Just as the excitement was heating up on the recent House hearings on open access to research results, I got an email from Nature to its customers earlier today. As an institutional subsciber to some of their journals, I along with many of my peers got to read directly from Steven Inchcoombe, Managing Director of the Nature Publishing Group about the current status of costs and what to expect for 2011.
I have to admit I've become hardened in my old age to these letters - in most cases they are thinly veiled attempts to explain corporate decisions that have backfired with customers or are unpopular for some reason. Why else would someone write such a letter? The only other time I get emails from a publisher is when there is a training webinar for a new interface, a new book alert, or the occassional Holiday greeting from a sales rep.
But I digress - I'll pull out the highlights and give some commentary from my perspective.
As expected Inchcoombe begins with the mission of NPG:
NPG’s core mission has always been to serve the interests of science and scientists. We do this best by focusing on Nature's 1869 mission to communicate the most important and valuable scientific information to the broadest possible audience.
I won't argue with this but rather suggest others besides scientists read the publications and have a stake in the costs and publishing models. Shouldn't NPG consider this broader audience to become more successful? Isn't creating ever smaller subsets of specialized titles contradictory to the original 1869 mission?
Apparently not, as at the end of the letter we see there are two more Nature titles slated for introduction in 2011:
In 2011, two new interdisciplinary journals will join the Nature family. Launching in April, Nature Climate Change will publish exceptional original research across the physical and social sciences, and will be the first Nature journal to publish peer-reviewed content from the social sciences community. Nature Biomedical Engineering, launching in October 2011, will strive to become a forum to bring biologists and engineers together, publishing research covering the wide scope of biomedical engineering.
This is in addition to other recently released new titles from NPG, of which Inchcoombe was happy to remind us:
In April this year we introduced Nature Communications, an online-only, multidisciplinary ‘hybrid’ journal, with subscription and open access options. We have been delighted with the community response. Nature Communications celebrated its 1000th submission in July, and will publish more than 100 articles this year. To date, there has been a 40% take up of the journal’s open access option.
In January we launched the open access journal Cell Death & Disease. This was followed in July by Nutrition & Diabetes, and Clinical & Translational Gastroenterology, with more launching later this year.
And lest we forget, Nature has also acquired content from other publishers, bringing the NPG prestige and brand to their names:
Now that Scientific American is fully integrated into NPG, it has been a year of development and investment in the magazine’s future. We have had to take some challenging and unpopular decisions with respect to institutional pricing, and we’ve had some critical feedback from the library community. Overall the magazine is now stronger, and we are investing heavily in its development. Mariette DiChristina was warmly welcomed as Scientific American’s new Editor-in-Chief, supported by newly-appointed Executive Editor Fred Guterl and an expanded board of advisors.
Seven journals published by NPG on behalf of societies offer open access options, with more expected to follow later this year.
The letter also mentions pricing models and financial information, of course, so we can learn straight from the source on the recent pricing promises and changes for upcoming year:
Two years ago we announced we would keep increases on NPG-owned journals below 7% for 2009, 2010 and 2011 list prices, and we have delivered on this promise. Nevertheless, there has been extensive discussion about NPG’s 2010 and 2011 price increases in recent months. Unfortunately and despite our efforts, confusion has arisen between list prices and volume discounts for consortia. So let me be clear; on site licenses for NPG-owned journals there was a 3.5% increase from 2009 list price to 2010 list price. The 2011 list price increase for NPG-owned journals will be 4.5%. List prices for society journals are set independently in consultation with individual societies. Site license list pricing for academic customers will be published shortly on the NPG Librarian Gateway.
While the percentage increases may sound reasonable, the actual cost paid by each institution is not public, nor (to the best of our knowledge) is it the same for all insitutions. So a customer paying more will have a larger increase. I would respond to Nature that since I don't know what others are paying, how can I know I'm getting a fair price? In the past when I've called our sales rep for ejournal site license costs they have asked for FTE information on our campus and responded with a price quote. To my knowledge no other vendor makes an ejournal subscription this secretive and private on each individual title. Most publishers will give any matter of bundled discounts for subscribing to multiple titles, but the price for one title is almost always listed publicly.
Next we learn future price increases will actually take effect before the year in question even begins, as they decribe further:
In 2010, prices will come into effect on 1 December for Nature-branded journals, and 1 September for academic and society journals. In 2011 and in future years, list prices will come into effect in on 1 October 2011 for all NPG titles. Therefore, 2012 list prices will come into effect on 1st October 2011, for both Nature-branded and NPG’s academic journals. This synchronizes the pricing cycle for all of the journals we publish. We are announcing this change as early as possible to facilitate your budgeting process. We expect to announce 2012 list prices for NPG-owned journals in April 2011. Meanwhile, NPG will continue to quote prices locally in each of our four invoicing currencies (USD, GBP, EURO, YEN).
It's unclear from the letter if this early pricing scheme will have some overlap during implementation or if subscribers will be charged for one year of content without getting access for a full year. I'm assuming Nature will take the high road and give customers access to what they paid for, for the subscription term agreed upon. But I would check the license agreement carefully before signing. Let's also not forget the differential pricing for international currencies - NPG is not required by law (if I am correct) to follow the current exchange rates for converting money from euros to pounds to dollars and yen. Many a commerical publisher has scaled foreign currency subscription costs in the past to make more money from American insitutions when the US dollar was strengthening, using older weaker exchange rates to set their prices. Has Nature done this? I don't know, because I only see a US dollar quote from them for ejournals. Again I cannot know if I'm being overcharged.
And, in case we're unclear about the importance of NPG journals, there's information on the value:
We believe NPG publications continue to represent excellent value for money. Our Impact Factor results are an indicator of the quality, relevance and usage of our journals. They reflect our editors’ success at attracting, selecting and communicating the most important and valuable scientific information to the broadest possible audience, as well as the exceptional authors and referees that we are privileged to work with. Nature is the number one weekly science journal for the third consecutive year, and its 2009 Impact Factor is its highest ever (34.480). Perhaps more significantly, it is also the most highly cited science journal, with 483,039 citations in 2009. Nature leads a strong portfolio, with 15 journals ranking #1 in their categories, including Nature Geoscience, which received its first Impact Factor this year (8.108).
I understand there must be some metrics with which to measure quality. But within the scientific community there is increasing disagreement on whether journal impact factors are appropriate measures to judge the quality of science being produced. It would be helpful to see Nature share more information on alternative metrics such as article-level downloads, Eigenfactor rankings, author h-indexes of highest accessed articles, or any number of newer metrics that are more reflective of the author or the individual article. Other publishers, such as PLoS, are doing this and they've have been enthusiastically received by scientists.
Besides impact factors, Nature assures us they are aware of the trends in publishing, like Open Access:
Our open access program continues to be the focus of our growth. Open access options are now available on 50% of the 50 academic journals we publish, including all 15 academic journals owned by NPG.
We were one of the first publishers to reduce site license prices significantly to reflect open access uptake. The price reductions we implemented in 2009 were significantly greater in monetary value than the income from article processing charges. In keeping with our open access pricing policy, confirmed in March, the 2012 site license prices of all NPG-owned journals with an open access option will be based only on the amount of subscription content and the selectivity and level of developmental editing of the journal.
All well and good, and reasonable to scale subscription costs to reflect the amount of open access content. A brief glance at the current issues of Nature Neuroscience and Nature Cell Biology, however, doesn't give much information on which articles are open access and which are not. How am I to know? So lowering prices isn't helpful if I don't know how much content is OA and how much is from the subscription.
To be fair to Nature, they also provide deposition services for research output:
Our liberal self-archiving policy and free manuscript deposition service remain an important part of our open access offering and service to authors. Since July 2008, NPG has deposited over 2400 manuscripts in PubMed Central (PMC) and UKPMC.
While that's heartening news, a quick trip to see SHERPA/RoMEO's summary of archiving policies for Nature paints a slightly different story. SHERPA classifies Nature as a yellow publisher, as archiving of the publisher's version of the work is not permitted (the pre-refereed version can be archived.) This is slightly more restrictive than the blue (can archive post-print (ie final draft post-refereeing) or publisher's version/PDF) or the green (can archive pre-print and post-print or publisher's version/PDF) categories. Nature does provide a six month embargo on content, which is encouraging. A quick of several additional titles suggests the yellow category is uniform across titles from NPG.
Discouraged about this current state of affairs? You can look forward to more updates in the future:
Our work to enhance our two flagship titles continues. Over the past year we’ve been gathering feedback on Nature and Scientific American from reader panels and focus groups. Their input is helping us develop these products so that they remain essential resources for today’s reader, in every medium – print, online and mobile. We look forward to sharing more news of the changes we have planned later in the year.
So there you have it - I left out a paragraph about a new iphone app and an upcoming ipad app but that's pretty much everything of import.
Am I suprised? Not really. In an earlier post on my personal blog I wrote that "Nature is not your friend." I still think that while they are trying to show a good face on the surface, underneath money and profit are guiding the decision-making. Here's an excerpt from that post:
Anyway, why is Nature (or any commercial publisher, for that matter) not your friend? They are in business to make money, not ensure that you are productive and/or earn funding or increase your ROI. That new journal that looks tailored to your research program? It's another channel to produce revenue. That handy pre-print service? Another mechanism to acquire your research output.
My advice: always read the fine print and look more closely behind the press releases. There is always more information that gives a more complete picture. I could go on, like the $5,000 open access article charge for Nature Communications, or information that their preprints service, NaturePrecedings, does not guarantee your submitted content will be freely available in perpetuity, unlike the preprint servers not created by publishers, but I think you see the point. Nature is not (necessarily) your friend.
Note: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and not those of her employer or institution.