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Nature Communications: A breakthrough for open access?

5 October 2009 130 views 3 Comments

A great deal of excitement but relatively little detailed information thus far has followed the announcement by Nature Publishing Group of a new online only journal with an author-pays open access option. NPG have managed and run a number of open access (although see caveats below) and hybrid journals as well as online only journals for a while now. What is different about Nature Communications is that it will be the first clearly Nature-branded journal that falls into either of these categories.

This is significant because it is bringing the Nature brand into the mix. Stephen Inchcoombe, executive director of NPG in email correspondence quoted in the The Scientist, notes the increasing uptake of open-access options and the willingness of funders to pay processing charges for publication as major reasons for NPG to provide a wider range of options.

In the NPG press release David Hoole, head of content licensing for NPG says:

“Developments in publishing and web technologies, coupled with increasing commitment by research funders to cover the costs of open access, mean the time is right for a journal that offers editorial excellence and real choice for authors.”

The reference to “editorial excellence” and the use of the Nature brand are crucial here and what makes this announcement significant. The question is whether NPG can deliver something novel and successful.

The journal will be called Nature Communications. “Communications” is a moniker usually reserved for “rapid publication” journals. At the same time the Nature brand is all about exclusivity, painstaking peer review, and editorial work. Can these two be reconciled successfully and, perhaps most importantly, how much will it cost? In the article in The Scientist a timeframe of 28 days from submission to publication is mentioned but as a minimum period. Four weeks is fast, but not super-fast for an online only journal.

But speed is not the only criterion. Reasonably fast and with a Nature brand may well be good enough for many, particularly those who have come out of the triage process at Nature itself. So what of that branding – where is the new journal pitched? The press release is a little equivocal on this:

Nature Communications will publish research papers in all areas of the biological, chemical and physical sciences, encouraging papers that provide a multidisciplinary approach. The research will be of the highest quality, without necessarily having the scientific reach of papers published in Nature and the Nature research journals, and as such will represent advances of significant interest to specialists within each field.

So more specific – less general interest, but still “the highest quality”. This is interesting because there is an argument that this could easily cannibalise the “Nature Baby” journals. Why wait for Nature Biotech or Nature Physics when you can get your paper out faster in Nature Communications? Or on the other hand might it be out-competed by the other Nature journals – if the selection criteria are more or less the same, highest quality but not of general interest, why would you go for a new journal over the old favourites? Particularly if you are the kind of person that feels uncomfortable with online only journals.

If the issue of the selectivity difference between the old and the new Nature journals then the peer review process can perhaps offer us clues. Again some interesting but not entirely clear statements in the press release:

A team of independent editors, supported by an external editorial advisory panel, will make rapid and fair publication decisions based on peer review, with all the rigour expected of a Nature-branded journal.

This sounds a little like the PLoS ONE model – a large editorial board with the intention of spreading the load of peer review so as to speed it up. With the use of the term “peer review” it is to be presumed that this means external peer review by referees with no formal connection to NPG. Again I would have thought that NPG are very unlikely to dilute their brand by utilising editorial peer review of any sort. Given the slow point of the process is getting a response back from peer reviewers, whether they are reviewing for Nature or for PLoS ONE, its not clear to me how this can be speed up or indeed even changed from the traditional process, without risking a perception of a quality drop. This is going to be a very tough balance to find.

So finally, does this meant that NPG are serious about Open Access? NPG have been running OA and online only journals (although see the caveat below about the licence) for a while now and appear to be serious about increasing this offering. They will have looked very seriously at the numbers before making a decision on this and my reading is that those numbers are saying that they need to have a serious offering. This is a hybrid and it will be easy to make accusations that, along with other fairly unsuccessful hybrid offerings, it is being set up to fail.

I doubt this is the case personally, but nor do I necessarily believe that the OA option will necessarily get the strong support it will need to thrive. The critical question will be pricing. If this is pitched at the level of other hybrid options, too high to be worth what is being offered in terms of access, then it will appear to have been set up to fail. Yet NPG can justifiably charge a premium if they are providing real editorial value.  Indeed they have to. NPG has in the past said that they would have to charge enormous processing charges to published authors to recover costs of peer review. So they can’t offer something relatively cheap, yet claim the peer review is to the same standards. The price is absolutely critical to credibility. I would guess something around £2500 or $US4000. Higher than PLoS Biology/Medicine but lower than other hybrid offerings.

So then the question becomes value for money. Is the OA offering up to scratch? Again the press release is not as enlightening as one would wish:

Authors who choose the open-access option will be able to license their work under a Creative Commons license, including the option to allow derivative works.

So does that mean it will be a non-commercial license? In which case it is not Open Access under the BBB declarations (most explicitly in the Budapest Declaration). This would be consistent with the existing author rights that NPG allows and their current “Open Access” journal licences but in my opinion would be a mistake. If there is any chance of the accusation that this isn’t “real OA” sticking then NPG will make a rod for their own back. And I really can’t see it making the slightest difference to their cost recovery. Equally the option to allow derivative works? The BBB declarations are unequivocal about derivative works being at the core of Open Access. From  a tactical perspective it would be much simpler and easier for them to go for straight CC-BY. It will get support (or at least neutralize opposition) from even the hardline OA community, and it doesn’t leave NPG open to any criticism of muddying the waters. The fact that such a journal is being released shows that NPG gets the growing importance of Open Access publication. This paragraph, in its current form, suggests that the organization as a whole hasn’t internalised the messages about why. There are people within NPG who get this through and through but this paragraph suggests to me that that understanding has not got far enough within the organisation to make this journal a success. The lack of mention of a specific licence is a red rag and an entirely unnecessary one.

So in summary the outlook is positive. The efforts of the OA movement are having an impact at the highest levels amongst traditional publishers. Whether you view this as a positive or a negative response it is a success in my view that NPG feels that a response is necessary. But the devil is in the details. Critical to both the journal’s success and the success of this initiative as a public relations exercise will be the pricing, the licence and acceptance of the journal by the OA movement. The press release is not as promising on these issues as might be hoped. But it is early days yet and no doubt there will be more information to come as the journal gets closer to going live.

There is a Nature Network Forum for discussions of Nature Communications which will be a good place to see new information as it comes out.

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