Last week, Nature Publishing announced their latest foray into fully open access publishing with a new journal called Scientific Reports.

Similar in scope to Nature Communications, Scientific Reports will accept papers covering all of the natural sciences — the biomedical and physical sciences. The latter have not been well-represented in the open access journal market.

But the similarities stop there. Nature Communication is based on a subscription model that allows authors an open access option. Scientific Reports is a full open access title that depends upon article processing charges for each paper published.

Scientific Reports is clearly in direct competition to PLoS ONE, the largest and most successful multidisciplinary open access journal.

Like PLoS ONE, Scientific Reports will provide fast review, base acceptance solely on sound methodology, provide article-level statistics, and will deposit articles in PubMed Central. In addition to matching services with PLoS ONE, Scientific Reports will match on price and charge an article processing fee of $1,350.

Scientific Reports will publish all papers that are judged to be technically valid and original. To enable the community to evaluate the importance of papers post-peer review, the Scientific Reports website will include most-downloaded, most-emailed, and most-blogged lists. All research papers will benefit from rapid peer review and publication, and will be deposited in PubMed Central.

In the last week, there have been several cheers from the blosophere (see here, here and here), most arguing that Nature’s new venture signals that open access publishing has gained a stronghold within mainstream science publishing and that imitation of a successful model should be viewed as a form of flattery, not as an economic threat.

I will take a unique position and argue that Nature’s Scientific Reports represents a huge threat, not only to PLoS but to non-profit publishing in general. In order to do this, I need to restate three facts:

  1. The article processing fees for PLoS ONE are set expressly to generate profits that go to support PLoS’s flagship titles, PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine, two highly-selective, high-cost journals that would be unable to continue in their current state without financial subvention.
  2. PLoS does not consider ability to pay as a determinant of publication and will grant full or discounted waivers without question. In contrast, Scientific Reports does not offer to waive publication fees.
  3. Both PLoS ONE and Scientific Reports are designed to be boundlessly expandable.

Now, if Scientific Reports is in direct competition with PLoS ONE — and by competition, I mean for authors — those with access to funds have two publication options, while authors without funds have just one.  As I argued in an earlier post, taking on more discounted authors would start diminishing PLoS ONE‘s profits and thus its ability to support PLoS’s flagship titles.

Removing the waiver option (or curtailing its use, as practiced by BioMed Central) would cause a public relations maelstrom of discontent among many PLoS supporters. And driving up article processing fees for those who are willing to pay may cause more authors with funds to select cheaper alternatives. This is what price sensitivity is supposed to do — and what many structural proponents of the pay-to-publish model want it to do — but unfortunately it won’t work in PLoS’s favor.

PLoS could look for more charitable sources of funds and increase pressure on libraries to increase their membership fees, but this option is risky as well. Libraries are under intense pressure to reduce costs, and at least one research university decided to cancel its open access membership when it realized it wasn’t saving them any money.  Unlike Macmillan (the owners of Nature Publishing Group), PLoS doesn’t have deep pockets, and like other non-profit publishers, it cannot hold on to large reserves as it fights with competing publishing houses. Macmillan could easily undercut PLoS ONE‘s article processing charges in order to gain future market share.

In sum, PLoS has its hands tied while Nature has entered the ring fighting with both fists.  And if Nature fails to deliver a knockout, BMJ Open is standing right behind them with gloves ready.

If PLoS has developed brand loyalty among authors, both journals could theoretically c0exist, expand, and continue to be profitable, but they will both need to attract more manuscripts, and more importantly, the publication fees that come with them. Unless funding agencies begin increasing the size and number of grants they provide scientists, there are few other untapped sources remaining.

This additional source of manuscripts and money may come from authors who have traditionally published with non-profit society journals that levy page fees.

If Scientific Reports attracts quality manuscripts, and, like PLoS ONE, a decent impact factor, these two journals may ultimately do their most damage to the non-profit society publishers who established their brand in the age of paper to provide limited scope and select on quality and novelty.  They, I fear, may suffer the most from the match between PLoS and Nature.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


33 Thoughts on "Nature's Foray Into Full Open Access Journals"

I believe this thesis is correct. I argued along similar lines in “The Devil You Don’t Know”: What fascinates me now is how the governing boards of many prestigious journals are interfering with the necessary moves to counter these developments. Author-pays open access is growing in strength, but conservative boards do not always understand the competitive circumstances that their operating staff brings to their attention.

Phil – You have highlighted an interesting and unexpected possible impact of the entrance of Scientific Reports to the market. A lot of unanticipated follow-on effects will emerge in the wake of the entrance of mainstream volume (gold) OA publishing. As Joe Esposito has noted in his prescient First Monday piece from 2004, scholarly publishing (like many things) is a complex system. Any significant change to one component of the system has cascade effects. Mainstream volume OA publishing on the scale practiced by PLoS ONE and (potentially) Nature and the BMJ is a BIG change. It will have repercussions we have not yet fathomed and that were certainly not intended by their instigators.

Any guesses as to what these “repercussions” might be? Sounds ominous.

That should be the subject of another post, “Beyond OA.” It would be interesting to hear from people what that “beyond” might be.

Two other major differences between PLoS ONE and Scientific Reports, that are not mentioned here but may ultimately work in PLoS’s favor:

1) NPG is raising the open access fee to $1,700 after one year. This is not to say that PLoS won’t do the same, but I would consider it unlikely.
2) Although it may not affect the majority of articles considering either journal, Scientific Reports has a strongly-encouraged 11 typeset page limit.

I actually see both points favoring Nature:

1) By saying that their fees will rise from $1,350 to $1,700 in 2012, Scientific Reports establishes in the minds of authors an introductory price. That is, authors will receive $1,700 dollars worth of service for just $1,350, and a sense of urgency to submit to SR instead of PLoS ONE. We do not know whether the fee will actually rise.

2) By stating a page limit, Scientific Reports can contain processing costs per manuscript. In contrast, PLoS ONE cannot.

I concede that the page limit might constrain processing costs, but it might also cut out a certain subset of full-price authors (which might be a good thing for the short-term bottom line, but perhaps not for long-term uptake of the journal).

Regarding fees, you still end up with SR costing $350 more than PLoS ONE in 2012 (I’m skeptical that NPG won’t stick by their word to raise prices!). As an author in early 2012, if I have the option between a journal that is cheaper, with an impact factor and an established brand, or one that doesn’t have any of these (aside from the NPG ownership; Mike_F is very observant on this point), I would still likely go with the former.

I think a key question is how many of these huge low-editorial-overhead journals the market can bear? If PLoS-ONE and Scientific Reports provide the same service, are both infinitely expandable, and can publish an unlimited number of articles per month, then why do you need two of them?

Likely you will get some who stick with PLoS due to political/social beliefs, and some who are drawn to Scientific Reports because of the magnetism of the Nature name. But beyond that, how will each differentiate itself and make a case to neutral researchers?

One can see competition in terms of user experience, speed of review, ease of submission, perhaps the addition of new features that offer authors innovative ways of presenting their data. But realistically, as you point out, price may be the key determining factor.

It will be interesting to see if anyone adopts sort of scorched earth approach you mention as well. Think of companies like Microsoft or Google, who can afford to take a loss by giving products away for free in order to control a market. How does PLoS compete against someone willing to massively cut submission fees and take a huge loss for years and years?

Interesting analysis, but it does rather beg the question ‘what is PLoS for?’. If it exists to be a publisher then maybe it should be concerned. However, if it exists to be a catalyst for a change to open access (and the PLoS FAQs give that impression) then it’s not clear why it should be concerned if a thousand Natures or Googles come into the market – if the literature is OA then that’s job done for PLoS!

As for not-for-profits in general. Well, they are already being squeezed out as greater proportions of library budgets go on a small number of big deals. Like Joe, I’ve been suggesting for many years that they need to re-evaluate what they do if they want to survive.

David P. and I don’t often agree, but I think he has hit the mark on this one. The question is, will PLoS fulfill its mission by simply disappearing if and when OA becomes near-universal, or will it, like the March of Dimes, find a new cause at which to direct its organizational resources? My observation is that institutions take on a life of their own. The mission be damned when survival is at stake. But we are nowhere near that point yet. The cooptation of the OA movement by commercial entities has just begun.

All philanthropic institutions have a tendency to become self-interested and I don’t believe that a non-profit publisher acts fundamentally different from governments, universities, hospitals, and libraries.

There are many highly-trained people who derive their livelihood from PLoS. And even if their board of directors receives no financial or in-kind compensation, they have invested themselves and their careers toward the success of this organization. I would find it difficult to see this group declaring victory by closing shop.

Speaking from the perspective of a scientist and author, I doubt very much that a journal called “Scientific Reports” will get much attention on the radar screen. If it was called “Nature Scientific Reports”, that might be another issue, but apparently NPG are not willing to take the risk of diluting their brand to that extent. As publishers or people involved in publishing, most writers and readers of thos blog are acutely aware of who publishes what. Most scientists are not. Hence, as least for now, I suspect that PLoS ONE does not need to be overly concerned.

As I said in another post yesterday, the damage that Gold OA publishing can do if conducted by commercial publishers rather than non-profits is to suck more money out of the higher education system to benefit investors, not the academic community. HE would do well to find a way to internalize the costs and benefits of OA; otherwise, economically, we are right back where we started, although all users do benefit from having the materials available OA. Harnad’s Green OA is one way to combat this trend, though in my mind it is only a half-solution to the problem.

Interesting discussion. I wanted to weigh in here as one of PLoS’s founders with a few points of fact and some thoughts.

First, there is an important point of difference between PLoS One and SR that seems to have been ignored by almost everyone. SR is using a creative commons license that permits only non-commercial reuse of their content, whereas PLoS and BMC impose no such restriction. This, rather ironically, means that neither PLoS nor BMC can reuse content published in SR. This should be a big non-starter for anyone who really cares about open access. I hope NPG will change this.

To address David Prosser’s point. PLoS has always welcomed other open access publishers into the fray, and, if SR were a true open access journal we would welcome it with open arms. Our mission has and will always be to promote the most open and effective access to the scientific literature that technology will allow. And if universal open access were achieved by publishing in other journals – we’d be elated. Of course there’s a lot more to achieving our goal than just open access, and even when universal OA is achieved, PLoS will continue pressing to make sure publication happens as fast as possible, that we have the most effective ways to evaluate and disseminate the literature, and that we come up with creative new ways to use all that OA content. And this isn’t a case of mission creep or institutional inertia – PLoS has always looked at universal OA not as an endpoint, but as a necessary first step in realizing the full potential of electronic publishing of science.

As to the question of who, if anyone, SR will hurt in a competitive sense – we at PLoS see SR are a clear good for PLoS. The biggest threat to PLoS One’s growth short term is not competition, but continued reluctance amongst many members of the scientific community to publish their work in a journal that publishes any work that is scientifically sound, and makes no decision about its importance. By launching SR, Nature – the keeper of the flame of conservative, elite, selective journals – is ENDORSING this model. If Nature’s doing it, nobody can argue that this is some kind of radical, idealistic fad. And this can only help PLoS. I agree with others here who say the people who should really be worried are the society and specialty journals who have long fought OA and who are becoming increasingly irrelevant. It’s time for them to join the fun. And if they don’t, they will probably start to disappear.

Long term, I think SR (again, assuming it corrects its mistake and really becomes OA) is good for not just PLoS but OA in general, because competition between PLoS, BMC, SR, mBio and whomever else joins the fray will drive all of us to provide better value to our customers and make publishing more easier, faster and just generally better. And the increasing amount of OA content will inspire the development of better tools for using the OA literature, that will in turn drive more material into OA journals, and hasten the day we reach universal OA.

And as for fee waivers – if SR wants to establish itself as a place where only well-funded scientists can publish their work it would be a sad commentary on their motives – and a huge mistake. PLoS will forever welcome papers from anyone who makes contributions to science – whether they can afford to pay or not. And If NPG chooses to line their pockets by excluding large numbers of scientists from publishing in their journals, PLoS will gladly publish those papers. And for those concerned that this will bankrupt us, remember that while NPG needs to take their margin to give back to investors, we can use ours to subsidize the small fraction of authors who can not afford to pay. I don’t see how this becomes some huge competitive advantage for NPG – it just makes them look like jerks.

we can use ours to subsidize the small fraction of authors who can not afford to pay

What percentage of authors publishing in PLoS ONE receive a waiver (full or discounted)? And is this percentage changing over time? Getting a sense of what a “small fraction” constitutes would be very helpful to the debate on business models and policies. Thank you.

The total waivers (full and partial) on PLoS ONE and the other PLoS journals have pretty consistently stayed around 10% or less. Put another way, the publication fee revenue we receive represents about 90% of what we would receive if everyone paid the full publication fee. Hope that’s clear.

I’m not sure one can understand the economics here by looking at the individual journals in a vacuum. Rather, they need to be seen as part of an overall publishing program.

For example, NPG publishes over 100 journals. That offers them economic advantages of scale that PLoS, which publishes fewer than 10 journals, can not take advantage of. These advantages may be even more evident if larger publishers with thousands of journals enter the fray.

And as I understand it, a substantial portion of PLoS-ONE’s margin is used to fund PLoS’ other unprofitable journals. This is an economic pressure that Scientific Reports does not have to face. If competition heats up, price wars ensue, and margins shrink, PLoS’ more selective journals may prove to be victims of this struggle, along with the society journals mentioned by Phil.

When I first read Davis’s piece, I doubted that PLOS, with its extraordinarily strong brand, would be much troubled by Nature’s new program, whose success, unlike PLOS’s, is yet to be established. But Eisen’s comment is so defensive, so intemperate, so presumptuous about the motives of others, that I suspect that PLOS is very worried indeed. It is astonishing to read such a public utterance from a founder of an organization. Does anyone have his or her hand on the wheel?

Well, anyone who knows me knows that I have always been intemperate :-), long before Nature announced their new journal.

And I want to be clear – PLoS is elated to see anyone enter into open access publishing – and it’s particularly good for OA and PLoS that Nature has finally recognized that this is the future of publishing. We all think that PLoS One – as well as science in general – will benefit from this move.

That said, I think it’s important that we all hold Nature’s OA moves to the same high standards we hold ourselves to. Publishing under a non-commercial CC license is a major limitation, and it’s a decision I will continue to press Nature to change.

I’m also glad to see that they are not sticking to the hard line on waivers their website implied. Whatever their process for granting them, I hope they achieve the goal of publishing any paper irrespective of funding.

Sorry to come a little late to the party, but we (NPG) wanted to clarify Scientific Reports policy on waivers. As we said to Phil when he contacted us about this:

The article-processing charge for Scientific Reports is relatively modest, and there are no additional charges associated with publishing in Scientific Reports, so we would expect the majority of authors to be able to pay the APC. Most funding bodies in North America, Europe and Asia also provide funds for publication charges as part of their grants. However we will consider all requests for waivers on a case-by-case basis. The author’s ability to pay the APC would not form part of the decision-making process when deciding whether to accept a manuscript, and the Editorial Advisory Panel, Editorial Board and peer-reviewers will be blind to the author’s ability to pay.

Thanks for this comment. While Scientific Reports will consider requests for waivers, this policy is not reflected on the journal website, so it is unclear that authors will even know about this option. Secondly, waivers are considered on a case-by-case basis. While these two facts together do not equate to a policy that refuses authors who are unable to pay, it essentially has the same effect.

I’m not critiquing this policy, but argue that it makes the APC business model of Scientific Reports very different than PLoS, who 1) accept all waiver requests without question, and 2) make this policy explicit on their websites.

Michael above refers to “the small fraction of authors who cannot afford to pay”. Similarly, Grace asserts that “most funding bodies…provide funds for publication charges”.

Both statements are true within the bounds of biomedical science but not necessarily beyond it. Several years ago I was at an OA meeting in which the main dissenter was a mathematician who made the point that in his field there are no grants. Similarly, individuals working in ecology and comparative physiology have frequently claimed to me that author fees are beyond their means.

If the goal is indeed “universal OA”, who will pay the charges for these disciplines? At what point does the percentage of waivers offered become unsustainable (I expect this would be different for PLoS and NPG)? And how happy would NIH, Wellcome, etc. be that their publication fees were subsidizing publication of research that not only had they not funded but was not within their funding mandate?

It is certainly true that in fields outside of biomedicine, where funding is less abundant, waiver requests are likely to be more frequent.

One way or another we (the global research community) need to figure out how to subsidize the publishing process so that nobody is excluded. We currently do this because institutions with money subscribe to journals. But this only subsidizes scientists’ ability to publish – it doesn’t subsidize their access to literature in the field. There is clearly enough money being spent on publishing today to support the publication of all papers – no matter who they come from. The challenge (and it’s not an entirely trivial one) is to figure out how to redirect this money from subscriptions to OA. My institution (UC Berkeley) has set up a fund to support the OA publication fees of campus researchers who don’t have grant funds to support publication, and many other institutions have done the same. I suspect some combination of this, redirecting of profits on published papers, and direct support from funding agencies/foundations will work, but it’s clearly an evolving issue.

There is clearly enough money being spent on publishing today to support the publication of all papers – no matter who they come from. The challenge (and it’s not an entirely trivial one) is to figure out how to redirect this money from subscriptions to OA.

Strangely, I keep on hearing this claim that there is enough money in the system to publish everyone’s work, and yet, it seems to be a claim that lacks any backing — a truth claim that has become TRUTH without any evidence.

Even based on a thought experiment, such a claim would depend upon:

1) OA publishing costing significantly less than subscription publishing, since there is currently not enough money to publish all papers today, and

2) Either output of scientific production being held constant, or alternatively, continuing to increase funding output in a way that is able to cover both articles that emanate from funded research AND those that do not.

Without any evidence, I’d like to consider the claim of sufficient funds to be a tentative speculation that deserves more attention before it can be used as a statement of fact.

Michael Eisen argues that the CC license that SR uses means that neither PLoS nor BMC can reuse SR content. But this assume that everyone knows what “commercial” and “noncommercial” means as used in the CC license. Even CC’s own study has shown that there is little consensus on the interpretation of these terms. Does it mean that a non-profit publisher could reuse the material if, say, an anthology of readings were issued on which no payment was made to the editor and no profit expected by the publisher? Does it mean that researchers in Texaco could not copy the material (as they were forbidden to do by the famous Texaco photocopying case) because the copying was done ultimately to benefit a “commercial” enterprise? Who knows?

As for both PLoS and SR, the assumption seems to be that more is better. Do we really need lots and lots more articles published that just pass a bare minimum of acceptability? Universities already are suffering from the overquantification of the tenure and promotion process where quantity of publication seems to count as much as, possibly more than, quality. New OA journals like these, whose economics get better the higher the rate of acceptance, only add to this problem of oversupply.

This is something many academics have claimed to me: i.e. that the real problem is not access but a glut of low-quality papers that go unread, contribute little to science, and are published purely because of the ‘publish-or-perish’ phenomenon in career progression.

Ironically, one such individual lauded the original E-Biomed proposal as a solution because he said it would provide a home for much of this work and reduce the volume published as ‘real’ articles.

Let’s be clear that the phenomenon is alive and well in subscription publishing and should not be blamed on OA, but surely the latter has the potential to fuel it considerably?

Not sure which universities Sandy is referring to, but I can assure you that tenure and promotion at the institutions I know focuses overwhelmingly on quality of output, not quantity per se. Quantity weighs in if it meets a certain benchmark of quality, or as my Ph.D. mentor used to say – “Quality is very important, but it helps if there is a lot of it”… . A slew of low-quality papers will NOT get you tenure at my institution, and in fact will be viewed as a negative factor in the evaluation process.

But does quantity count for getting research grants from federal agencies? If not, why do people submit resumes with hundreds of articles listed, and why is it a practice in science to claim credit on so many multi-authored papers to which one’s contribution is difficult to evaluate? There have been a few schools–I think Harvard Medical is one–that have limited faculty coming up for tenure or promotion to list only a small number of articles that they consider to be their best. If more universities did that, we might not have so much proliferation of publishing.

Quantity does not officially count for research grants in recent years. NIH now limits applicants to listing their best/most relevant 15 publications in funding applications. Most other agencies I know have some kind of limit on publication lists – either x number of publications, or a page limit on the list, or restricting to papers published in the last y years. Of course a reviewer can still scan PubMed or similar sites to get an impression of the overall output of an applicant, but then usually the adage above holds – if there are plenty of high quality publications that makes an impression, while long lists of middle-author papers in unknown journals do not help.
As to why people still want to be listed on multi-authored papers, that simply reflects the reality in many fields that more is needed to get a paper published nowadays, requiring contributions from a larger and more multi-disciplinary team. However, people who are habitual middle-authors are usually not leaders of research teams, and do not submit independent grant applications, or independent manuscripts.

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