Expert Commentaries from CEOs — Achieving Open Science: Building on Historical Partnerships

by | May 17, 2021 | 0 comments


By Frank Vrancken Peeters  (CEO, Springer Nature)

Against the Grain Vol. 33 No. 2

Note From Your Editor:  Do you have a point of view or comment to share with us at ATG?  We are introducing this new column “Expert Commentaries from CEOs” to provide you that opportunity.  Our inaugural column is by Frank Vrancken Peeters.  Thanks for your contribution! — KS

At this year’s thirteenth APE (Academic Publishing in Europe) Conference I made a clear, but simple, request —
for the research community, in order to accelerate the transition to open science which COVID has shown can deliver huge benefits, to collaborate more.

Publishers and librarians have a long joint history of such collaboration as seen not least with the creation of Crossref and embedding of COUNTER reporting.  While the exact form it has taken has changed over time, our joint mission remains the same — to make research content accessible and discoverable.  Authors want their research published as fast as possible and researchers (library users) want to have access to the most up to date relevant information in their field to use and build on for their own research.  

Take 30 years ago when research distribution was a fairly straightforward, analogue, proposition.  A publisher’s primary focus was on receiving manuscripts from authors, guiding them through the peer review process and working with them to make the final published version as good as it could be and then compiled with other articles into a journal issue.  The job of distributing what were then print journals to libraries around the world was dealt with by agents. 

The transition from print to digital (of which academic publishing, out of the rest of the “content” industries, was very much at the vanguard) which has taken place over this time saw the first shift in how we work together to make content accessible and discoverable.  It precipitated a closer relationship between publisher and librarian given the easier distribution and individual access to publications made possible by electronic search, links and access.  And, with the creation of consortia agreements and multi-content deals, it enabled libraries to provide cost-effective access to a wider set of content than had been possible in a purely physical landscape. 

The transition to digital has also opened up a wider range of areas for us to work together on to make research content both more accessible and more discoverable.  

Taking increased accessibility of content as an example.  The biggest advancement in making content more accessible over the past twenty years has been the advent of open access;  the transitioning of primary research articles from behind the paywall and making them immediately accessible to all to use and reuse from the point of publication.  At Springer Nature we have been very clear in our commitment to this transition;  twenty years ago only 1% of Springer Nature articles were gold OA, now it’s around 35% of articles.  Twenty years ago, our BMC imprint was the only commercial OA publisher.  Now its portfolio of 316 journals sits as part of around 600 fully OA journals offered by Springer Nature.  Ten years ago, there was no highly selective OA journal.  Nature Communications changed that, proving that selectively and OA was possible.  And only last year, we committed to transitioning all our journals to OA via adoption of the Transformative Journal model, including the prestigious Nature Portfolio titles.  This means that all authors are now able to publish OA in all 2,900 primary research journals that we publish.  

However, without the support of libraries and library consortia we would not have made the inroads that we have.  Transformative agreements, what used to be called read and publish / Springer Compact deals, have proven instrumental in delivering this transition at scale.  

We are proud to have worked with libraries and consortia around the world on 16 such agreements, from the world’s largest by volume of articles with Projekt DEAL in Germany and the largest in North America with the University of California (UC) and California Digital Library, to national agreements with the UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland, amongst others.  In addition, working with institutions and consortia outside of Europe has also enabled us to have agreements in India with Manipal Academy of Higher Education and in Qatar with the Qatar National Library.  We also concluded our first TA for the Nature Portfolio titles with Max Planck Digital Library at the end of 2020.  These agreements are proven to work and are great examples of partnership working as they show what we can achieve if we work together across the research landscape. DEAL is an excellent example of this.  Negotiations took a long time;  it was important to first build trust as a basis for partnership and the amount of necessary detailed work was easy to underestimate.  It worked, though, because all parties could see the benefits to the research community in Germany from such an agreement.  However, it is important to note that there is no standard model, no blueprint available as the landscape varies from country to country.  For example, the agreement with UC needed to take a different approach to the agreements we had been using to reach Europe.  A flexible multi-player model was needed to allow both library and funder (via the author) to contribute to the APC to take into account the different funding situation in the U.S.  This shows that, collectively, we need to be open to new solutions and also sometimes take a risk.  And with data showing that across the eight countries where we had a national TA live in 2019 between 70-90% of research content produced by researchers in each country published with us was published gold OA, the potential benefits far outweigh the risks.    

The shift from print journals and books to electronic access has also opened up new opportunities and collaborations to aid discoverability.  It has provided the opportunity for us to work together to help students, academics and other library users access this research remotely when they are not on campus, and across multiple devices and platforms. 

Working in partnership with the library community, we were delighted to be the first publisher to implement Seamless Access to make the user journey for researchers accessing content when outside their institution smoother.  Users from participating institutions now only have to log in once per browser.  After this, we remember their institutional affiliation, making further authentication when outside of their insitution’s network easier.  We also worked with other publishers to develop GetFTR.  This enables researchers to be able to identify from search results content to which their library is providing access.  Internally, we have also made investments and changes to make the researcher journey on our own platforms smoother and more seamless.  The result of this was that at Springer Nature we saw a 51% increase in web visits between January and November 2020 and a growth in article downloads of around 38%, with institutional site license downloads up by 17%.  

As providers of and to content, publishers and librarians need to think creatively and consider whether providing access to licenced material via other platforms is also desirable.  Making it easier for researchers to discover and access research papers they already legitimately have access to, via for example their library’s institutional subscription, is what is at the heart of our partnership with ResearchGate.  We know that there was some scepticism amongst the library community when our pilot was first launched.  We hope that the way the relationship is now structured with libraries having greater transparency as to how their subscriptions are being used provides reassurance that this is about giving library users another avenue to utilise their subscriptions not about competing with them. 

In fact, our recent white paper analysing the partnership, indicated that it provided a number of benefits to librarians, researchers, and authors.  Particular benefits for libraries included: improved entitlement recognition through the use of researcher profiles alongside IP identification ensuring that libraries’ subscriptions to journals are fully utilised, giving library users an additional validated place where they can access the version of record on which to build their own research, providing richer insights into content usage, enabling both partners and libraries to learn more about researchers’ requirements.

It is not just in making research more open and discoverable where publishers and librarians can work together. Other elements of open science, diversity of content, access to underlying code, data and protocols, are equally important in the modern research environment. It has been most acutely visible during the COVID pandemic with a spotlight placed on the importance of immediate access to research, data sharing and curation, and good data management for boosting the reproducibility and reliability of research.  This is where gold OA comes into play. Providing only access to the unfinished accepted manuscript via green OA, which does not have the benefits of post-accept improvements, is not linked up with data or code, does not show corrections, or retractions, and ultimately does not support libraries in the repurposing of their budgets to support OA publishing, risks embedding an inferior version of OA.  The result is that we fall short in delivering on the promise of an open science future that is so crucial to the whole research enterprise.

This potential to significantly advance scientific discovery and further scientific progress is the prize waiting for all;  an accelerated and more effective research system delivering benefits like vaccines and SDG solutions for the whole world.  There is great potential here for further collaboration between publishers and librarians, not least in the area of ensuring research meets the needs of societal challenges. 

Our partnership with the Dutch University Association (VSNU) and the Dutch Library Consortium UKB sought to explore the exact nature and scope of this wider impact as well as the societal relevance of the underpinning research.  Working with technology partners Digital Science and Dimensions, a bibliometric analysis was undertaken of nearly 360,000 documents published in 2017.  This, coupled with the results of a survey of nearly 6,000 readers on Springer Nature platforms, led to the white Paper “Open for all, Exploring the reach of open access content to non-academic audiences.”  This showed not only the effects of content being published OA but, more importantly, who that research is reaching. 

Where could enhanced collaboration lead us?  Let’s take open data, a key element of open science.  Global R&D spend has reached almost €1.7 trillion. Within this, publishing spend accounts for less than 1% but it has a very big role to play in helping to ensure that the other 99% is spent efficiently and effectively to accelerate progress demonstrating that the potential is real and quantifiable.  A PWC study undertaken for the European Commission estimates the cost of research data not being FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, re-usable) could cost up to €26 billion in Europe alone.  This is the cost of work that has been duplicated due to a lack of awareness of existing research or negative results.  €26 billion is almost double the annual Horizon Europe research budget, over 10 times the annual spend in the EU on combined journal subscriptions and OA APCs and 2.5 times the equivalent spend globally.  

Publishers and publishing may therefore be a relatively small cog in terms of global R&D spend but by playing our part in opening up science and in improving the efficiency of the research process and robustness of the research output through greater partnership working, the benefits for the wider community can be so much larger, enabling us to contribute much more than we have in the past.

I talked at the start about accessibility and discoverability being what joins publishers and librarians together.  By speeding up access to the outputs of research, and making it all re-usable via open licenses, we make the progress of science more efficient.  By making research more reproducible (via open data, open code and protocols), reducing duplication and publishing negative results, the process itself is made more efficient.  With less money wasted on redoing research either already done or tried and failed, and reducing time researchers spend trying to find associated code and data, more money is kept in the system. 

The pandemic has demonstrated acutely and in real time, how open research can fundamentally change the way that researchers communicate and collaborate, leading to vaccines being developed in record time.  Dynamic workflows are merging and distribution channels are changing enabling others — patients, businesses, teachers, policy makers — to benefit from critical insights.  Speed, openness and transparency of research are all important elements of an open science future but alongside this we need to ensure that the research is correct, that the quality of the data underpinning it is robust. 

These changing characteristics means partnerships between institutions and publishers will be, if anything, more vital going forward, helping us understand the benefits of these and enable us together to deliver increased insights into the societal impact of open research, its relevance and impact.  

To share your point of view or comments for this new column send contributions to Katina Strauch (Editor, Against the Grain[email protected] or Tom Gilson (Associate Editor, Against the Grain) [email protected]


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