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Some researchers wonder whether anyone but the best funded will be able to afford the cost of Natures top open-access fee.


For €9500, Nature journals will now make your paper free to read

The elite Nature family of journals, including the flagship Nature, today announced it is taking the plunge into open access in scientific publishing. The journals will become among the first highly selective titles to allow any author to pay a publishing fee to make articles immediately free to read when published. Such open-access arrangements are being required by some European funders and foundations that seek to eliminate subscription paywalls in order to speed the flow of scientific information.

Nature’s author fee, €9500, is thought to be the highest of any journal. But the Nature Research publishing group says it is necessary to cover the costs of the full-time editors and others who produce Nature and its 32 other primary research journals.

The Nature group also announced a trial of a lower cost open-access option: when authors submit a manuscript to one of three journals—Nature Genetics, Nature Methods, and Nature Physics—they could pay €4790 or less per paper for open access, if they agree to participate in a process called “guided review.” In that process, if editors of the three journals and colleagues decide a manuscript is worthy enough to send out for peer review, they will ask authors to pay an initial fee of €2190 to cover review costs and then pay an additional fee if the paper is accepted.

The changes take effect in January 2021, which coincides with the implementation date of Plan S, a mandate by funders—mostly in Europe—for open access. Plan S funders forbid authors who publish articles on research they funded to place those papers in journals who publish new articles only behind paywalls. One way for authors to comply is to choose journals that assess an “article processing charge”—such as the one the Nature journals are instituting—to make content immediately open access.

After Plan S was proposed in September 2018, some authors decried it as limiting academic freedom and opportunities for professional advancement, in part because the policy was expected to bar publication in Nature and other selective journals that did not offer open-access options. One analysis found that 35% of papers published in Nature in 2017 acknowledged support from a Plan S funder. Overall, that analysis—by the Clarivate analytics firm based on its Web of Science database—found that only 6% of all scholarly papers published in 2017 received support from Plan S funders.

The Nature journals are jumping into open access for all authors now “because we see that’s the future, that’s where the scientific enterprise is naturally going to go,” said James Butcher, the group’s vice president of journals. And open access is “kind of in our DNA,” he added: Springer Nature, the parent of the Nature group, is already the world’s largest publisher of open-access articles. The for-profit company publishes 600 journals that are exclusively open access and another 2200 “hybrid” journals that both charge subscriptions and offer open-access publishing to authors for a fee.

Some observers worry Nature’s €9500 publishing fee is so high that it threatens to divide authors into two tiers—those at wealthy institutions or with access to funds to pay, and everyone else.

“Early career researchers in both high and low income settings mostly won’t be able to afford this, so Nature will just remain the preserve of already established senior professors—how is this good for anyone other than Springer Nature?” wrote Michael Marks, who studies infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, in an email.

“The fee to me seems incredibly high,” he added. The Lancet, which has a higher journal impact factor than Nature, charges an open-access publishing fee of $5000. “I struggle to believe that Nature’s … editorial policies or production quality are better,” Marks wrote.

Springer Nature has a policy waiving publishing fees for authors who can demonstrate a financial need for its journals that publish all content open access. The Nature group plans to eventually convert its research titles to that model, and then the waiver policy would apply, spokesperson Susie Winter said. Until then, each Nature title will continue to review and publish manuscripts submitted the conventional way (without a processing fee), to appear on publication behind a subscription-based paywall. But once a Nature title converts to all open access, authors will lose that no-fee publishing option.

Some institutions may end up paying the fees for their authors from a dedicated pot or through a deal with the publisher that allows their scientists to both read journals and publish open-access papers in them. In October, the Nature group concluded its first such deal. It lets institutions in Germany that subscribe to Nature journals to also publish open-access papers under an umbrella arrangement that works out to a per-paper publishing cost of €9500. But these deals “take time for institutions to put in place and are not suitable for all organizations,” said Alison Mitchell, chief journals officer at Springer Nature. So the Nature group decided to offer the option to all authors now.

The unusual guided review experiment will present authors with some choices. Nature editors will make an initial call about whether manuscripts submitted under this pilot are good enough to appear in one of six Nature journals: the highly rated Nature Genetics, Nature Methods, or Nature Physics, or in Nature Communications, Communications Biology, or Communications Physics. If the paper passes that minimum bar, authors who want open access then must pay a €2190 “editorial assessment charge” to cover review costs. Authors would pay an additional €2600 if the paper is accepted by one of the four journals with “Nature” in the title; the total fee would be roughly half of Nature publishing’s top open-access charge. For papers that end up in Communications Biology or Communications Physics, authors would pay an additional €800.

Authors who don’t want to publish in the journal that accepts the paper will lose their €2190 fee. But the publisher says the authors will be able to use the detailed evaluation report to refine the manuscript.

Guided review is an alternative to the conventional practices of subscription-based journals and others that offer paid open-access options. Their editors typically review submitted manuscripts at no cost to authors, and those that charge publication fees collect them only after the journals accept the papers.

Publishing industry commentators have called for approaches like Nature’s guided review in order to reduce the costly duplication of work by reviewers and journals. Currently, many authors pitch manuscripts first to the best journal they think will accept it. If that journal rejects the paper, they repeat the process with a second choice. That leads to multiple rounds of peer reviews of the same paper, placing a burden on the scientists who volunteer as unpaid outside reviewers, and the editors who arrange the reviews.

Some analysts say charging authors for peer review—an approach known as “submission fees” —could reduce the burden by forcing authors to be more selective and realistic. But many journals have panned the idea, worrying it could drive authors to journals that don’t charge such fees.

Butcher says one reason scientists should be willing to pay its review fees is that they will get assessments that provide authors with comments that are more useful and in-depth than those found in conventional peer-review reports. The assessments, which will run more than 10 pages, are expected to include insights into complex issues, such as the extent to which the study meets standards meant to promote data sharing and reproducibility.

“Ultimately we believe that publishing costs need to be split so that they reflect the different services publishers provide,” said Robert Kiley, head of open research at the Wellcome Trust, one of the signatories to Plan S, in a statement, “and this experiment by Nature will help inform this approach.”