Should the UK make a deal with Springer Nature?

This is a guest post by Prof. Stephen J. Eglen on the concurrent negotiations between the UK academic sector and the publisher Springer Nature. Prof. Eglen is a Fellow of Magdalene College and Professor of Computational Neuroscience in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. This post does not necessarily reflect the view of Cambridge University Libraries.

The UK academic sector is currently in discussion with Springer Nature around a renewed ‘read and publish’ deal for journal content. I understand that most institutions are likely to reject the current deal, but wish to continue negotiations. My position is that further discussions with Springer Nature are futile; we should stop accepting ‘transformative deals’. The likely effect of this deal would be that more of Springer Nature’s content may be openly available to read, but with the ‘paywall’ shifted to the publish side. Here I list my key objections:

  1. There is still no justification for the high APCs (9500 EUR + taxes) for Nature tier journals. Accepting a deal, regardless of the level of discounts that could be achieved, is implicitly accepting their business model. Springer Nature declined to engage with the Journal Comparison Service run by cOAlition S that aims to help understand how costs are determined.
  2. Springer Nature’s view is that ‘gold OA’ is the only viable way to open access. Other models for open access are available, and show promise, including diamond OA journals and Subscribe to Open. However, Springer Nature assert that “they haven’t found a way of making them financially sustainable”.  If we accept a gold-only view of open access,  how can we objectively assess the sustainability of alternative models?
  3. A move to a ‘gold only’ OA world would shift the barrier from reading to publishing content. Springer Nature recently announced a waiver policy for researchers from about 70 lower income countries. This still excludes many researchers worldwide e.g. from Brazil and South Africa, perpetuating neo-colonial attitudes towards the creation of scholarly content and reinforcing existing institutional inequalities within countries. Any waiver programme for APCs should be “no-questions-asked” regardless of where researchers are based. This would need to be properly costed and part of the justification of the APC (point 1).
  4. As of January 2023, several UK institutions have rights retention policies in place, with more expected to follow in the coming months. Individual researchers can also use rights retention strategy by themselves. Rights retention statements allow researchers to meet UK funder’s requirement by depositing their author-accepted manuscript without embargo. I believe Springer Nature should publicly state that they will allow any author worldwide to maintain their rights on their own author-accepted manuscripts.
  5. Over half of Springer Nature’s hybrid journals failed to meet their 2021 targets for open access articles within hybrid journals.  Those hybrid journals that fail again this year to meet their targets will be removed from cOAlition S’s transformative journal program.  Having some journals ineligible for cOAlition S funding but part of a UK read-and-publish deal would further complicate an already confusing system.  It would also question Springer Nature’s commitment to open access.

A detailed public critique of the deal is not possible because of the confidential nature of the negotiations.  Finances aside, I feel there was one element that was simply unworkable and unethical due to it requiring scholars to keep one aspect confidential if the deal were accepted.

The UK is one of only a few countries with a  heavy reliance on transformative agreements.  Sweden has already decided that transformative agreements are not sustainable and the transition period should finish at the end of 2024. Coalition S has also confirmed it will end its support of hybrid journals by the end of 2024. I would like to see the UK move away from transformative agreements. We could instead work internationally to promote more ethical and sustainable alternatives that put scholars at the heart of scholarly communication. In particular, the APC model has been tried, and introduces as many headaches as it has tried to solve. 

It is time instead to try new approaches.  There are several interesting models being developed by forward-looking organizations that the UK could endorse.  For example, MIT press recently launched shift+OPEN as a way to flip subscription based journals to diamond open access model.  Another interesting approach is Subscribe to Open where journals drop their paywall if a threshold amount of subscriptions are received.  Money saved on dealing with legacy publishers like Springer Nature is better spent investing in our own infrastructure and new approaches.

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