Linking impact factor to ‘open access’ charges creates more inequality in academic publishing

[this piece was first published on May 16, 2018 on the site of Times Higher Education under a CC-BY license]

The prospectus SpringerNature released on April 25* in preparation of its intended stock market listing provides a unique view into what the publisher thinks are the strengths of its business model and where it sees opportunities to exploit them, including its strategy on open access publishing. Whether the ultimate withdrawal of the IPO reflected investors’ doubt about the presented business strategies, or whether SpringerNature’s existing debts were deemed to be too great a risk, the prospectus has nonetheless given the scholarly community an insight into the publisher’s motivations in supporting and facilitating open access.

In the document, aimed at potential shareholders, the company outlines how it stands to profit from APC (article processing charge)-based gold open access in an otherwise traditional publishing system that remains focused on high-impact factor journals. From this perspective, a market with high barriers to entry for new players is a desirable situation. Any calls for transparency of contracts, legislation against exclusive ownership of content by publishers, public discussion on pricing models and a move towards broader assessment criteria – beyond impact factors – are all seen as a threat to the company’s profits. Whether this position also benefits the global research community is a question worth asking.

The open access market is seen by SpringerNature as differentiated by impact factor, making it possible to charge much higher APCs for publishing open access in high impact factor journals. Quite revealing is that on page 99 of the prospectus, SpringerNature aims to exploit the situation to increase prices: “We also aim at increasing APCs by increasing the value we offer to authors through improving the impact factor and reputation of our existing journals.”

First, this goes to show that APCs are paid not just to cover processing costs but to buy standing for a researcher’s article (if accepted). This is not new: other traditional publishers such as Elsevier, but even pure open access publishers such as PLoS and Frontiers, tier their market and ask higher APCs for their more selective journals.

Second, this prospectus section shows SpringerNature interprets impact factors and journal brands as what makes a journal valuable to authors and justifies high APCs – and not aspects such as quality and speed of peer review, manuscript formatting, or functionality and performance of the publishing platform.

Third, and most striking, is the deliberate strategy to raise APCs by securing and increasing impact factors of journals. SpringerNature admits it depends on impact factor thinking among researchers and seeks to exploit it.

The explicit aim to exploit impact factors and the presumed dependence of researchers on journal reputation is in sharp contrast with SpringerNature (to be precise BioMedCentralSpringerOpen and Nature Research) having signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). By signing, these SpringerNature organisations agree with the need to “greatly reduce emphasis on the journal impact factor as a promotional tool” as the declaration states.

Additionally, in their 2016 editorial, “Time to remodel the journal impact factor” the editors of SpringerNature’s flagship journal Nature wrote: “These [impact factor] shortcomings are well known, but that has not prevented scientists, funders and universities from overly relying on impact factors, or publishers (Nature’s included, in the past) from excessively promoting them. As a result, researchers use the impact factor to help them decide which journals to submit to – to an extent that is undermining good science.”

The information revealed through the prospectus now raises the question whether signing DORA and the Nature editorial statements were in effect merely paying lip service to appease those worried by toxic effects of impact factor thinking, or whether they have real value and drive policy decisions by journal and publisher leadership. It could be argued that commercial publishers are foremost responsible for their financial bottom line, and that if enough researchers (or their institutions or funders) are willing and able to pay higher APCs for high impact factor journals, then that is a valid business model.

However, scientific publishers do not simply “follow the market”. For better or for worse, their business models influence the way academic research is prioritised, disseminated and evaluated. High APCs make it harder for researchers without substantial funds (eg, researchers from middle- and low-income countries, unaffiliated researchers and citizen scientists) to publish their research (or require a dependency on waivers), and a continued push for publishing in high impact factor journals by publishers, researchers and funders/institutions alike hampers developments towards more rigorous, relevant and equitable research communication.

How do we break out of this? It is promising to see initiatives from publishers and funders/institutions such as registered reports (where a decision to publish is made on the basis of the research proposal and methodology, independent of the results), the TOP guidelines that promote transparency and openness in published research, and moves towards more comprehensive assessment of quality of research by institutions and funders, as highlighted on the DORA website.

This will all help researchers do better research that is accessible and useful to as many people as possible, as might alternative publishing options coming from researchers, funders and institutions. Simply adding an “open access” option to the existing prestige-based journal system at ever increasing costs, however, will only serve to increase the profit margin of traditional publishers without contributing to more fundamental change in the way research is done and evaluated.

Jeroen Bosman (@jeroenbosman) and Bianca Kramer (@MsPhelps)
Utrecht University Library

* The prospectus has since been taken offline. We secured an offline copy for verification purposes, but unfortunately cannot share this copy publicly.

Support for Open Science in EU member states

In preparation for the EU Open Science Conference on April 4-5 in Amsterdam, we looked at what our survey data reveal about declared support for Open Access and Open Science among researchers in the EU.

Support for Open Access and Open Science

Of the 20,663 survey respondents, 10,297 were from the EU, of which 7,358 were researchers (from PhD-students to faculty). Most respondents provided an answer to the two multiple-choice questions on whether or not they support the goals of Open Access and Open Science, respectively. A large majority expressed support for Open Access (87%) and Open Science (79%) (see Fig 1).

OA/OS support from EU researchers

Fig. 1 Responses from EU researchers to survey questions on support for Open Access and Open Science

Even though support for Open Science is less than for Open Access, this does not mean that many more people actively state they do NOT support Open Science, as compared to Open Access (see Fig 1). Rather, more people indicate ‘I don’t know’ in answer to the question on Open Science. This could mean they have not yet reached an opinion on Open Science,  that they perhaps support some aspects of Open Science and not others, or simply that they found the wording of the question confusing.

It is interesting to note that the Open Access support figure roughly corresponds with results from Taylor & Francis Open Access surveys of 2013 and 2014, that reported only 16 and 11 percent respectively that agreed with the statement that there are no fundamental benefits to Open Access publication.


Differences between member states

When we look at the differences in professed support for Open Access and Open Science in the various EU member states (see Fig 2, Table 1) we see that support for Open Access is relatively high in many Western European countries. Here, more funding opportunities for Open Access are often available, either through institutional funds or increasingly through negotiations with publishers, where APCs are included in institutional subscriptions for hybrid Open Access journals. Perhaps many researchers in Southern and Eastern member states associate Open Access with either expensive APCs or with “free” or nationally oriented journals they wish to avoid because they are required to publish “international, highly ranked” venues.

Conversely, support for Open Science is higher in many ountries in Southern and Eastern Europe. As pure conjecture, may we state that in these regions, with sometimes less developed research infrastructures, the benefits of Open Science, e.g. for collaboration,  might be more apparant? The observed outliers to this general pattern (e.g. Belgium and Italy) illustrate both the limitations of these survey data (number of responses and possible bias) and the fact that the whole picture is likely to be more complicated.

OA-OS support EU member states

Fig. 2 Level of support for Open Access (left panel) and Open Science (right panel) in individual EU member states. Scale is based on non-weighted country averages. Results for states with less than 20 individual responses are omitted (see Table 1).

In general, the above differences between member states come into even clearer focus when support for Open Science is compared to that for Open Access, for each country. Fig 3 shows whether support for Open Science in a given country is higher or lower than for Open Access. Again, in most Western European countries Open Access is easily embraced while Open Science, perhaps because it is going further and being a more recent development, meets more doubt or even resistance. In many Southern and Eastern European countries, the pattern is reversed.  Clearly though, this cannot be the full story. Finding out what is behind these differences may valuably inform discussions on how to proceed with Open Access/Open Science policies and implementation.

OS vs. OA support EU member states

Fig. 3 Ratio of support for Open Science (OS) and Open Access (OA) in individual EU member states (red = relatively more support for OA than for OS, green = relatively more support for OS than OA). Scale is based non-weighted country ratios. Results for states with less than 20 individual responses were omitted (see Table 1).

Irrespective of differences between countries, the overall big majority support of Open Access as well as Open Science among European researchers is perhaps the most striking result. Of course, support not automatically implies that one puts ideas into practice. For this, it will be interesting to look at the actual research workflows of the researchers that took our survey, to see in how far their practices align with their stated support for Open Access and Open Science. Also, since our survey used a self-selected sample (though distribution was very broad), care should be taken in interpretation of the results, as they might be influenced by self-selection bias.

Data

The aggregated data underlying this post are shown in Table 1. For this analysis, we did not yet look at differences between scientific disciplines or career stage. Full (anonymized) data on this and all other survey questions will be made public on April 15th.

Do you support the goal of Open Access? Do you support the goals of Open Science?
Yes No I don’t know # responses Yes No I don’t know # responses
Austria 95% 2% 3% 60 83% 3% 14% 66
Belgium 89% 5% 6% 103 88% 3% 9% 102
Bulgaria 81% 14% 5% 21 72% 0% 28% 18
Croatia 85% 12% 3% 33 94% 0% 6% 31
Cyprus 69% 8% 23% 13 69% 8% 23% 13
Czech Republic 73% 13% 13% 75 69% 13% 18% 78
Denmark 90% 1% 9% 80 84% 0% 16% 82
Estonia 85% 8% 8% 13 92% 8% 0% 13
Finland 84% 4% 12% 92 83% 3% 14% 95
France 87% 5% 8% 686 79% 5% 16% 699
Germany 87% 3% 9% 1165 76% 7% 18% 1179
Greece 81% 7% 12% 214 85% 4% 12% 222
Hungary 89% 9% 2% 45 83% 10% 7% 41
Ireland 81% 5% 15% 62 82% 5% 13% 62
Italy 79% 7% 14% 407 77% 4% 18% 413
Latvia 86% 0% 14% 7 83% 0% 17% 6
Lithuania 88% 0% 13% 8 75% 13% 13% 8
Luxembourg 86% 0% 14% 7 57% 0% 43% 7
Malta 100% 0% 0% 8 75% 0% 25% 8
Netherlands 89% 2% 9% 1610 75% 5% 20% 1627
Poland 86% 7% 7% 85 88% 5% 7% 83
Portugal 88% 5% 8% 129 84% 5% 11% 133
Romania 80% 5% 15% 82 85% 5% 10% 82
Slovakia 70% 5% 25% 20 82% 6% 12% 17
Slovenia 96% 0% 4% 27 96% 0% 4% 28
Spain 87% 3% 10% 537 88% 2% 10% 542
Sweden 90% 3% 6% 146 76% 6% 19% 145
United Kingdom 88% 3% 9% 1113 79% 4% 17% 1123
Total 87% 4% 9% 6848 79% 5% 17% 6923

Table 1 Aggregated data on support of Open Access and Open Science per EU member state.