Ma­chine learn­ing sci­en­tists to boy­cott new closed–ac­cess ‘Na­ture’ jour­nal

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LEADER - David.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Thou­sands of ma­chine learn­ing sci­en­tists have said that they will boy­cott a new closed-ac­cess Na­ture jour­nal in a row that il­lus­trates un­ease over how pub­lish­ers use pres­ti­gious brands to mus­cle in to new dis­ci­plines.

More than 2,500 re­searchers have signed a pe­ti­tion, declar­ing that they will not sub­mit to, re­view or edit for Na­ture Ma­chine In­tel­li­gence, set to launch in Jan­uary 2019, which will charge sub­scrip­tion fees for ac­cess in a dis­ci­pline where “vir­tu­ally all” pub­li­ca­tion out­lets are open.

Aca­demics are con­cerned that the Na­ture brand could en­tice re­searchers away from open-ac­cess al­ter­na­tives.

Christoph Lip­pert, head of a sta­tis­ti­cal ge­nomics lab at the Max Del­brück Cen­ter for Molec­u­lar Medicine in Ber­lin, who has signed the pe­ti­tion, said that re­searchers in the field “are not used to brand­name jour­nals. In fact, no jour­nal in the field has more than a sin­gledigit im­pact fac­tor,” he said, re­fer­ring to a con­tro­ver­sial mea­sure of jour­nal pres­tige based on av­er­age paper ci­ta­tion counts.

“Na­ture has a long his­tory in the nat­u­ral sciences and is an im­por­tant out­let that I do sub­mit to reg­u­larly,” he con­tin­ued. “How­ever, in this case, Na­ture is try­ing to use its brand to cap­i­talise in a field that it has not been in­ter­ested in for a long time.”

Daniel Roy, assistant pro­fes­sor of statis­tics at the Univer­sity of Toronto, added that there was “con­cern” over the new jour­nal because, in other fields, “Na­ture plays an out­sized role...[in] ca­reer de­ci­sions”.

Aside from fears about open ac­cess, Dr Roy pointed out that there were long-stand­ing con­cerns that Na­ture jour­nals en­cour­age “flashy” ar­ti­cles about high-im­pact but very early stage work.

A Springer Na­ture spokes­woman ar­gued that run­ning highly se­lec­tive Na­ture jour­nals in­volved greater costs and that it was fairer “to spread these costs among many read­ers [ through sub­scrip­tion ac­cess] in­stead of hav­ing them borne by a few authors [through a pay-to-pub­lish model]”.

The pe­ti­tion against Na­ture Ma­chine In­tel­li­gence came as its par­ent pub­lisher, Springer Na­ture, pre­pared to float on the Frank­furt stock ex­change on 9 May.

In a fi­nan­cial prospec­tus for in­vestors, the com­pany re­veals how it uses jour­nal brands and im­pact fac­tors to charge aca­demics “premium” prices to pub­lish and that “brand strength is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly im­por­tant”.

“Our open ac­cess port­fo­lio in­cludes a large number of lead­ing brands, such as... Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Sci­en­tific Re­ports and Springer Open, and high im­pact fac­tor publi­ca­tions, po­si­tion­ing us well

to com­mand premium APCs [ar­ti­cle pro­cess­ing charges, which pay for open ac­cess pub­li­ca­tion] from authors,” it says.

Asked about what de­ter­mines APCs, the spokes­woman said that pric­ing “varies...re­flect­ing the work that goes in to pub­lish­ing the ar­ti­cles and the added value ser­vices that we pro­vide to the com­mu­nity”.

The prospec­tus also re­as­sures in­vestors that the most “pres­ti­gious” jour­nals will re­main closed, and so the growth of open ac­cess will not “can­ni­balise” sub­scrip­tion rev­enues.

Draw­ing on a re­port by the con­sul­tants OC&C, it says that closed jour­nals “re­main the most pres­ti­gious type of pub­li­ca­tion mea­sured by im­pact fac­tor”, which means that li­braries are “in­cen­tivised to re­tain ac­cess”, lim­it­ing their abil­ity to ne­go­ti­ate a lower price.

The pub­lisher’s spokes­woman ar­gued that “the move to open ac­cess is com­plex and, for many, sim­ply not a vi­able op­tion”, for ex­am­ple because APCs were un­af­ford­able in some re­gions.

Elsewhere in the prospec­tus, the pub­lisher tells in­vestors that aca­demic pub­lish­ing has “sig­nif­i­cant bar­ri­ers to en­try” against com­peti­tors because a “small number of lead­ing aca­demic pub­lish­ers” con­trol “most” of the “unique” re­search that is a “must-have” for univer­sity li­braries.

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