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Nature to join open-access Plan S, publisher says

Springer Nature says it commits to offering researchers a route to publishing open access in Nature and most Nature-branded journals from 2021.

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A pile of Nature journals on a shelf

Nature’s publisher has said that it will look to offer an immediate route for open-access publishing after January 2021.Credit: Nature

After a change in the rules of the bold open-access (OA) initiative known as Plan S, publisher Springer Nature said on 8 April that many of its non-OA journals — including Nature — were now committed to joining the plan, pending discussion of further technical details.

This means that Nature and other Nature-branded journals that publish original research will now look to offer an immediate OA route after January 2021 to scientists who want it, or whose funders require it, a spokesperson says. (Nature is editorially independent of its publisher, Springer Nature.)

The announcement marks the first time that the publisher has said its most prestigious journals will be compliant with Plan S, meaning that researchers whose funders have joined the OA initiative should be able to continue publishing there. Previously, Springer Nature had said it wanted to offer an OA route in these titles, but not unless Plan S rules changed.

“We are delighted that Springer Nature is committed to transitioning its journals to full OA,” said Robert Kiley, head of open research at the London-based biomedical funder Wellcome, and the interim coordinator for Coalition S, a group of research funders that launched Plan S in 2018.

But Lisa Hinchliffe, a librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, says the changed rules show that publishers have successfully pushed back against Plan S, softening its guidelines and expectations — in particular in the case of hybrid journals, which publish some content openly and keep other papers behind paywalls. “The coalition continues to take actions that rehabilitate hybrid journals into compliance rather than taking the hard line of unacceptability originally promulgated,” she says.

What is Plan S?

The goal of Plan S is to make scientific and scholarly works free to read as soon as they are published. So far, 17 national funders, mostly in Europe, have joined the initiative, as have the World Health Organization and two of the world’s largest private biomedical funders — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Wellcome. The European Commission will also implement an OA policy that is aligned with Plan S. Together, this covers around 7% of scientific articles worldwide, according to one estimate. A 2019 report published by the publishing-services firm Clarivate Analytics suggested that 35% of the research content published in Nature in 2017 acknowledged a Plan S funder (see ‘Plan S papers’).

Plan S papers

Journal

Total papers in 2017

% acknowledging Plan S funder

Nature

290

35%

Science

235

31%

Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA

639

20%

In simple terms, the plan means that researchers funded by agencies supporting Plan S must submit their work to OA journals, or post peer-reviewed versions of their work openly online. This applies to papers generated from grant calls issued in 2021 at the latest, although individual funders can choose earlier dates, and there are technicalities around the way it must be done. But the situation is more complex when it comes to publishing in journals that aren’t wholly OA, which Plan S frowns on. At one stage, it had seemed that the funders might ban publication in these titles. But the initiative has gradually introduced modifications and special agreements that have softened this line.

In November 2018, Coalition S funders clarified that they would not bar publication of OA papers in hybrid journals, but would not pay to cover those costs — making this an unattractive route for scientists — unless the journals formed part of certain ‘transformative agreements’ negotiated between large publishers and libraries or university consortia. Many publishers have now signed such contracts, in which consortia pay lump-sum fees that allow their researchers to publish work openly. Plan S’s policy on permitting compliance by this method is up for review in 2024.

But these contracts do not cover all titles, including some influential subscription journals such as Nature and Science. If these titles offered OA routes, Plan S funders wouldn’t pay publishing costs. So publishers and funders negotiated a new category of compliance: the journals can be individually recognized as ‘transformative journals’, if they commit to gradually increasing their OA content over time.

Rule change on transformative journals

For the past year, publishers and Plan S funders have been arguing about what counts as a transformative journal. Under rules announced on 8 April — after negotiation between Coalition S and publishers — funders said this means that a journal must explicitly state it is transitioning to full OA; grow its OA content by 5% in absolute terms year on year; and flip to full OA once its open content surpasses 75%. Funders also removed a stipulation that such journals must flip to OA by December 2024: now, they don’t have to give a timetable.

After those changes, Springer Nature said its journals could comply; in a statement, Steven Inchcoombe, Springer Nature’s chief publishing and solutions officer, said the revised targets are “very challenging but we will do all we can to hit them”. The entire policy remains up for review by Coalition S in 2024.

Some negotiation remains. In particular, Plan S has extra technical requirements, such as that journals must be transparent about their OA pricing strategies to be deemed compliant. Inchcoombe said Springer Nature still needed clarity from Plan S on these details. To make matters more confusing, individual funders who are part of Plan S can diverge from the guidelines set out by the coalition: for instance, the United Kingdom’s main research funder UKRI, which is signed up to Plan S, says it is still considering its policy on publishing in hybrid journals.

There are no details yet about how Springer Nature will offer OA publishing in its titles, or what it might cost. This January, a pilot study was launched to enable eight journal publishers (including Springer Nature) to share anonymized information about their pricing. The aim is to test a ‘transparency template’ proposed in a report (commissioned by Coalition S) from UK-based consulting firm Information Power. Results will be released later this year.

The publisher of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC, said that it had no plans to make its non-OA journals ‘transformative’ under Plan S, but it was still exploring a different solution: allowing authors to post an accepted version of their article in an online repository at the same time as their paper is published. The AAAS has allowed this since 2013, a spokesperson said. But Plan S has an additional requirement: that the articles be shared under an open licence that would allow anyone else to redistribute or adapt the work — for instance, by translating or republishing it.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01066-5

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 14 April 2020: This story has been updated with details of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s position on Plan S.

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