Springer Nature, one of the biggest scientific publishers on the planet, has announced plans to allow researchers to make their articles accessible to everyone for free. There’s a small catch, though: it can cost up to $11,300. Oh, and if your paper gets through the first stage but is rejected in the peer-review process, it still costs over $2,000.
*This article has been edited to clarify the first paragraph and to include a commentary from a Springer Nature spokesperson, which you can read at the end of the article.
The future of academic publishing is murky
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in this pandemic, it’s the value of quick, quality research. Quality research lets us have new vaccines in less than one year and it lets us know which measures are most effective at controlling the pandemic. Can you even imagine what this pandemic would have looked like, had we dulled the sharp blade of modern science?
The problem is that scientific publishing can be both very slow and very expensive (which can make it inaccessible). It’s not just the equipment you often need or the qualified personnel — the publishing itself can be expensive.
To anyone not aware of how scientific publishing works, it would probably seem pretty crazy. Here’s the crux of it: as a scientist, you need to publish and communicate your results — they don’t call it “publish or perish” for nothing. It takes a lot of time to write a paper, you need to do it according to very specific guidelines, and fulfill a number of requests. The manuscript is then reviewed by knowledgeable people from the same field, who usually ask for some changes and then, with a bit of luck, your manuscript might get published in a journal within a few months (though it often takes over a year). The higher prestige of the journal, the higher regarded your work is, which is why many researchers chase the very best of journals, which Nature is undoubtedly among.
So far, it sounds fairly decent. But here’s the thing: accessing a single study usually costs around 30 to 40 dollars. Want to read a few dozen studies? Well, that’s quite a bill you’ll end up with.
Here’s where it gets even more interesting. The people writing the paper don’t get paid a dime. The people reviewing the paper usually don’t get paid a dime either. So who gets paid? The people who publish the journal. Researchers also don’t own the copyright for their work — again, it’s usually the publishers who do.
Understandably, there’s a growing movement supporting open-science for everyone.
“Dissemination of scientific results is an integral part of a research project,” said Gerard Meijer, a researcher at the Department of Molecular Physics at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and one of the strong voices calling for a reform of the publishing system, at a Heidelberg Laureate Meeting in 2019. Alongside a stellar panel at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, he shared his views on the issue. “It’s a topic of utmost importance, particularly to the younger people.”
However, paying huge amounts of money to make a paper open-access is not what most researchers had in mind.
Here’s the ridiculous thing about it: Nature’s announcement isn’t even that crazy, it’s just more expensive than what others are already charging. For instance, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences charges $1590-$4215 per article (depending on length), only as an article processing charge — then there’s a another open-access surcharge of up to $2,200 for closed-access. The AGU’s Journal of Geophysical Research, a more niche publication, charges $1000 for closed-access and $3500 for open-access. Here’s one 2018 chart from Cambridge University which mentions the costs for some of the most well-known (note that these are the discounted publishing charges).
So it’s not like Nature came up with this idea, several journals are doing it already (although Nature is way more expensive). In truth, the €9,500 ($11,300) price tag only applies to the Nature flagship journal itself, while for Nature Genetics, Nature Methods, and Nature Physics, the price is up to €4790 ($5,700). But it’s still double or even more than any other journal out there.
Why this is a problem for scientists and for science
Understandably, many researchers were frustrated by the announcement and took to Twitter to express their disappointment, especially as Nature also announced another fee: €2190 to cover the review fee. Essentially, editors will look at your paper and decide whether it’s worthy to send out for peer review. If it is, you pay the €2190 ($2,600) and the paper gets sent to peer review… where many papers are rejected (according to one source, top journal peer-review reject 80% of all papers). The fee is non-refundable, though.
The scheme is optional — you don’t need to opt for it. But if you’d want to make your papers open source, you must either be with a very rich and supportive university, or have a ton of money of your own.
For instance, one professor calculated that ten years’ worth of his publishing in Nature would cost about $224,000 AUD (or $164,000 USD). Others were outraged that for the price of making a single paper open-access, you could cover a year’s worth of salary in many parts of the world.
It’s easy to see how this type of approach would magnify existing inequality in science. None but the very richest universities will afford this, which likely means that their papers will become more accessible, more quoted, and would gain more traction. Established professors with a larger budget would also be able to afford this more than early-career researchers, who would be at the mercy (or pockets) of their university, or would publish in lower-rated journals. So it would be a way to use money to gain leverage and the rich get richer. Nature did say that it can waive the fee for authors who can demonstrate their inability to pay, but it remains unclear how this will be applied in practice.
Ultimately, Springer Nature is a for-profit company and they can charge whatever they want. But as long as researchers live in a “publish or perish” environment, they need to be able to publish in journals to have any form of a career and deliver any type of research results. Making publishing prohibitively expensive for half of the planet will not only have a negative impact on scientists by limiting where they can publish — but on science itself.
In a 2013 website article, Nature itself seemed to acknowledge how absurd these costs are, quoting one scientist who said “It’s still ludicrous how much it costs to publish research — let alone what we pay.”
What’s even more ironic is that this trial is part of a plan that was supposed to make science more accessible. Plan S is a large initiative from Europe that wants to require all researchers who want to receive state funding to make their papers accessible to everyone in the world and in the Creative Commons by 2021. So if you’re a scientist who received any form of European funding, all your papers need to be published as open source.
But if open-source journals charge this type of money, it’s doubtful that many researchers will be able to afford this (without massive external funding). Some have even seen this as a way for Nature to ‘make a quick buck’ from this transition.
At the end of the day, Nature (and many other academic publishers) will insist that the peer-paper costs are justified, that their publishing is intertwined with many other activities, and that the price is perfectly justifiable, even as most of the people doing the research and review work don’t see a dime from it. That may be the case. But as a researcher, especially a young one or someone from a not-too-rich university, it’s hard to see this as anything but a slap in the face.
I am reminded of a talented, hard-working researcher who, on quitting his position from a company, quoted as one of his reasons: “The van we rent costs more than me.” It’s hard to be motivated to do research when the paper you publish is worth more money than you are.
[Later edit follows]
A Nature spokesperson reached out to ZME Science, offering additional information about the plan. We include their comments here in their entirety.
“The announcement covered two things. The introduction of an OA option for all authors which is accompanied by an APC of €9,500 and separately the introduction of a pilot (called guided OA) which sees us experiment with splitting the APC between an editorial assessment charge payable by all who pass the initial quality control check and a top up APC payable by those that are subsequently accepted for publication.
For those who end up publishing in one of the research journals which are part of the pilot, these two elements combine total around half the price of the standard APC. The €2,190 editorial assessment charge is only for those opting into the pilot and therefore these people would not pay the €9,500. It’s important to note that the initial fee in the trial is not for submissions – only those who get through the quality check will be charged the editorial assessment fee which will provide them with an Editorial Assessment Report.
This report sets the recommendations from a Nature research editor of the most appropriate journal for their work along with detailed guidance on what they need to do to improve their paper in order to be accepted at the journals that have been considering it. It also provides important information and guidance on how to adhere to best open science principles. So, all in all, we feel a really valuable document.”
All the scheme details can be accessed here.