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Reply to 'A faster path to an open future'
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Reply to 'A faster path to an open future'

By Egon Willighagen, 1 June 2019

Dear Steven Inchcoombe,

Thank you for announcing that Springer Nature wants to speed up its effort towards an open future. As Editor-in-Chief of one of your 100% CC-BY journals [0], I welcome this. At the same time, I will try to reply to your piece and with that outline some of my ideas of what Springer Nature needs to aim for. This will be partly based on your piece [1], my presentation at Springer Nature HQ in London last autumn [2], and our own feedback to Plan S [3]. My write up here, is my personal, researcher perspective. Writing this up will take me time; we have a lot to discuss.

The opening sentence is, in my opinion, where it goes wrong: "At Springer Nature we want to find the fastest and most effective route to immediate open access (OA) for all primary research." It sounds wonderful. But it also sounds shallow. Of course, it's business talk, buzz words, etc. And that makes it shallow. This is not a vision, not a mission. It's something to keep the authors and funders happy.

My questions start at the first three words: Springer Nature is a large company, with at least two sections: Nature Publishing Group doing the paywall journals, fully and partly. The latter often called a milder hybrid journal, but it still employs a paywall. If you want to find Open Access fast, you simply pay attention the BMC branch of Springer Nature. You do not have to search a fast route, you already found it a few years ago. You spent money on buying the fast route.

However, Springer Nature repeatedly advocate deals with research nations that put BMC at an disadvantage [4]. By explicitly excluding 100% CC-BY journals from national deals, authors are actively encouraged to publish in paywalled and hybrid journals. I do not see how that is a fast track.

I can only guess what you mean. Maybe, how can we ensure a non-disruptive route for the closed journals. The sentence claims to be for all primary research, but I assume you mean for research that people want to publish in glossy journals.

The whole idea that some journals are expensive because you need to reject so many articles, is a self-fulfilling prophecy you opted in for: these "prestigious" journals have a long history of boosting impact factors (like the campaign for Nature, where a personal subscription costed only as much as the impact factor). By cherishing "prestigious" you created an artificial shortage. You do not have to reject 90% of the articles; you only need to reject bad articles.

Second, after almost 20 years of Open Access, saying that Springer Nature needs to find a solution, makes me wonder what the company has been doing (or not doing) in those 20 years. That gets me to my next point, why this opening sentence is horribly wrong. At least, if the goal is knowledge dissemination.

Scholarly knowledge is diverse. Research output is in the first place data, models, standards, software, not articles. The term "primary research" is a grave misnomer. The journal article is secondary research. The article is a derivative of the primary research. BioMedCentral has long understood this, and advocated many years ago for better access to, for example, the research data.

Seeing the journal article as "primary research" is a step back in time. And where I had hoped BioMedCentral would bring innovation to Springer Nature. Instead, as become clear to me with your message is that instead BioMedCentral is set back to a 19th century publishing technology approach.

In a recent reply to Plan S we outlined that Plan S, like your message, focused to much on Open Access [3]. If we want to use our research funding more efficiently, we need reproducible science and Open Access alone does will not achieve that.

That brings me to another strong claim: "[Springer Nature] can move from being an enabler to being a driver of the OA transition" (emphasis from the announcement). I find that very hard to reconcile with the earlier message of strong support of hybrid journals (which is strong support for closed access, which is the opposite of OA) and the deliberate exclusion of full OA journals. You can talk the talk, but I would prefer Springer Nature to walk the walk.

The paragraph ends with the proposal of being Transformative Publisher. Complying to expectations set by others is, to me, much closer to a definition of an enabler and not a driver. Instead, a real driver would explain cOAlitionS how they are not transformative enough. Walk the walk.

I find the suggestion to start driving the transition honestly embarrassing when you bought a company has been driving OA for almost 20 years. You label yourself as taking a passive approach but I fail to see how BioMedCentral has not been active. Well, maybe until Springer Nature bought them. And, well, made them passive? An explanation is most welcome.

If you want to be an active driver, you would do everything in your capacity to improve knowledge dissemination. BioMedCentral has shown plenty of examples, for example, with their Open Data effort that started already in 2010 [5]. If you really want to be a driver, you would have adopted CC0 for SciGraph too [6], following the approach of BioMedCentral.

My invitation to Springer Nature is, therefore, to be a genuine Transformative Publisher.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

with kind regards,

Egon Willighagen

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