Embracing risk

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More conversations are required to deliver sustainable open access plans, writes Steven Inchcoombe

A major focus so far in the discussion and debate on Plan S and its objective to speed up the transition to Open Access (OA) has been on the need for publishers to ‘flip’ hybrid and subscription journals to fully OA journals, including highly selective journals such as Nature.   

Our submission to Plan S sets out what our experience has been of making full OA a reality, as the largest OA publisher, together with a and sets out six recommendations we think will provide greater impetus to this transition.  

One of these recommendations focusses on the specific challenges faced by highly selective journals in ‘flipping’ to open access, and especially those with a significant amount of non-primary research content. Nature-branded journals are rightly known for the significance of the research they publish, their progressive editorial approach, the commitment of their 400+ highly qualified professional in house editors and for their robust editorial and selection processes. What isn’t as widely appreciated is that they are also already contributing greatly to the transition to OA by delivering a strong and growing open access option in the form of Nature Communications.   

In 2010 we launched Nature Communications as a highly selective hybrid journal. We took the (what remains still) bold decision in 2014 to flip it and transform it into the world’s first highly selective fully open access multidisciplinary journal with all articles published under a CC-BY licence as default.  

Why did we do this? Because of our commitment to OA, and our desire to provide authors who want to publish both OA and in a highly selective, high impact journal, with the ability to do so.  

Why do we say bold? Partly because this was a ‘first’ but mainly because highly selective journals require higher APCs than had been applied until that point. Over the years we have explored alternative models – submission fees, sponsorship, etc. – to enable a move to OA with some research funding bodies but at those times they rejected them so we were left with the APC model and its challenges for highly selective journals. By definition these journals have low article acceptance rates, so all the costs of assessing the high volumes of submissions and the publication of the lower volume of accepted articles, including the dedicated in house editorial team, have to be recovered from the lower number of published articles resulting in a higher average APC. 

Would this be acceptable? We certainly saw this as a significant risk at the time. We take very seriously our responsibility to sustain all our journals since the work entrusted to us by previous authors relies heavily on the continuing credibility, understanding and ongoing operation of the journal they were published in. So we do not gamble with our journals. None the less we wanted to support the transition to OA and to respond positively to our librarian community who were asking us to seek other funding streams to meet the demand from researchers given their limited budgets, so we pressed ahead.   

I am glad to report that Nature Communications has been more successful than we could have ever hoped.  With an acceptance rate of 17 per cent and an APC of $5,200, we are delighted to be meeting the needs of thousands of researchers and the wider research community while also relieving institutional libraries of the financing burden of these articles. In 2018 Nature Communications published more than 5,000 primary research articles – more primary research articles than Nature and the 30 Nature branded research journals all put together. These articles were, on average, downloaded more than 7,000 times each and, on average, each Nature Communications article is cited more then 10 times in a year. This demonstrates their broad applicability and importance.  In fact, the growth in popularity of Nature Communications means that more than 50 per cent of all the primary research published in Nature-branded journals is now published open access.  

While we are committed to using the power of the Nature brand to help drive the transition to open access, it does remain difficult to transition to OA the most highly selective of journals; those, such as Nature Medicine or Nature Nanotechnology, created in response to the ever-evolving needs of the research community which publish significant discoveries related to some of the most pressing challenges of our time. We will continue to launch, therefore, Nature-branded titles, like Nature Cancer launched earlier year, that are funded via library subscriptions as spreading these costs amongst the many readers that benefit from them as opposed to a small number of authors, remains for the time being the fairest approach.  

This is not to say we are not actively looking at other ways to make the research that we publish more open - we are and remain hopeful that we will develop more and better solutions. For example, our SharedIt service enabled seven million people to access subscription content in 2018 and our partnership with ResearchGate is providing their 15 million researcher users full access to the research published in Nature and 23 Nature Research journals in the last 18 months. 

Further conversations with Plan S and others are still needed to ensure that any long-term OA solution is sustainable, but while we work towards a solution our commitment is to keep using all the tools at our disposal to drive openness, discoverability and accessibility for the benefit of all.

Steven Inchcoombe is chief publishing officer at Springer Nature