By Glyn Moody
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.