Linking impact factor to ‘open access’ charges creates more inequality in academic publishing


The prospectus SpringerNature released on April 25 in preparation of its intended stock market listing provides a unique view into what the publisher thinks are the strengths of its business model and where it sees opportunities to exploit them, including its strategy on open access publishing. Whether the ultimate withdrawal of the IPO reflected investors’ doubt about the presented business strategies, or whether SpringerNature’s existing debts were deemed to be too great a risk, the prospectus has nonetheless given the scholarly community an insight into the publisher’s motivations in supporting and facilitating open access.

In the document, aimed at potential shareholders, the company outlines how it stands to profit from APC (article publishing charge)-based gold open access in an otherwise traditional publishing system that remains focused on high-impact factor journals. From this perspective, a market with high barriers to entry for new players is a desirable situation. Any calls for transparency of contracts, legislation against exclusive ownership of content by publishers, public discussion on pricing models and a move towards broader assessment criteria – beyond impact factors – are all seen as a threat to the company’s profits. Whether this position also benefits the global research community is a question worth asking.

The open access market is seen by SpringerNature as differentiated by impact factor, making it possible to charge much higher APCs for publishing open access in high impact factor journals. Quite revealing is that on page 99 of the prospectus, SpringerNature aims to exploit the situation to increase prices: “We also aim at increasing APCs by increasing the value we offer to authors through improving the impact factor and reputation of our existing journals.”

First, this goes to show that APCs are paid not just to cover processing costs but to buy standing for a researcher’s article (if accepted). This is not new: other traditional publishers such as Elsevier, but even pure open access publishers such as PLoS and Frontiers, tier their market and ask higher APCs for their more selective journals.

Second, this prospectus section shows SpringerNature interprets impact factors and journal brands as what makes a journal valuable to authors and justifies high APCs – and not aspects such as quality and speed of peer review, manuscript formatting, or functionality and performance of the publishing platform.

Third, and most striking, is the deliberate strategy to raise APCs by securing and increasing impact factors of journals. SpringerNature admits it depends on impact factor thinking among researchers and seeks to exploit it.

The explicit aim to exploit impact factors and the presumed dependence of researchers on journal reputation is in sharp contrast with SpringerNature (to be precise BioMedCentral, SpringerOpen and Nature Research) having signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). By signing, these SpringerNature organisations agree with the need to “greatly reduce emphasis on the journal impact factor as a promotional tool” as the declaration states.

Additionally, in their 2016 editorial, “Time to remodel the journal impact factor” the editors of SpringerNature’s flagship journal Nature wrote: “These [impact factor] shortcomings are well known, but that has not prevented scientists, funders and universities from overly relying on impact factors, or publishers (Nature’s included, in the past) from excessively promoting them. As a result, researchers use the impact factor to help them decide which journals to submit to – to an extent that is undermining good science.”

The information revealed through the prospectus now raises the question whether signing DORA and the Nature editorial statements were in effect merely paying lip service to appease those worried by toxic effects of impact factor thinking, or whether they have real value and drive policy decisions by journal and publisher leadership. It could be argued that commercial publishers are foremost responsible for their financial bottom line, and that if enough researchers (or their institutions or funders) are willing and able to pay higher APCs for high impact factor journals, then that is a valid business model.

However, scientific publishers do not simply “follow the market”. For better or for worse, their business models influence the way academic research is prioritised, disseminated and evaluated. High APCs make it harder for researchers without substantial funds (eg, researchers from middle- and low-income countries, unaffiliated researchers and citizen scientists) to publish their research (or require a dependency on waivers), and a continued push for publishing in high impact factor journals by publishers, researchers and funders/institutions alike hampers developments towards more rigorous, relevant and equitable research communication.

How do we break out of this? It is promising to see initiatives from publishers and funders/institutions such as registered reports (where a decision to publish is made on the basis of the research proposal and methodology, independent of the results), the TOP guidelines that promote transparency and openness in published research, and moves towards more comprehensive assessment of quality of research by institutions and funders, as highlighted on the DORA website.

This will all help researchers do better research that is accessible and useful to as many people as possible, as might alternative publishing options coming from researchers, funders and institutions. Simply adding an “open access” option to the existing prestige-based journal system at ever increasing costs, however, will only serve to increase the profit margin of traditional publishers without contributing to more fundamental change in the way research is done and evaluated.

Author Bios: Bianca Kramer is a librarian for life sciences and medicine and Jeroen Bosman is a scholarly communications and geoscience librarian both at Utrecht University library.