Opinion: A Big Science Publisher Is Going Open Access. But at What Cost?

The steep fees Springer Nature will charge to make papers freely readable show what’s wrong with science publishing.

I n November, Springer Nature, one of the world’s largest publishers of scientific journals, made an attention-grabbing announcement: More than 30 of its most prestigious journals, including the flagship Nature, will now allow authors to pay a fee of $11,390 to make their papers freely available for anyone to read online.

This move, by a company that publishes more than 3,000 academic titles, has been hailed as a landmark step — and a victory for an open-access movement that seeks to supplant the traditional subscription-based model of academic publishing. And at first glance, Springer Nature’s open-access option appears to be a positive development. Most scientific articles are paywalled, accessible only to readers and institutions that can afford the pricey fees. (Individuals can subscribe to Nature for $199 per year or pay $8.99 per article, but university systems may pay as much as $11 million annually for a subscription to one of the big publishers’ lineup of journals.) Making discoveries accessible to anyone with an internet connection will level the playing field for individuals who lack a university affiliation, and for schools that can’t afford the costly library subscription fees.

But Springer Nature’s announcement also exposes a deep structural problem in scientific publishing. The proposed author fee, known as an article processing charge, or APC, is several times higher than what other publishers charge; it will likely be out of reach for researchers working outside of the world’s top institutions. Viewed in that light, Springer Nature’s move to open access seems less like a step toward equity and more like a corporation taking advantage of an uneven scientific funding landscape to increase its profits. 

Springer Nature argues that the high APC — a fee that, in theory, is designed to cover production costs so that readers won’t have to — is warranted by its journals’ selectivity and editorial quality. Journals like Nature must handle and review many papers that ultimately get rejected, a spokesperson explained in November, but they collect APCs only from the papers that get published. As a result, the operating costs per published paper are higher for top-tier journals than they are for less selective journals, the company argues.

That “prestige tax” aside, however, it seems clear that Springer Nature and other for-profit publishers often charge higher APCs than well-regarded nonprofit publishers. I examined a sampling of data from publisher websites and the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and found that the biggest for-profits — Springer NatureElsevier, and Wiley — charge an average APC of $2,660. While some nonprofits like eLife and PLOS charge nearly as much as their for-profit counterparts, an analysis of data from the DOAJ shows that after removing the big commercial publishers, the remaining open-access journals — published mostly by nonprofit foundations, academic societies, and universities — charged just $715 on average as of 2018. It is hard to imagine, even accepting Springer Nature’s rationale, that the cost of producing an academic article could be so much higher for for-profit publishers. More likely, it seems, the additional surcharge is at least partly a result of profit-seeking by companies looking to maximize their bottom line.

While corporations are free to pursue profits, it would behoove the scientists who author these articles to spend their money more wisely. Indeed, the publishing incentive structure in academia is itself part of the problem. Instead of evaluating scientists on the quality and impact of their discoveries, funding bodies and hiring committees often take a shortcut, scanning CVs for papers published in glitzy journals like Nature, Science, and Cell. Scientists scramble to publish in these journals, which have become the de facto scientific gatekeepers. 

But make no mistake: By levying a fee in excess of $11,000 — or, in one alternative pilot scheme announced at the same time, a nonrefundable down payment of $2,600 just to have the paper assessed by editors and peer reviewed — Springer Nature promises to do irreparable harm to the already crippled scientific publishing system. Only the wealthiest universities in the wealthiest countries will be able to foot these bills. As a result, the range of researchers able to publish open-access papers in Springer Nature’s top journals will be narrow. The ivory tower, already full of inequalities, will only grow more divided. The “haves” will be able to publish openly in widely read and cited journals, which will in turn allow them to secure coveted research funding and academic posts. The “have-nots” may still choose to publish in Nature, but their work will remain hidden to much of the world, behind a paywall. The rich will get richer.

By levying a fee in excess of $11,000, Springer Nature promises to do irreparable harm to the already crippled scientific publishing system.

Perhaps the biggest irony of academic publishing is that the public’s taxes fund many of the very experiments that the public is then unable to access freely. To translate this into the magazine world, it is as if to read this article, you had to pay not only for a subscription to this magazine but also for the original reporting that I did to write the piece. And if the magazine for some reason chose not to charge you, they would instead pass those charges on to me. The model makes as little sense in mass media as it does in scientific publishing.

It may take something as obviously wrongheaded as Springer Nature’s new open-access policy to catalyze a shift to a more equitable system. But the time is ripe for building a new science culture in which journal titles are no longer a primary factor in a paper’s perceived quality. This is a bright vision, but it can only work if scientists all agree to play by new rules. As long as for-profit publishers like Springer Nature and Elsevier — whose parent company’s profit margin has exceeded 30 percent in each of the past five years — continue to offer perceived prestige, scientists will continue to fall into the trap. The pressure to publish exciting findings in top journals may be one of the factors in the ongoing reproducibility crisis. If these trends are not curbed, science will become an increasingly misguided enterprise. 

In the U.S., the systemic change science needs could be aided by legislative or executive action, which the incoming administration could spearhead. Some private scientific funders are already pushing researchers to make papers freely available as soon as they are published. (The National Institutes of Health now requires papers it funds to be made freely available within a year after publication.) However, Springer Nature’s open-access policy makes it clear that both private and public funders need to go further and require grant recipients to publish in nonprofit journals. The election of Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris gives me hope that such a change is possible.

Grigori Guitchounts, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. Find him on Twitter @guitchounts.