to their own academic work, which becomes warped by the perceived need to publish in prominent titles.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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Comments on “Good News: Academics Can Make Their Articles Published In Top Journal Nature Freely Available As Open Access. Bad News: They Must Pay $11,000 For Each One”

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Richard M (profile) says:

Public money private profit??

I am not generally in favor of coming up with new laws to solve every problem** but why do the publishers get to make a profit on science that is publicly funded? It really needs to end and if we need a law to make it happen then we need to pass one that will do so.

If the science is publicly funded they should be required to cover those costs before they can make a profit on it.

If I and other tax payers are already having to pay for the research there is no way we should have to pay to see the results. I am having trouble understanding how this ever became a thing since nobody really wins other than the publishers.

** Mostly because new laws never seem to solve the problem they say they are trying to solve. So many passed laws focus on sounding good rather than being effective.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Public money private profit??

I have no problem with people and/or companies profiting off publicly funded research. After all, who is going to use it if they can’t profit from the use? And if it potentially useful but isn’t used, why should the public fund it? What I have great trouble with is anyone claiming effective ownership of anything that they didn’t create themselves. If you didn’t create it yourself, you shouldn’t be able to prevent others from using it. Actually I have a moral objection to anyone preventing others from using any idea that they use, though I do think that the original creator is entitled to a share of any profit made from the idea.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Public money private profit??

This is the thing. I have a problem with copyright being a salable item. It should be licensable by the creator, but that license shouldn’t be transferrable — meaning, Joe Smith works for BigCorp, and helps create software WidgetX. The work he did on WidgetX should be licensable to BigCorp, who can then sell WidgetX.

Under this setup, BigCorp, not being a person, cannot own copyright. They can, however, own sole distribution rights. With multiple authors contributing to WidgetX over the years, things can get messy; 12 years down the line, Joe Smith might argue that WidgetX still partially comes under his copyright, and BigCorp might argue that all his original work has long since been excised from the product. But this is where the original contract comes in; irrevocable, non-transferrable (if BigCorp is bought or goes bankrupt) wording should go into the contract.

This also means that while an executor can manage the copyrights of a deceased person until the copyright expires, the rights themselves can’t be sold off to anyone.

While this might seem unworkable, it really isn’t. Why? Because the one thing any copyright holder has the rights to do is release their rights into the public domain. At that point, ANYONE can copy/use the work with no strings attached.

Employers can even make contracts that require any employee waives their copyrights, such that the works created enter the public domain. If an employer wants to retain some level of copyright control, they could get the team lead on any project to hold their copyright and make all other contributions public domain. This way, the finished product has a copyright which they hold sole distribution rights for. Simple accounting, employees get paid once for their work, and nobody holds copyright over the really simple stuff, as it all is held in the public domain.

Transferring over to scientific research and papers, this works the same way. Nature and Elsevier can get distribution rights, but the paper authors hold the copyrights. The publishers then have to make a choice, and the option of paid or public is clear-cut to the libraries as well.

bobob says:

Although that is a mixed bag, let me note that in the past, journals charged authors for publishing research without allowing them the fredom to make the work available, so I see this as more of a continuing trend toward work eventually ending up freely available. Also, there is some value to peer review (at least in the hard sciences). 99% of the articles on arxiv will never appear in print simply because many of those articles go off into la la land.

Peer review isn’t perfect (especially in social science, economics and often in medicine given the NEJM and JAMA policies of accepting advertising from companies whose products are involved in articles appearing in those journals and I sometimes wonder if the physicians who write them understand statistics), but at least Nature is a credible journal, even if $11,000.00 seems awfully steep.

On the other hand, for the biotech industry, medicine and large research groups, 11k is really nothing. For example, experients in high energy physics can have hundreds or thousands of autors on a single article (the current record being around 5500 authors requiring 55 pages to list which exceeded the length of the article.) If they had published in Nature, that 11k would have been out of the petty cash drawer. What Nture is charging is mostly going to be a hit for theoretical articles in hard sciences which typically have few authors and small budgets, but who rarely publish there anyway.

Consider it a step in the right direction that will eventually improve and also, tht it is important to have anonymous peers review publications that other rely on for further research. The biggest offense here is that the research itself is often paid from public funding to which the public should be entitled, at least the work prior to peer review and whatever value the journal offers to those who rely on the research as being valid to the whatever extent it’s possible to find errors. Peer review and editorial judgment adds some value, but the question is how much compared with an article that has not been reviewed and sent back for corrections and suggestions before publication.

Anonymous Coward says:

It is past time that the academic libraries took over the management of peer review and publication. The internet allows them to cooperate, and it would cost them less, even if they had to hire a few extra staff. The same academic review and editorial teams can work on free versions of the top journals without changing their value to academia, as other than the management that the libraries can take over, the academic publishers contribute nothing beyond a name to the prestige journals.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Journal fees have become a crippling burden on academic libraries. With electronic publishing, the primary role of the journals is to route papers to reviewers, and responses back to the authors., and to link to a digital copy from within a digital magazine when the reviewers, who are employed by academia and not the publishers, accept a paper for publication.

If the academic libraries take over the management of the publication process, they will save themselves a fortune, even if they have to add a few staff members to do the extra work. It is not as though they need skill in contracts and logistics that were required for paper publishing. Cataloguing and keeping track of documents is what librarians do, and that is the base of academic publishing. The management of the publication processis the only part of academic publishing not carried out by academic staff, so why not bring that in house as well?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

…because then there’s no artificial gate.

What the journals provide is a limited number of slots for publishing. This means that people who actually get those slots are considered to have "the best" work. Thus those researchers get the best grants.

THIS is what the publishers charge for — they know that slots in their journals translate directly to public grant money for the researchers. So now they’re essentially saying, "Sure, you can make this Open Access. But you have to give us a large chunk of your grant money, obtained by using our name in the applications, to do so."

So if this reverts to libraries (which really really does make sense), then research grant selection has to change. You’d likely end up in publications like Harvard Medical Review being the new gatekeepers, and they’d have to find some way to limit publication volume. Likely, they’d do so by limiting articles to Harvard staff, and possibly their affiliates. This would mean that every major study would be required to have someone involved who worked for Harvard, and then we end up going down the same gravy train tunnel as we’ve got with the existing publishers.

The REAL solution here is to change the grant application process. Until that’s fixed, there’s no good solution to the publishing issues we’ve currently got.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

What the journals provide is a limited number of slots for publishing.

That is already under control of the academic community where the reviewers and editorial board of the prestige journals work. Indeed ‘nature the free version’ for example, can be created using the same rules and the same editors as nature, and would be the continuation of nature, just under new ownership. Note the academics who do the reviews and editorial wok on the journals work for academia, not for the journals, so there are no real issues in providing continuity of the prestige journals.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I think you’ve missed my point: the issue here is that the monetary gatekeeping has to be replaced with something else, or the academic community will just create new in-house publishers to manage it and the circus will continue. If you remove the title "Nature" you’ll have to replace it with something; if you replace the fees, you don’t have to replace them. But the problem is the first, as that’s what gets the grants.

So if all the reviewers for Nature switch to being reviewers for "Harvard Biology Library Monthly" then you’re going to be using a library-based publisher, and there be dragons.

If instead you move to a slightly different model and, for example, take pre-print submissions to ArXiv and peer review them, dumping the results into PRXiv, for example, then you avoid part of that problem. But then you still have to get PRXiv to become a top name for grant applicants, and that will be more difficult, even if it’s the same authors and reviewers.

So as I said, the problem really lies with the grant application process. If, for example, it became illegal to grant public money based on an index that includes private publications, this might fix the issue. The index would have to be tabulated based solely on open access journals.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

You need to look up how academic publishing actually works. The academic community, and not the publishers, provide all the reviews and editorial functions, with the publishers hiding who is reviewing which papers. Take those functions into the academic libraries, and the money those libraries spend on academic journals will more than cover any extra employees and storage systems needed to continue the journals to current standards, with probably a name change.

That is, with the decline of print journals, the academics provide the papers, reviews and editing of the journals for free, or with some journals, the authors pat page fees for publication, and the academic publishers then charge the academics handsomely for access to the works that they provide.

That the system is all sorts of scewed up is obvious when you consider that the academic use the journals for publication because of the peer review, and because publication of peer reviewed papers is critical to an academic career. Those same academic then try to shoot the publishers by proving copies of their works to Sci Hub.

Also, if you have been following academic news, you would realize that there is a growing revolt against the academic publishers, but not the publishing process, which apart from some management functions, is carried out by the academic. Acadmic libarians have the contacts, and about the right distance from the academic researchers, along with the skills necessary to replace the publishers in the current system; after all cataloguing and tracking documents is what they do for a living.

Michael says:

Re: Re:

I’m an academic librarian, and there are 2 problems with this:

1) Academic libraries don’t have the money to take this on. Most are lucky to get a new laser printer for their students, let alone be able to build a massive technical infrastructure to run a journal. Even at the Ivy League-level, getting permission would never work despite it saving massive amounts of money in the long run because the administrations don’t value knowledge; they value donors, who don’t value anything they can’t put their name on in big letters. "Open Access" is meaningless to them.

2) Few librarians have the technical and business know-how to run such a thing. The sad truism is this: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach become librarians.

That said, there are unbelievably qualified librarians out there, but they don’t run libraries, and they certainly don’t control the purse strings.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

1) Academic libraries don’t have the money to take this on.

Wouldn’t what you pay for journals subscriptions more than cover the costs of taking that on. I am proposing this as a replacement for the academic publishers, who from what I have heard are a major financial drain on academic libraries. This is not so much set up as competition, as take over the administrative management of existing journals, Sci Hub seems well supported as a means of bypassing the academics publishers control of existing papers.

2) Few librarians have the technical and business know-how to run such a thing.

The role you would take on is tracking submissions and replies, along with acceptance or rejection of papers. Essentially a variation of tracking books and journals. That is the administrative work to track papers through review via the existing review boards, and certify by some means acceptance by a journal. If the management of journals is distributed across the academic libraries, how many would each library have to provide management services for, along with providing the online master copies of the journals?

Note, my assumption is that papers are published as open source for anybody to read, and as access is not being controlled, anybody can keep and distribute copies.

Chris-Mouse (profile) says:

A big part of the problem is academia itself. As long as the progress of your career depends more on where your works have been published than what is in your works, then this situation will continue. Right now, an academic career depends on getting the approval of one of the gatekeepers, so the gatekeepers are free to charge as much as they want. Researchers are willing to pay those sorts of outrageous fees because they are buying a boost to their career more than anything else.

Wyrm (profile) says:

On the one hand, that’s a pretty greedy move. Not surprising, but deplorable nonetheless.
On the other hand, as long as researchers really want to say "I was published in Nature", Nature can charge them what they want.
Offer & demand, the "beauty of capitalism" in action. (/s in case you didn’t get it.)

It will take a bold group of academics to make a different, less greedy publisher as prestigious as Nature and Science. Only then will there truly be an alternative to paying tons of money to publishers. This might take time, and some dedication from the research in question, for them to eschew the (questionable) fame of being published under these two big names.

This is what happens when the branding is more important than the content.

Peter (profile) says:

We should be grateful to NATURE

No other publisher has managed to make so perfectly clear how the rights holder would like to split the profits along the value chain.

For every Nature-Article, researchers have spent years getting an education that enables them to conduct research on the level required by a top journal. They have then spent months, if not years, researching the topic, and weeks to write a concise report summarizing findings, methods and the state of research on the topic in the format of a NATURE article.

Essentially, researcher do the work of very thorough journalists – and Nature expects them to do it free of charge.

DNY (profile) says:

Academicians can fix this problem

There is a lot more money in the natural sciences than in mathematics, and even more in biomedical science, but there is no reason that money should be going to commercial publishers who no longer actually provide added value as they did decades ago when getting research on the page required the use of movable type (or more recently a linotype machine) and printing presses, and mass distribution of research results required mass mailings.

The example of the entire editorial board of Topology resigning, thereby robbing the Elsevier journal of its prestige, and forming a free online journal, peer-reviewed under the direction of the same editors, Algebraic and Geometric Topology, could be replicated throughout academe. The editors of Nature could do the same: all that’s needed is one of their institutions to agree to provide server space.

Anonymous Coward says:

And so Nature dies a slow death.

I give it 6months to a year before that $11k will let you print articles that say Covid was caused by Martians from Venus aiming ‘space-rays’ at earth from Jupiter in order to protect the Lizard Queen of England from the Mole people and their dastardly scheme to control the world’s supply of neopolitan ice cream

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