New Nature open access policy is little more than a money grab

We scientists love to publish papers, and we get especially excited when our papers appear in “top” journals. The journals know this, and sometimes it seems they just want to see how much they can get scientists to grovel.

That’s what I was thinking a couple of weeks ago, when the publishers of Nature announced that they will charge authors €9,500 ($11,500) to publish a paper as open access, meaning readers can get the paper without a subscription. They called this, without a trace of irony, their “gold open access option.”

$11,500??? Sadly, the Nature publishers were not kidding.

This is outrageous. $11,500 is more than scientists earn in a year in some countries, as Forbes blogger Madhukar Pai pointed out. What’s truly outrageous is that they’re asking for this payment from a community that does all the work for them for free. If Nature is going to treat scientists like suckers, it’s time we stopped playing along.

Let’s back up a minute and look at how the academic publishing system works. (When I explain this to non-scientists, they are often flabbergasted.) Consider: a typical science paper describes experiments that cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, most of which comes from government grants (the most common source of funding) or from private foundations. Scientists write the paper and then submit it to a journal. The journal, in turn, asks other scientists to review the paper, which they do, using their own time and expertise.

All of this–the scientific experiments, the writing, and the reviewing–is done for free, from the journal’s perspective.

Journals then claim copyright on the papers and charge fees to anyone who wants to read them. Not a bad deal for them: virtually all the labor is free. Scientific journals, most of which are owned by a small number of large, for-profit publishers, are very, very profitable.

The whole system, as Berkeley professor Mike Eisen explained in a recent interview in Science, “was built for the printing press.” When journals had to print everything on paper and ship the journals to libraries around the world, it kind of made sense. They were providing a valuable service for science, and it does cost money to print and deliver all those journals.

For over two decades, though, we have been distributing papers electronically, and there’s almost no need for paper copies. One might expect that journals would change their model, but they haven’t. In fact, they’re even more profitable now than they were before the Internet.

Not content with their enormous profits, it now seems that Springer Nature wants to suck even more money out of academic science. It’s true that Nature publishes some highly prestigious scientific journals, but their announcement of this new “gold” open access policy just drips with self-congratulation. “Research published in Nature and the Nature research journals is downloaded ... over 30 times more than papers in a typical journal,” they write. (Who wants to publish in a “typical” journal after reading that?) They also claim to be an “innovator in open access,” which is, frankly, nonsense. Springer and the other for-profit journals have been fighting open access since the mid-2000s, and this latest announcement is yet one more salvo in their battle against it.

(Or maybe Springer thinks that charging $11,500 to make a paper open access is an innovative move? It does take chutzpah, I’ll grant them that.)

The open access movement, which I’ve long been a part of, wants to make all scientific research freely available to anyone, with no costs or delays. As every scientist knows, science only progresses by sharing its discoveries, and barriers such as subscription fees serve only to slow down that progress. Given that most research is paid for by the public, it makes no sense at all to allow for-profit journals to control access. The only reason they still do is because they’ve done so for decades, and it’s hard to change an entrenched system.

Nature’s outrageously high fee also excludes virtually every scientist from low and middle-income countries, as fellow Forbes blogger (and scientist) Madhukar Pai wrote last week.

Rather than a move to support open access, this new fee is little more than a money grab. It’s actually even worse: in addition to the new $11,500 open access fee, Nature also announced an option (they call it a “new OA pilot”) whereby you pay them $2,600 for a preliminary review, and they evaluate your paper for six of their journals. In this option, they might reject your paper outright, and you’re out $2,600 with nothing to show for it. If they think it’s worthy, you pay the remainder of the open access fee later. Gee, this seems like a great idea–paying $2,600 for something that currently is free. Thanks, Nature!

Of course, Nature journals will still allow scientists to publish papers the old-fashioned way, where they don’t pay the €9,500 fee and where the journal then owns the paper. Rather than doing that, or paying the outrageous fee, let’s hope this money grab makes scientists look elsewhere for a place to publish their findings. And while we’re at it, let’s tell the Nature editors we won’t be reviewing for them any longer, not while they’re charging this ridiculous $2,600 fee for a service that we scientists have been providing for free. I’ve already done that once, and I plan to continue until they drop this idea.

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