‘Scholarly publishers also need a more consistent approach’ – Interview with Steven Inchcoombe of Springer Nature on Plan S and Open Access

The Plan S initiative threatens to shake up the world of scientific publishing through capped publishing fees for open access journals and a clear move away from hybrid journals. Steven Inchcoombe of Springer Nature gives us an insider view on what the Plan may mean for scholarly publishers.

As the Plan S initiative heralds big changes in scientific publishing, we speak to Chief Publishing Officer and Member of the Management Board of Springer Nature, Steven Inchcoombe, to find out more.

How did you get involved in the Open Access debate and why does it matter to you?

My involvement goes back to 2007, when I first took responsibility for the Nature Publishing Group. What I’ve been trying to do since then is to increase recognition of the importance of open access, and the wider open science or open research agenda. Nature moved into open access publishing through 2008 – 2009 and then into open data publishing. Springer was on exactly the same path. When we merged in 2015 the combination made us the largest, most successful and most experienced open access publisher.

How many open access and hybrid titles do Springer Nature have?

We publish in excess of 600 fully open access and almost 2000 hybrid titles, which means that 90% of our authors have an immediate open access option available to them.

There are two exceptions: one is the societies that we publish for, who don’t necessarily have open access as a priority, typically because they’re in disciplines where it’s much less developed. They’re still considering their options, and we have to work with them rather than set requirements. The other is our most highly selective journals, where becoming open access is more difficult.

Six months on from the launch of Plan S, how do you see the state of play? What are you doing to prepare for it internally?

I think we need to give cOAlition S time to consider all the inputs. We’re trying to do two things: we’re trying to respond privately to any questions they have about our submission, and publicly we’re trying to explain to the wider market why we see those recommendations as so important.

Is there any work going on with the societies you mentioned?

We are liaising with them on the benefits of open access, the challenges and the opportunities, and have been doing so since long before Plan S came along. We have the infrastructure and systems to facilitate it. The broader read and publish deals are sometimes considered as a possible transitionary route for Plan S, or as an alternative, and our societies are an integral part of those, so we’re reporting on their successes and how they can make what the societies do sustainable in the medium to long term.

You’ve blogged that the lack of global consensus on Plan S is a sticking point for Springer Nature. At what point would you consider the Plan to have gone global?

There are many ways in which open access could be accelerated and its use more widely spread. Plan S outlines a particular approach. Other organizations are pursuing the same goals but not necessarily using the Plan S movement, such as DFG in Germany. Similarly, a very large amount of research being produced in China is published open access, and they’ve expressed strong support for OA2020 and some support for Plan S, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will adopt the Plan S principles. Then you have the foundations like the NIH and NSF in the United States that see open access as important but don’t want to set aside specific funding to support it and are relying on the continuation of funding from institutional libraries, and are therefore more focused on the green open access side. There’s a diversity of approaches.

Springer Nature is ultimately a service provider to the research community, and the research community needs a more consistent approach so that they know how they’re going to be judged, and what funding or policies they’re going to be operating under.

All scholarly publishers also need a more consistent approach, because at the moment we’re having to invest in creating every variety of open access under the sun because different organizations are prioritising different things. That’s why we’re advocating for two things: Firstly, closer alignment to reduce the range of activities that need to be invested in by us and understood and adopted by researchers; and secondly, to make the benefits of open access much clearer to the research community so that it actually changes their behaviour. So far Plan S and other initiatives have focused on the supply-side (publishers), but there won’t be a change until the demand side comes into alignment and that means researchers choosing open access options. Their funders can also incentivise open access through grant requirements.

What do you see as the priorities for making OA more frequently chosen by authors? You’ve said we need more research on open access. Where are the gaps?

There are gaps in our understanding of why take up of OA differs across research areas. This is because the practice differs geographically and by discipline and therefore the data isn’t always available. But most of all, there’s a need to use the research as the data we’ve already got shows there are clear benefits of publishing open access. That most researchers don’t seem to be aware of them, let alone prioritise them, is a fundamental problem.

Do you see any changes or seeds of innovation, including outside of Springer Nature?

One of the means of improving the efficiency and speed of sharing research is in the pre-print world. Sharing work in draft form prior to submission is still only taken up by 2-3% of researchers. There’s a notable exception in physics with Arxiv, but the vast majority of researchers don’t do it.

Initiatives to help them share their work in a safe way which links up to the ultimate peer-reviewed output is helpful to all. Recognising that is something we’re trying to do through a new platform we have called InReview which we’re trialling at the minute with some of our journals.

We saw how PloS got together with bioRxiv and they got up to 14% opt-in. Our trial is exceeding 50% opt-in rates, and we feel enthusiastic that if we can really promote and explain the benefits to researchers, we can get wider use.

If open access is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to open science, the biggest part of that iceberg is open data. Some funders are now requiring a data management plan (DMP) to be a part of grant requirements, and we’re working with organizations to make sure the experimental data sets are not only discoverable and accessible but genuinely used, re-used and critically understood. We are at a much earlier stage with open data, and frankly we’ve lost an awful lot of money on these initiatives because there hasn’t been the demand there. We’re trying to promote these initiatives so that we can get the policies in place with funding agencies.

Far and away the biggest challenge is for funders and to a degree the institutions that employ researchers. Both have a responsibility as stakeholders in the research ecosystem to provide the guidance and support needed. We’re able to meet the demand for open data and are keen that the demand grows so that we can scale this for the benefit of all.

The news media and journalism have been hugely disrupted in recent decades. Isn’t is time that scholarly publishing was shaken up as well? Are there lessons to be learned from new business models such as ‘pay what you can’ or subscription models with or without advertising? It is time we had a Spotify for scientific papers?

What’s really changed is with consumer media – where millions or billions of people are potential readers or users of this content. Going digital has facilitated spreading the content among a much larger group of people and therefore that’s been applied in some sectors.

The world of research is different. Firstly, there are about 10 million researchers in the world, and that number is not going to suddenly become 100 million – it’s probably not going to grow substantially in the short to medium term unless there’s a change that nobody’s predicted. Secondly, almost all the money for paying researchers’ salaries, for paying for where they work, the equipment they use, and ultimately our fees, whether in the form of subscriptions from libraries or APCs via researchers (but ultimately derived from their grants), comes from taxes. Since the Second World War we’ve seen an increasing commitment of public money to research, but it’s a finite sum of money with a finite number of people. Over the long term, the amount of money going into research has grown by about 4% per annum over the last 10-15 years, and the amount of money spent with scholarly publishers has grown at a rate of about 2% per annum. Do we want to spend lots of money, lots of time and effort trying to change the mechanics by which that money is distributed, or do we want to make sure that matching the limited money with the most effective outcomes is as efficient and transparent as possible? I err towards the latter.

The headline figures of price increases are really because the market has concentrated dramatically and there are far fewer players sharing the money than was the case 15 years ago. That’s likely to continue, because the limited money means that larger players have an inherent advantage relative to small and medium sized players, particularly in the digital world. I understand why academic societies are particularly concerned because the long-term trend has been one of concentration and reduction of suppliers.

We’ve tried a model where organizations can buy tokens in advance for access to research at a few dollars per article, and we’ve also offered individual researchers a subscription to everything we publish – a ‘mini-Spotify’ model. Neither of those had significant take-up: the two of them together represent less than 2% of our revenues, and they’ve been in operation for years. When we’ve offered these alternatives to organizations renewing their subscriptions, they shy away from them because they want all the content for a fixed price, and they want more for less, rather than to pay for it differently.

I came out of the newspaper industry and I’ve been wrestling with these questions since the end of the 1990s. When I was at the Financial Times we came up with various models that have worked well for them, and I would love to find models that open up new opportunities for us, but at the moment I think matching where the money originates from with their goals is the most effective way of serving the research community.

In ten years’ time, what do you expect will have changed with regards to OA and what do you hope to see?

I hope that the transition to open access will be complete by then, but my concern is that that will remain wishful thinking, and that we’ll be operating for the next ten years and beyond in a mixed economy in which different flavours of open access sit alongside subscriptions. Based upon progress so far, global fragmentation, and demand from researchers, I fear that we’ll still be in the transition phase.

There is no silver bullet: It requires much more global collaboration and there isn’t a body to do that. Research and scholarly publishing are not regulated sectors and the requirements which exist are at the national level. The EU might be an exception, but even there, there isn’t what you could call regulation. I wouldn’t advocate for regulation –what we need is more global coordination, both on helping researchers and helping the supply side. Until those two are there, I fear publishers will continue to be unable to drive this, because at the end of the day we’re service providers.

There are two ways of driving change: One is through a combination of ‘sticks and carrots’ mechanisms to encourage movement towards the goal, and another is to define detailed rules to get to the goal. My fundamental concern with Plan S is that it’s gone for some very detailed rules which are difficult to make work consistently everywhere, and so you build up resistance from a whole variety of organizations or people that feel that they could be compromised. I think it’d be better to focus on the big goals, and how to incentivise and encourage movement towards those goals and leave the market and the participants in it to come up with imaginative solutions, rather than say it must be solved in a certain way.

The great success of Plan S is that it’s got everybody talking. I’m hoping that they will consider the diversity of needs and allow for extra flexibility in achieving the goal of open access.

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