The Nature family of journals announced today it has become the first group of highly selective scientific titles to sign an arrangement that will allow researchers to publish articles that are immediately free to read. The deal will allow authors at institutions across Germany to publish an estimated 400 open-access (OA) papers annually in Nature journals, which have traditionally earned revenues exclusively from subscription fees.
The deal, known as a transformative agreement, comes as research funders in Europe have pushed to accelerate a transition to OA. Like other such agreements, the 4-year deal—to take effect in January 2021—aims to redirect money that the institutions currently spend on subscriptions to supporting OA publication.
Under the arrangement negotiated by the Nature group and the Max Planck Digital Library in Germany, authors at institutions that sign up will be able to make an unlimited number of accepted research articles OA. They would also be able to read all content in Nature journals for free. Nature expects about 120 German institutions that currently subscribe to the journals will take the deal; if all do, the publisher estimates it will cover publishing 400 papers annually, or about 3.5% of all articles published in Nature and the Nature-branded journals. Besides the flagship Nature, the family of 55 journals includes some of the world’s most highly cited titles, including Nature Biotechnology and Nature Medicine. (Nature titles now allow authors to deposit the final published versions of articles in free, public repositories such as PubMed 12 months after publication.
Some institutions may end up paying more under the deal than they have been spending on subscriptions, Nature publishing said. That is in part because the deals include new titles launched by the publisher during the term of the agreement, including three new, multidisciplinary journals planned for debut in 2021.
The flat fees paid by the institutes will reflect Nature’s estimate that the cost of publishing each OA paper averages about €9500 (or $11,200), Nature publishing said. That figure is notable because selective journals have previously been reluctant to embrace immediate OA options because, they say, they would have to charge authors a prohibitively high price to cover their production costs. Those costs are relatively high at selective journals because they reject the large majority of the manuscripts that they evaluate; in a system in which all journal revenues depend on per-article fees paid by authors, the rejected papers generate no revenue.
In a 2013 news article in Nature, the journal’s former editor in chief, Philip Campbell, estimated that to cover all costs, including the cost of producing news stories and other content, the flagship journal Nature alone would have to charge up to £30,000 (nearly $40,000) per research article. The new €9500 per paper cost estimate is much lower, but if Nature had chosen to charge authors that much to publish open access, it would have been the largest OA fee in the scientific publishing industry. (However, many publishers now subsidize the fees they charge authors.) The new deal avoids requiring authors to directly pay such fees.
The deal represents “an enormous opportunity for scientists in Germany,” as well as an opportunity for researchers elsewhere to build on their scientific findings, said Klaus Blaum, vice president of the Max Planck Society’s Scientific Council for Chemistry, Physics and Technology.
Springer Nature, the parent of the Nature journals, has already been expanding OA options. In 2019, it signed the world’s largest transformative agreement to date, with the German institutions represented by the Project DEAL consortium. It provided a similar package deal for publishing in and reading more than 2500 Springer Nature titles outside of the Nature family.
Nature’s announcement also said Springer Nature is continuing to develop other options for “authors around the world” to publish OA in Nature journals. Advocates of expanding OA have pointed out that many authors in developing countries work at institutions with modest or no existing spending on subscriptions, leaving little money to be converted into a transformative agreement.
Nature’s deal follows an earlier, now-ended experiment along similar lines by AAAS, which publishes Science. In 2017, AAAS and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to a pilot program in which Gates-funded authors could publish an unlimited number of accepted research articles on an immediately free-to-read basis. The foundation paid $100,000 for a 12-month run, as well as an additional, undisclosed sum for a 6-month extension.
During the trial run, Gates-funded authors published a total of 44 papers in Science and its four subscription-based sister journals. But in 2018, the parties ended the arrangement. In a 2019 report about the pilot, AAAS and Gates said “the partnership did not identify a mutually agreeable business model to support open access publishing in the longer term.”
AAAS continues to explore other ways to offer open access, Bill Moran, publisher of the Science family of journals, said on Monday. “AAAS would consider transformative agreements, but we are focused on helping authors who have relevant mandates or recommendations from their funding agencies comply via green open access routes, which involve authors posting the accepted version of a study to a personal website or in their institutional repository immediately upon publication,” he said.
*Editor’s Note, 20 October, 1:31 p.m.: This article has been updated to reflect that Nature’s deal is available to institutions in Germany besides the Max Planck Society institutes and that institutions could sign up without conducting further negotiations with Nature over terms.