Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Charles Whalley. Charles is Head of Journals Publishing at the British Pharmacological Society. He is also a member of the National Union of Journalists, which covers staff in academic publishing.

Springer Nature’s offices in London sit on a side street near King’s Cross station. On Thursday 20th June, the office’s entrances and exits were clustered by staff members holding flags and signs, playing music, dancing jigs, giving out stickers and sweets, and cheering when red London buses beeped in support. The atmosphere, when I visited the picket line at lunchtime, was relaxed and joyful. Multiple separate striking staff were eager to tell me about the open letter circulating amongst academics supporting their demand of a higher pay offer. Visitors to the office, colleagues from other parts of the business, even passers-by, all seemed eager to cheer on the union. At least on those pavements in London, it felt like support was with the strike.

Those on strike are National Union of Journalists (NUJ) members on the Nature portfolio of journals, including the flagship journal itself, Nature. The NUJ covers editorial and production staff on those titles (as it does at other academic publishers in the UK) and is formally recognized at Springer Nature, meaning the company is legally obliged to negotiate on pay and working conditions with members of the union. The current dispute relates to negotiations which began in September 2023. Springer Nature’s offer of a 5.8% pay rise has been repeatedly rejected by the union, with a ballot for strike action approved by 93% of votes. Under the UK’s restrictive labor laws, authorizing a strike is a difficult process; the fact that it is happening at all, as the first such disruption at Nature in its 155 year history, reflects the strength of feeling among its expert staff.

Placard reading "on strike"

Trade unions exist because of a fundamental divergence of interests: employees want more pay and more autonomy; employers want more profits and more efficiency. In the case of Springer Nature, the NUJ committee (known as a ‘chapel’ in the union’s parlance) points to multiple years of below inflation pay rises (i.e., real term pay cuts) in a time when the cost of living in the UK has risen dramatically, and when the company’s profit margins remain considerable. According to staff members I spoke with, the pay offer is below the figure the company had previously told them was affordable. Striking staff also point to their ever-growing workloads, a new expectation to commute into the office for an additional day, and the way the company has engaged with these concerns through the pay negotiations. Those on strike report the feeling that their employer is attempting to pay them as little as it can. This is the aim of any business, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see it manifest here.

Unique to Springer Nature is their rumored forthcoming attempt for yet another stock market listing, or IPO. If the rumor is true, this will not be the company’s first attempt, as its private equity owners attempt to cash in on their stake in the highly profitable business. In his excellent newsletter Journalology, former Nature Vice President James Butcher situates the current dispute within this context, writing that senior management are likely to be particularly motivated to “make the company look as financially appealing as possible” by keeping a lid on staff salaries. Interestingly, he speculates that SN’s “executive team…will likely be well compensated if [the IPO] successfully goes through,” which renders the divergence of interests I mentioned above in direct terms.

The dispute at Springer Nature also expresses a fundamental tension in academic publishing. Although it varies between journals, the human labor inherent to publishing is rarely insignificant. In fact, in many cases (such as EMBO) it is the main cost. Indeed, when Springer Nature introduced remarkably high APCs on Nature in 2020, the company argued thatthese reflected the value of those same staff who are now on strike. (The union has noted that these APCs have most recently gone up by 8%, an increase in excess of the company’s current pay raise offer.) When justifying those APCs, Springer Nature argued that it is the input of expert staff that underpins the quality of an academic journal.

But, particularly as academic publishing moves further to an ‘article economy’ under Open Access, publishers are increasingly incentivized to reduce the human intervention on each article, and to limit the cost of that intervention where it remains. Senior executives, when looking at their budgets, will inevitably target the biggest costs first.

Publishing staff, meanwhile, have all sorts of motivations, including being able to provide a decent living for themselves and their families and enjoy a fulfilling work-life balance. But, beyond this, those working on academic journals see themselves as collaborators in the process of knowledge creation. Many have research backgrounds themselves. As professionals, they are motivated by their desire to produce quality work and have genuine care for the research entrusted to them. In this respect, their motivations are directly aligned with the expectations of the scholars who write and read the articles, as evidenced by the open letter mentioned above. Therefore, the current pay dispute isn’t just about wages; it’s about the value placed on editorial work. The outcome will be a test of whether Springer Nature truly values the expertise their leadership claim is the foundation of quality publishing.

At time of writing, the strikes are set to continue through multiple dates in June and July, with union members committing to “work to rule” between strike days (i.e., sticking to the explicit terms of their contracts). Considering the large amounts of unpaid overtime that many in publishing undertake out of a wish to not let their authors or editors down, it’s likely that the Nature portfolio of journals will see significant knock-on disruption to publication schedules over this period and beyond. The NUJ says it is willing to meet with senior management to continue negotiations; statements from Springer Nature similarly express a willingness to do the same. As I wrote for this blog last year, an unfortunate reluctance to engage meaningfully with staff in unions is not unique to commercial entities. But with the likely impact on the business, and the visible support from the academic community, it seems inevitable that Springer Nature will be forced to meet at least some of its employees’ demands.

Charles Whalley

Charles Whalley is Head of Journals Publishing at the British Pharmacological Society. He is also a member of the National Union of Journalists, which covers staff in academic publishing.

Discussion

7 Thoughts on "Guest Post — At the Nature Picket"

Very well put analysis! Unfortunately, SpringerNature seems to be struggling to innovate and provide added value in creative ways. They are riding on their historical reputation which -alone- will not take them far into the future. Journal staff end up paying the price for this failure at the top which makes an IPO a terrible idea in my honest opinion.

To the point of this article, no self-respecting staff member should have to put up with this so I’m glad they have finally gone on strike! I say this as a former editor at the company, who has seen this all first hand.

I find it a bit odd that the author of this guest post does not disclose the fact that, as head of journals publishing at the British Pharmacological Society, he is a competitor of Springer Nature (the BPS publishes its journals with Wiley).

I also find it odd that there’s nothing in this post to suggest that Springer Nature was given the chance to comment before the piece was published. Could the author clarify whether that happened?

The author’s affiliation, as well as his membership in the union behind this strike, is stated in the introduction to the piece.

In general, TSK is not a news-gathering organization, and for opinion blog posts such as this, we don’t reach out to all being mentioned for comment. All are welcome to add their voice through comments and we also welcome further posts on this subject that offer different viewpoints.

The author’s affiliations with NUJ and the BPS are both disclosed; the fact that his role at BPS is specifically to publish journals that compete directly with Nature journals (while discoverable) is not explicitly disclosed, and in my view should have been, since, like his affiliation with NUJ, it creates a direct conflict of interest that his mere affiliation with BPD doesn’t.

As for TSK’s status as a platform for opinion pieces rather than new items: I agree, and this does create a lower level of obligation when it comes to soliciting comment. But in this case, the piece is partly opinion and partly reportage, and it only quotes or summarizes the views of people critical of Springer Nature (plus James Butcher, whose position is a bit hard to divine since what looks like a link to his piece doesn’t actually link to that piece). The author clearly solicited comment from the people on one side, so it seems to me that fundamental fairness would have been served by offering that opportunity to Springer Nature. That’s just my opinion, of course.

Just published a book with SN, and it is disheartening to read that the euros 14,000 we paid for open access probably aren’t benefiting the staff, who are helpful if overworked, but assisting corporate greed. The solution of course for books is to simply bypass these types of companies and for academics and like-minded small publishers, including the various social science OA presses in the UK, to fill the gaps. Changes to national REF open access requirements should facilitate this.

Leave a Comment