Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Steven Inchcoombe. Steven is Chief Publishing Officer at Springer Nature. He is a member of the Management Board and his responsibilities cover all the research publishing and editorial activities of Springer Nature, the services provided to its authors, peer-reviewers, editors and societies, the experience of its customers when using its products and publishing platforms, and its Open Access and Open Research activities. Previously Steven was Head of House and CEO at Nature Publishing Group (NPG) and Palgrave Macmillan (PM).
In January 2005, a paper was published in the Journal of Biomedical Science. “T cell responses to allogeneic human mesenchymal stem cells: immunogenicity, tolerance, and suppression” explored whether stem cells could be transplanted into other humans without the immune system (i.e., white blood cells) recognizing them as “foreign” and stimulating an immune response. An important study in its own right, having been cited over 400 times, what makes this paper even more notable for us at Springer Nature is that it marks the start of the one million immediately and fully open access (OA) primary research and review articles that we have published and are able to analyze.
These articles cover all academic disciplines and range from those which provide groundbreaking research to that which adds quietly but importantly to the academic literature and supports the development of further research. And as research shows that articles published OA have increased impact, usage, and reach, authors have also benefited.
But reaching such a milestone is one thing — more important, given the data that it makes available, is what it can tell us about how the transition to OA is going and what we need to do now to help speed up progress to a more open science future.
How is the transition going?
Overall I believe the transition is going well. From a slow start, as a sector we have now reached the point where, in 2020, a third (33%) of articles were published OA.
Looking however at our 1m, this does, though, mask quite a variation amongst different academic disciplines. From our data, medical research is overwhelmingly driving the transition, with Medicine accounting for 44% of our 1m articles. The next highest discipline is Life Sciences, which accounts for 17%. This trend of Medicine outperforming the other disciplines so strongly has barely changed from 2015.
We are starting to see some strong growth in social science and humanities. As has been documented elsewhere, these disciplines are finding transitioning to OA and meeting Plan S’s requirements more challenging than those in the medical, applied and physical sciences. This is for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of the lack of available funding. It is therefore encouraging to see that, even though this was from a low base, between 2015 and 2020 social science and humanities doubled their OA share.
Our data also brings up some interesting geographic differences. For example, Europe and Asia are strong generators of OA content, accounting for 40% and 33% respectively in 2021. Conversely, North America accounts for 18%, perhaps demonstrating the relatively low engagement with Gold OA amongst US funding bodies to date.
More broadly, in the last 5 years, these 1m articles were downloaded 2.6 billion times. That’s an average of 2,600 downloads for each article, a strong demonstration of the value being derived from OA. Translating that into something institutional librarians might appreciate, that’s a cost of less than Euro 1 per download based on all their one-time APCs.
What do we need to do now?
First, we need to move faster as a company, as an industry, and as a broader ecosystem where funding agencies and institutions are key participants. In addition to having transitioned all of our owned non-fully OA journals to be Transformative Journals, placing them all, even Nature, on the path to OA, we are also committed to significantly increasing our overall amount of OA content. Therefore, by 2024, we are targeting over 50% of Springer Nature’s article output to be OA, immediately available for all to discover, share, use and reuse from the moment it is published.
Second, we need to take a good look at the challenges and barriers certain academic disciplines are facing. This needs to be a transition which is inclusive, one which brings everyone with us. One way of doing this is via Transformative Agreements. While our early Compact agreements did not always include journals from our predominantly non-STM portfolios, we are now addressing this, working with our consortium partners to bring these into our existing and new agreements. Enabling researchers to publish OA regardless of their academic discipline is an important role TA’s play and we want to ensure they play it to the full.
Third, there are clearly areas of the world that are struggling to transition their research output to OA. There will be a variety of different reasons for this and we need to work with them to find solutions that work for them and meet their needs. We and other publishers have a long track record of providing waivers and discounts for many, but this can’t scale sufficiently and we need other solutions that the whole research community will support.
If these three issues can be addressed then I believe the possibility of a fully OA future is looking positive. Publishers absolutely have a role to play in ensuring there are sustainable OA publishing options that meet the needs of all authors. Springer Nature is ticking that box with our 600 fully OA journals, our Transformative Journal commitment enabling authors to choose from well over 2000 further journals, and the introduction of new fully-OA journals. Publishers cannot do this alone however. We need funders, institutions and consortia to come with us on this full and immediate Gold OA journey and commit to policies which clearly place Gold OA as the preferred publishing option for the research they have funded. The false promise of Green OA is one which we collectively as a sector need to move away from. As I have said before, it is simply not sustainable, relying as it does on the continuation of library subscription fees. The isolated accepted manuscript (AM) version is not what researchers want to use and leaving the fully-maintained final version of record behind a paywall slows the move to open science, or possibly jeopardizes it with AM’s lower standards, which is the opposite of what science needs.