Springer Nature, one of the giants of academic science publishing, announced this week its plans to allow researchers to make their articles free and open access to all, for a hefty fee. The move has been welcomed as a transition to open-access publishing by some, but its high price tag at the cost of the author has raised concerns among many scientists.
As of January 2021, authors publishing their research in the journal Nature and the 32 Nature primary research journals can make their work free to read for everyone, as long as they pay a fee of €9,500 (approximately $11,320).
Springer Nature will also pilot a separate system that will give researchers the option of publishing open-access articles in six of their journals under a so-called “guided open-access pilot.” After passing an initial quality control check, they can pay a non-refundable fee for an Editorial Assessment Report, which gives guidance from the editors on what they need to do to improve their paper in order to be accepted. If they do get accepted, they will then pay an additional top-up fee for the work to become published in the journal.
Currently, many of the Nature journals are behind a paywall and require a subscription to read. This move, in theory, will help make more of their articles accessible to more people by getting rid of this paywall.
However, many researchers have taken objection to the large fee required to make the article open access. Many influential journals already charge a fee to make the articles open access, although these charges tend to be considerably less than the new fee introduced by Nature.
Some commentators have taken to social media to express their views on the new announcement, arguing this fee could magnify already existing socio-economic inequality in science, with poorer institutions not being able to foot the bill.
This new charge will put extra pressure on authors, funders, and research institutions. Funds set aside to carry out research may have to be redirected to publishing the research. Furthermore, many funders and foundations of scientific research, especially in Europe, also require their research to be published in an open-access format, so this new charge might have to be paid, effectively. Alternatively, it could push researchers to publish papers in other journals.
It’s worth highlighting that academic publishing works in a very different way to other forms of publishing, such as magazines or newspapers. Most media has to pay authors, writers, researchers, and editors to produce their content and the license to share it. In the scientific publishing world, the researchers’ work is paid for by others (typically public funding, charitable organizations, or corporations) outside of the publisher. Much of the editing is done through a process called peer-review, in which independent researchers in the same field review and critique the scientific validity of the work (this is unpaid work, something else that is contentious among scientists). Researchers then pay the journal a publishing charge upon acceptance for publication. If a study is not open-access, then anybody who wants to read it, including the scientific community and the wider media reporting on it, will also have to pay the journal to read it.
The costs of publishing, therefore, already lies heavily on the authors and their funders, not the journals.
The world of science and academia is pushing towards more open access, however. The new announcement by Springer Nature is partly spurred on by cOAlition S and Plan S, a movement — largely in Europe — to make all research freely available to everyone. cOAlition S said in a statement it “welcomes” the move by Springer Nature.
“Nevertheless, it will be up to funders, authors, and institutions to judge whether the added value in the [move to open-access] justifies the price. The Price Transparency Framework developed by cOAlition S will help purchasers of publisher services in determining whether the price charged is fair, reasonable, and commensurate with the services delivered,” the organization said.
This article has been amended to clarify how the new "guided open-access" pilot works.