Alternative conditions needed for cOAlition S’s Transformative Journal proposal to succeed

Research Publishing
By: Steven Inchcoombe, Tue Dec 17 2019

In May we proposed a new approach to research publishing, one which we thought could significantly speed up the transition to full and immediate Open Access (OA).  This was radical as it required a significant shift in publishers’ view of their role in the transition to OA and central to it was the new concept of Transformative Journals.  We proposed this as we believed that, by harnessing the investment, track record, editorial expertise, and trust in their research communities of many long-standing journals, the transition to OA could be significantly accelerated and enable these journals, including highly selective ones such as Nature, to get on the path to OA.  This was because we know from our own research the greater benefits of publishing OA, from increased citations and downloads to increased wider impact, and also because OA is critical to the broader move to Open Research techniques where the potential benefits to researchers, the research process, and wider society are even greater. 

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Over the course of the summer and into the autumn, we discussed this with key Plan S stakeholders, getting their views and exploring with them how this idea could be put into practice in such a way as to encourage the maximum take up from other publishers. 

Having done all this I feel a responsibility for this idea and want to do all I can to make it a success for OA transition and for my fellow publishers. While the majority of criteria  set out in the consultation recently published by cOAlition S we can support, unfortunately, I fear that the transformative journal approach set out as a whole will not achieve this and, if implemented as envisaged in full by the cOAlition, is likely to have unintended consequences.  Authors of research funded by cOAlition S members are likely to see their journal choice severely restricted, organisations committed to funding OA could be asked to shoulder an unreasonably large share of the costs potentially damaging support for OA, and many journals may have to rule themselves out, ultimately resulting in a slowdown of the very transition we all want to see.

The thresholds being imposed on publishers are simply unrealistic:

1. The timelines and metrics would place requirements on publishers to increase the OA content penetration rate in these journals at 8 percentage points per annum, a faster rate than the growth of funders willing to fund immediate OA. The research enabled by cOAlition S’s members is not sufficient to enable this target to be achieved in one year, let alone on a continuous basis and currently other funders are not joining them or signalling a willingness to fund OA. We hope this will change, but these are unfortunately the facts.  To put the scale of this ask into context let us consider what it would take to achieve this target in a single year - as an example it would require the two largest US funders (NIH currently accounts for 4%; NSF for 3%) and the largest Japanese funder (the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science currently accounts for 1%) to all decide to fund OA for all the research they enable in the same year. Many more funders would then need to join them the following year, and so on.

Furthermore, requiring publishers to make an entire journal OA, when demand is only at 50%, means the remaining half of all authors currently choosing to publish in that journal (many of whom will have chosen it because, in their view, it is the best journal for their research) will no longer be able to do so.  Turning away authors for financial reasons goes against everything we, as a global research publisher, indeed all reputable research publishers, stand for and something we will not do – we are here to serve researchers in all disciplines and in all countries. An alternative would be to double the APCs so those funders and institutions that support OA cross-subsidise those that don’t.  This, though, seems very unfair and we very much doubt would be acceptable or sustainable. 

2. The waiver requirements would see much more research published for free, undermining the sustainability of many of those journals that comply with this requirement.  Recognising the needs of the Global South and other under-funded research we already operate large scale waiver programmes in our OA Journals so we are of course supportive in principle, but the results of cOAlition S’s proposal would make many of our journals, and many of those of other publishers, simply unviable.  To be compliant and avoid this fate, publishers of these journals would have to substantially increase their APCs, but again this is not fair, reasonable or sustainable, becoming a disincentive for any further organisations to fund gold OA, and could even cause some existing supporters of gold OA to reduce their support.

I am very proud of Springer Nature’s track record in OA. Almost one in four of every immediate OA article ever published was published by Springer Nature. We can therefore genuinely claim to have done more to drive forward OA than any other organisation. So we care and act accordingly. OA will only succeed by us all working together. So we have sent an open letter to cOAlition S appealing to them not to lose the opportunity offered by Transformative Journals to speed up the transition to OA – because, unless changes are made, even we, as the world’s largest OA publisher, would not be able to commit our journals to participate and we fear most other publishers would find themselves in the same situation. 

We remain firmly committed to the concept of Transformative Journals and of the view that they could, if implemented in a realistic and sustainable way, generate a seismic shift in the transition to OA.  We care deeply about ensuring the research system works for the benefit of all, so we have to find a solution together to overcome these issues. 

We are therefore proposing an alternative timeframe and workable set of metrics which would be really transformative and enable us to commit to putting all our owned journals publishing primary research – hybrid journals (1900 titles which include some society-owned ones), Nature, and all 31 Nature Research Journals – on the path to full OA: 

  1. Year on year growth of OA content at the same rate as the increase in global research supported by funders and institutions committed to funding Gold OA
  2. Journals to be flipped when OA content reaches 90%
  3. Progress to be reviewed in 2024, as per cOAlition decision to review progress more widely, and commitments adapted accordingly then in light of progress to date
  4. To achieve 1 and 2, as set out in our communication in May, we, in turn would further commit to:
  5. Actively promoting to authors, funders and institutions the many benefits of publishing OA
  6. Expanding transformative deals as rapidly as institutions/consortia/funders would allow
  7. Increasing levels of transparency of pricing and associated publishing services
  8. Working with Plan S to get more funders, institutions and consortia to support Gold OA 

The full text of the letter can be found here.  

Steven Inchcoombe

Author: Steven Inchcoombe

Chief Publishing Officer at Springer Nature

Steven Inchcoombe is Chief Publishing Officer at Springer Nature. His responsibilities cover all Springer Nature’s research publishing and editorial activities. Previously Steven was CEO at Nature Publishing Group and President of Scientific American. Prior to that Steven was Publisher at the Financial Times, led and spent 10 years in a variety of roles at financial database business IDC ultimately responsible for the company’s strategy. Steven was awarded a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford, where he read Physics and later qualified as a chartered accountant with PWC.