To help transition toward transparent open access (OA), eight journal publishers, including SpringerNature, PLOS, and Annual Reviews, will share anonymized pricing information with a limited group. This is part of a test of a transparency template proposed today in a report commissioned by cOAlition S, a group of funders leading a push for immediate OA to science publications. If the pilot is successful, funders may ask that publishers use a similar template to share data more widely.
The template aims not to influence pricing, but to give funders and libraries information to decide what to pay for, says Alicia Wise, director of the consulting company Information Power who co-authored a report presenting the template. “I would hope that by providing these data we can build trust and a better atmosphere,” she says.
Many discussions about publishing prices and services have been “emotive rather than constructive,” says Bernd Pulverer, head of scientific publications at EMBO Press, which will take part in the pilot with four of its five journals. Sharing information could encourage more “pragmatic” discussions, he says. “It is legitimate for the research community, funders, and taxpayers to be able to understand how taxpayer-supported research is being published,” he adds.
cOAlition S funders will require from 2021 that grantees publish their work OA immediately. Under this mandate, called Plan S, journals and publishing platforms must provide “transparent costing and pricing.” The template presented today, after Information Power surveyed and consulted with funders, librarians, and publishers on behalf of cOAlition S, proposes a detailed way publishers can do so.
The template lists 24 items in three areas that publishers should provide: basic information about journals, including OA article-processing charges and subscription prices; metrics to convey journals’ nature and quality, such as acceptance rates and citations per article; and pricing information, with a percentage breakdown across seven tasks, including peer-review management and sales.
The test will share some anonymized data only among the eight publishers and a group of customers. It aims to determine whether the template is practical and useful, Wise says; depending on how well the pilot works, cOAlition S funders will then decide how to use the template.
The report summarizes worries about the template from publishers who were consulted. Among these are that the numbers will be open to misinterpretation, that some metrics don’t reflect value accurately, or that like-for-like cost comparisons across diverse journals are difficult.
“It would be really difficult for us to [provide the data requested] in any kind of consistent way across a portfolio of 1600 journals,” says Liz Ferguson, vice president of editorial development at Wiley, a large for-profit publisher. For the requested measures—for example, the percentage of a journal’s price that finances editorial work after a manuscript is submitted until the decision to accept or reject—“it's actually really quite difficult to unbundle [them] and make it meaningful.” Adding to the complexity, she says, Wiley publishes most of its journals in partnership with scientific societies, and financial arrangements for supporting the societies’ editorial work on those journals vary widely.
Pulverer, too, cautions against reading too much into detailed quantitative comparisons. But people ought to understand the value publishers provide, he adds. For example, “Some think peer review is free [because reviewers are usually unpaid], but it has to be organized and represents a very significant cost.” (In October 2019, EMBO Press independently published figures about its journals’ finances in a bid to provide “clarity about what it costs to publish articles in high quality, selective journals,” EMBO said in a statement at the time.)
The pilot project will start this week and run until the end of March with publishers of different types and sizes. The list includes publishers such as PLOS and Hindawi that publish only OA journals as well as publishing giant SpringerNature, which says it will take part “with a suitable sample” of its publications. It did not say whether any of the Nature family of titles would be included. A few more slots are available for other publishers to join, says Wise, who admits that the team did a “poor job” at involving journals in the global south.
The consultation, report, and pilot are funded on behalf of cOAlition S by two of its members in the United Kingdom: UK Research and Innovation, the country’s main research funding agency, and health research charity the Wellcome Trust.
With reporting by Jeffrey Brainard.
*Clarification, 14 January, 6:45 a.m.: This story was updated to clarify that data shared in the pilot test will be anonymized.