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Academic publisher Springer Nature unveiled a model today under which it will allow open-access publishing for researchers submitting to its prominent Nature journal and 32 primary research journals carrying the Nature brand beginning in 2021.

Starting in January, authors will be able to publish under the gold open-access model, under which publishers make articles available to readers for free but typically charge authors to support the cost of publication. For Nature, this means authors will have to pay an article processing charge of 9,500 euros, about $11,250 using Monday’s exchange rates.

Nature titles will also continue publishing research under a separate subscription model. Those submitting research will be able to choose to publish their work without paying a fee, in which case it will only be available to subscribers.

Springer Nature also announced an open-access pilot for six of its journals designed to allow authors to have their work considered for multiple titles after only submitting it once. Those taking part in that pilot will pay an up-front charge and receive editorial feedback on their work regardless of whether they ultimately choose to have it published in a recommended journal.

The headline news of the open-access model for Nature has been expected since Springer last month announced a deal with Germany’s Max Planck Digital Library. That agreement, which takes effect in January, will allow authors at institutions affiliated with the library to publish research accepted into Nature journals openly. Springer said at the time it was developing open-access options for Nature and Nature-branded journals for researchers across the globe who wanted to publish under an open-access model starting early next year.

Today’s announcement is nonetheless noteworthy for the fact that Nature is a highly selective, prestigious journal -- a premier title that historically has not been included in open-access agreements Springer struck with academic libraries. The Nature journals will be the first highly selective journals with such an immediate open-access publishing option for authors, according to Springer officials.

The deal is also significant for the size of the article processing charge. The €9,500 charge matches the rate charged under Springer’s agreement with the Max Planck Digital Library. But it is still a market-setting rate for highly selective journals, and it comes in significantly higher than other existing charges in the open-access market.

Open-access charges have tended to top out between $5,000 and $6,000, according to librarians at universities in the United States -- although they also report wide variation that includes publishing for a few hundred dollars or even for free in some cases.

The open-access publishing movement effectively shifts the cost of journal production from the readers or libraries that pay subscription fees to researchers or their funders, who pay article processing charges. It’s particularly challenging to make that shift for prestigious journals, which carry high overhead costs because of the large number of submissions they review and reject.

Someone must read and evaluate submissions regardless of whether they are accepted or rejected. That means under an open-access model where revenue is only collected from authors whose work is published, costs per published article are much higher at very selective journals than they are at less selective journals.

“When you’re rejecting such a high percentage of articles, your cost of production goes up compared to all those other journals,” said Curtis Brundy, associate university librarian at Iowa State University, who had not been briefed on the Nature news and spoke generally about the open-access market. “To crack the nut of the prestige journals and figure out how you’re going to be sustainable and open, I don’t think we’ve totally solved that.”

Nature editors assessed about 57,000 manuscripts in 2019, sending about 10,000 to peer review. Roughly 4,500 were ultimately published in Nature or a Nature-branded research journal, leading to an 8 percent acceptance rate.

Hundreds of staff members work on Nature and Nature-branded journals: almost 200 editors with doctorates, plus editorial assistants and art, production and copyediting staff members.

“The elements that make us successful also make the transition to open access difficult,” said James Butcher, vice president of journals for the Nature portfolio. “One of the key elements of our success is our in-house teams, and that is of huge benefit to us as an organization. But it does mean, because we have so many people on staff, our cost base is high.”

Open-access publishing has been an issue for decades but appears to be at a critical juncture. Major research funders, many of which are located in Europe, have signed onto Plan S, which calls for all publications funded by their grants to be published in open-access journals, on open-access platforms or in open-access repositories starting in 2021. They’re pushing academic journals to earn the label of Transformative Journals, which are subscription-based journals or hybrid subscription-open access journals committed to transitioning to becoming fully open access.

It effectively means that journals will need to have an open-access pathway for authors in order for many of those authors to be able to publish their research in those journals.

“In order for the authors to access the funders’ monies, the only option here is the Transformative Journal option,” said Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, professor and coordinator for information literacy services and instruction at the University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“We have to recognize they are responsive to pressure from funding agencies,” Hinchliffe said. “Plan S wants what they have termed financial transparency, and that financial transparency asks you as the publisher to document the different costs in your business.”

The funders supporting Plan S are known as cOAlition S. The chief journals officer at Springer Nature, Alison Mitchell, nodded to the group in a statement about open access for Nature journals.

“In recognition of our shared goal of gold [open access], we are today submitting these titles, along with all the other journals we own and the vast majority of journals we publish on behalf of partners, to cOAlition S for registration as transformative journals,” Mitchell said in the statement. “With a clear OA option now in place for the Nature portfolio, this should ensure cOAlition S funded authors can be made aware of all Springer Nature’s gold OA options in 2021.”

Pilot Program

The open-access pilot program Springer announced covers six different journals in the Nature portfolio. Authors who opt in to it will pay a fee called an editorial assessment charge. A Nature research editor will then provide feedback that includes external peer review. Authors will receive an editorial assessment report.

That report will recommend journals likely to be appropriate for the paper in question. An author submitting to one of the six journals may be told that his or her work is more suitable for another one of the six. Papers with flaws will be rejected.

Authors can at that point choose to make revisions and submit their work to the recommended journal. Or they can take the manuscript and submit it elsewhere.

Those who do submit their work to a recommended journal will pay another fee if it is accepted for publication. That fee varies based on the journal in which the work will be published.

The pilot option will be available for those submitting work to Nature Genetics, Nature Methods and Nature Physics. Those submissions can also be considered for Nature Communications, Communications Biology and Communications Physics.

The first charge for those submitting under the pilot program, the editorial assessment charge, is €2,190, about $2,600. All authors would pay it. The second charge, which Springer is calling a top-up charge, is €2,600 or €800 -- about $3,100 or $950 -- depending on the journal in which work is to be published.

Even if an author chooses not to pursue publication after receiving an assessment, he or she will have valuable feedback that should help it be published elsewhere, Butcher said. Springer Nature officials want the program to allow researchers to submit once and be considered for multiple publications.

“With this model, what we’re saying is we’ve got a portfolio of journals from Nature at the top down to Scientific Reports,” Butcher said. “Not all of those journals are included in the pilot, but fundamentally, we can publish every paper that is scientifically sound somewhere, and we’ve got pro editors who, all they do all day every day is read papers and manuscripts. They’re really good at assessing the quality of those papers. We can potentially say to those who come to us, ‘Trust us. We will tell you what the level of your paper is.’”

Market research with authors and funders indicated some authors appreciated the idea. They tended to be junior authors, Butcher said.

“There are some authors who are well established who know exactly what they are doing and feel they don’t need this guidance,” he said.

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