With its recent launch of Light: Science and Applications, an open access (OA) physical sciences journal, and several more OA specialist publications planned for this year, Nature Publishing Group (NPG) is moving forward with its plan to include this publishing model in the center of its business. Though not every NPG journal is fair game for open access, it seems – top-tier publications will remain under a subscription-based model – specialist titles may be a place for further expansion as open access continues to develop.
At the end of March, a new open access (OA) journal, Light: Science and Applications (LSA), was launched, with its first appearance online hosted by co-publisher, the Nature Publishing Group (NPG). In partnership with the Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics (CIOMP), Chinese Academy of Sciences, which retains ownership of the journal, NPG adds this title to its list of OA publications: 47 journals that give the option to publish in open access (hybrid model), and 12 fully open access titles.
Light: Science and Applications, NPG’s first open access physical sciences journal, will be published weekly, ensuring rapid decision-making and publication for authors. All articles will be available immediately, for free, online. In exchange, authors will pay an article processing charge of $3,975. This fee is higher than some ($1,350 per article for multidisciplinary OA leader PLoS ONE, for example) but NPG calls it “in line with industry averages”.
NPG has been offering some form of OA option since 2005 and considers it “central to its growth”. Evidence for this may be that four of its five journals launched in 2011 were offered in open access. This year, LSA is one of several planned OA publications: 2012 should also see new journals addressing emerging diseases, pharmacology and immunology. Many of these publications will be companion titles to a larger, more established journal. For example, the open access Clinical and Translational Immunology will complement another Nature title, established in 1924, Immunology and Cell Biology. Patrick Carpenter, of NPG’s Corporate Communications, explains that these companion publications address “an offshoot of the larger subject, an area that is growing. They are more focused than the main journal [in the topics they address] and researchers may feel their work is more suited to this publication.”
The tendency for these highly specialized titles to be published in open access may be a reflection of their smaller circulation. According to a January 2011 position statement on business models for the scientific publication industry, NPG states that the subscription system remains the most appropriate for “High impact, highly selective ‘top-tier journals’.” These publications “have high circulations, even larger numbers of readers, and relatively few authors. They accept roughly 10% of submitted manuscripts. In such circumstances, it seems fairer to spread the costs across the large number of readers, rather than the much smaller number of authors.” On the other hand, they say, an open access model would require NPG to impose a very high fee (up to £30,000) on these few authors for processing of their article. Presumably, the key to OA’s success with smaller, more specialized journals is that higher acceptance rates, plus online-only publishing, reduce the cost per manuscript. In this case, authors (or their institutions) can be expected to bear the weight of the fee themselves.
It seems, then, that NPG is quite willing to branch out into the OA or hybrid model where it has deemed that author costs will not be detrimental to submissions. What this also means, in effect, is that the publisher retains control of access, via subscriptions, to almost all of the “heavy-hitter” Nature-branded journals. (The exception is Nature Communications, the group’s first effort at OA with one of its own titles, which contained 40% open access material as of January 2011.)
Some observers are not overly impressed by NPG’s insistence that “one size does not fit all. Scholarly communication has always, will always, and should always be served by a mix of models." Frank Norman, manager of the Library & Information Service at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, would like to see data supporting Nature’s claims that the old, subscription-based model really does end up fairer for all, when publishing in the highest-impact journals. Martin Fenner, a cancer researcher who also writes about the effect of the internet on scholarly communication, is not even convinced that we need these tiers of journals. In a post on Gobbledygook, his blog hosted by the OA publisher PLoS, Fenner takes the example of Scientific Reports, Nature Publishing Group’s open access journal covering all areas of the natural sciences. NPG states that this publication is not intended for scientists’ best articles, but for less important work that needs to be published quickly. “Let’s see how authors will respond to this," Fenner suggests, "and whether it will be possible 10 years from now to distinguish papers published in Nature, Nature Communications and Scientific Reports."
For the moment, open access publication is still searching for a viable financial model that works across a range of publications. NPG and others are experimenting with ways to embrace the trend, at least to a point. While critics of the current system aren’t about to sit back and watch it unfold, these OA publications may be a first step toward a more accessible future for scientific publications.
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