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Open-access science funders announce price transparency rules for publishers

Science journals will have to disclose the costs of publishing articles in order for them to be paid for by a coalition of research funders pushing for open access.

The price transparency rules, which will take effect in July 2022, were announced today by cOAlition S, a group of 22 international organizations, European national research agencies, and foundations. In 2018, cOAlition S launched a scheme called Plan S that will, beginning in January 2021, require grantees’ work to be open access, meaning it can be read free of charge immediately on publication. One route to accomplish this is for authors to pay journals a fee for each article published this way.

cOAlition S wants the rules to help keep these fees reasonable. The rules require publishers to provide a breakdown of their prices: what percentages go to cover the cost of services such as proofreading, copy editing, and organizing peer review. If they don’t, “We will not meet any publication fees associated with that publisher,” says Robert Kiley, interim coordinator of cOAlition S and head of open research at the Wellcome Trust, one of the coalition’s members. “The intention is to provide more granular information about the value components of each journal article price point,” says Steven Inchcoombe, chief publishing officer of Springer Nature, which publishes the journal Nature.

Springer Nature was one of 10 publishers that participated in a pilot trial of price transparency between January and March. The rules announced today allow publishers to choose between two different sets of transparency criteria. One is a framework based on the template used in this year’s pilot. The other is an existing framework drawn up by the Fair Open Access Alliance (FOAA) and already in use by Frontiers, the MIT Press, Copernicus, and MDPI. “Either framework is fine,” Kiley says.

He says the two frameworks are comparable, but he suspects big commercial publishers will be more comfortable with the one based on the pilot. It allows profit estimates in the price breakdown to be spread evenly across categories of costs, whereas the FOAA framework asks for profit margins in each category. Another difference is that the FOAA criteria ask publishers to provide a single, portfoliowide breakdown of pricing practices, whereas the framework based on the pilot allows publishers to distinguish between different journals, and to group those with the same pricing. Kiley says cOAlition S endorsed the FOAA criteria because they emerged while work on Plan S was underway, and if publishers are already complying with them, “we didn’t want to say, ‘Well that’s not good enough.’”

The pricing data will be shared with funders and research institutions, but not publicly. This is to address publishers’ concerns that sharing the information with competitors risked accusations from antitrust authorities that they are colluding to fix prices. “The legal analysis that we’ve done indicates that that risk is very, very low, but publishers have come to a different conclusion,” says Marc Schiltz, president of Science Europe, an association of national funding agencies that helped launch cOAlition S.

Before deciding on the push for price transparency, cOAlition S originally wanted to put a price cap on publication fees, but the journals resisted. A price cap “would be a real problem for many journals,” says Bernd Pulverer, head of scientific publication at the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and chief editor of The EMBO Journal. That’s because “costs vary dramatically across subject areas, and across the selectivity of journals, and the value-added of journals.”

Inchcoombe says price transparency will help people understand the value of journals and the differences between them. He says Springer Nature “remain[s] supportive” and will continue to work with cOAlition S. The company, which already publishes hundreds of open-access journals, announced in April that Nature will join Plan S under rules that allow journals that charge readers subscriptions to continue doing so while also charging authors fees for open-access articles, as long as they steadily increase the proportion of their freely available content.

Publishers can also satisfy cOAlition S’s rules through a “green open access” route if they permit authors to post their manuscripts—the “author accepted” version, which journals have accepted and peer reviewed but not yet published nor copy edited—to open repositories or personal websites. Plan S also permits “read and publish” deals, where universities’ subscriptions to paywalled journals allow researchers at those universities to publish open-access work.