Thoughts (three different ones) on Nature‘s €9,500 article-processing charge

December 11, 2020

I’m late to this party, but I want to say a few things about the recently announced €9,500 article-processing charge (APC) that Nature has introduced to make itself Plan-S compliant.


The first thing is that a lot of people are quite understandably outraged by this very large fee.

Good. They should be outraged. The APIC is outrageous.

But here’s the thing: we should all have been outraged at Nature‘s cost long, long ago. Becuase the €9,500 figure wasn’t pulled out of thin air. It’s the amount Springer Nature needs to charge to maintain its revenue at the same level. Which means we are already paying €9,500 for each Nature article, but not noticing because that cost is spread across many subscriptions.

Let me say this another way: for each article that is published in Nature, €9,500 leaves the scholarly community. (I might mention here in passing the profit margins at the big scholarly publishers are all around 35%, so it’s likely that upwards of €3,000 of that is pure profit.)

That’s why I welcome the outrage. It’s the sound of academics finally waking up and realising that they are being had. It’s several decades too late, but we can’t worry about that.


Second thing: almost all the scientific value of a paper published in Nature, over that of the manuscript before it went to that venue, is in peer-review.

Peer-review that we do. Because publishers do not provide peer-review. We do.

We have all swallowed the idea that we ought to provide professional peer-review services to publishers for free because that’s part of being in the scholarly community. When I am reviewing for a diamond OA journal (zero APC) such as Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, or a low-APC journal like PeerJ, I think that’s perfectly reasonable. But when it’s for a journal that is going to turn around and charge the author €9,500 for services that you and I provided, that is not reasonable.

And this is why, while I have grave reservations about the idea of introducing financial incentives into peer-review, I am intrigued by The 450 Movement, in which James Heathers argues that peer-reviewers should be paid $450 per review, and provides a sample contract that reviewers can send to publishers who ask them provide this service.

(And again, remember this was happening before Nature announced the APC, when they were subscription only. Back then, too, they were taking €9,500 per paper based on work that you did for them, for free.)


Third thing: the way to fix this is to stop feeding the beast.

How did we get into the situation where we consider it normal to give our work to journals that get €9,500 from it, and then contribute free professional services to help the journal create a versions of our colleagues’ work that the journals can claim copyright on?

It’s strange, isn’t it? I guess we’re boiled frogs. There was a time when Nature was just a regular journal, and placing a short paper in it was not much different from placing it elsewhere. But somehow it started to be seen as prestigious, and from there a runaway process quickly made things more and more extreme (as with runaway sexual selection). People saw a Nature paper as prestigious, so more people submitted there, so a greater proportion of submissions were rejected, so Nature came to be seen as even more more prestigious. Vamp till insane.

Because this is insane. It can’t be said too often (or, apparently, often enough even), that papers don’t get into Nature by being good science — rigorously argued, well supported, statistically sound. They get in by proposing an exciting hypothesis, or by featuring a spectacular specimen, or by finding a surprising result (often based on flimsy statistical evidence: impact factor has no correlation with statistical strength, so more prestigious journals do not have more strongly supported results.)

And worse, a given study in its Nature form is objectively less useful than the same study would be in a regular journal: it’s sliced and compressed to fit length limits that make no sense, especially for descriptive work.

So why do people expend so much energy trying to get their papers into Nature (and Science, which is just as bad)? Because people believe, rightly or wrongly, that their careers depend on publishing in these specific journals.

Do we have any idea how insane that sounds to people outside of the academic bubble?

“I discovered, documented and published on a completely novel evolutionary mechanism!”

“Oh, that must be great for your career.”

“Not really. I couldn’t get a compressed three-page version of it into Nature, so I had to publish a full-length, rigorously argued, extensively evidenced, lavishly illustrated version in PLOS ONE instead.”

If we want a rational scientific ecosystem, it’s imperative that we stop judging work by what journal it appears in, and judge it only by its own merits.

“But Mike, we don’t have time to actually read an author’s papers”. Oh, you’re telling me you don’t have time to do your job? Then you need to make changes.

“But Mike, it’s not that simple”. Yes, it is. It really is. If you judge a paper by the journal it appears in, you are scientifically illiterate. And you are encouraging all sorts of harmful behaviour that actively cripples the progress of science. People who are desperate to get a paper into Nature? At best, they cripple its scientific usefulness by cutting out crucial material, relegating a bare-bones (i.e. irreproducible) version methods section to footnotes, squashing illustrations together and shrinking them down to postage-stamp size. That’s if everything goes to plan. At worst, they cherry-pick the best results from experiments, or straight-up fabricate results. And either way, effort is wasted on getting into a specific journal that would otherwise be spent doing actual science.

Folks, we have to be better than this.

We just have to.

10 Responses to “Thoughts (three different ones) on Nature‘s €9,500 article-processing charge”

  1. Fair Miles Says:

    Just some thoughts on your thoughts:

    – Surprise and outrage are different things. I am pretty sure We* had a lot of the former (though, as you explain, we shouldn’t have that much), but I doubt on the amount (and persistence) of the latter (though, again, We* should)

    – You start your blogpost declaring you are already late to discuss some recent “scientific” news about something that did not even happen yet. You didn’t act on that premise (you wrote the post anyway!), but you felt the need to acknowledge that you are aware (guilty?). See? There is no time. Science (as We* understand it) needs time (and a lot of other things), but we have none left [shrug emoji]. Science is in the news. Nature™ is news. And don’t get me started on “The News”… We are running, as lemmings (famously) do. We* can’t evaluate every proposal/scientist by reading all this, there is simply not enough time! (luckily we have some IFs and other indicators available to get it going… [facepalm emoji]). Open preprints + open reviews? Yeah, great, I am for that, that solves it all! But which of Us* will spend their (sooo limited) time for it to really work as intended? The Great Acceleration will take us all. Not much to do about it, I think, but in the meantime (!?) please try not to feed The Beast.

    – About paying for peer-review. I hope it is just one of those clever-sarcastic, passive-aggresive Twitter thing to amuse ourselves. I enjoy those (even without a Twitter account myself). It would be really fun to answer some peer-review requests with such a contract (as those legal documents to answer publishers’ copyright forms before OA was trendy, remember?). But please don’t give Them* more ideas, please… We don’t need MORE money in the scientific communication system, we need LESS! (or, at most, the same but distributed very, very differently). Do you think Big Publishers will have ANY problem paying for peer-reviewers? They will just add it to the account and We* will be their employees! (the Reviewer of the Month and peeing in a bottle by your home desk are just a small step ahead)

    – Your thoughts rely heavily on a We* and an Us*. You know, we, folks, the academics, the scientific community. And don’t get me wrong: I tend to do exactly the same, and I guess (I hope) we two will end up in the same team if we were forced to make some. But sometimes I find myself like on the front gates defending a castle that has already crumbled down, everyone moved on and I am the only one in We* that is still unaware. Maybe that’s why it is so conforting reading you (and some other players I want in my imaginary team), or why I am writing this (if not only for myself, which is highly probable. Sorry). Because it seems really difficult to build, or fight for, a collective enterprise doubting on the existence of We*. “I Want To Believe” said a famous poster (and she struggled). I don’t know, I don’t have an answer for that [either]. Sorry again. But just check on those assumptions every now and then, would you?

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    All fair thoughts, but on the difficulty of finding the time to evaluate people’s research, I just can’t get past the simple fact that a committee that doesn’t do this is Just. Not. Doing. Its. Job. That’s what it’s for. If it doesn’t have enough time to do it, then a change is needed to allow more time. In my own work, it’s not acceptable to say “Oh, I don’t have enough time to do my job, I’m just going to do something else instead”.

    On paying for peer-review: like you, my initial reaction was alarm and opposition. But as I read more of what The 450 Movement has to say, I find myself less wholeheartedly opposed to it. And, yes, he is 100% serious and not at all just being funny-clever on Twitter. This recent thread is interesting, for example: https://twitter.com/450Movement/status/1335662694288949248

  3. paleoaerie Says:

    Well said.

    As far as getting paid for reviews, why shouldn’t people get paid for their work? It’s like asking an artist to work for free for the “exposure.” That’s great and all, but it doesn’t pay the bills and it is really an insult to the professionalism of the individual. It might also give reviewers more incentive to write a good review. Writing a good review is hard and takes time. Not all reviewers do that. It may also make editors more willing to not accept poor reviews, to demand fair work. If the reviewer is going to get paid, there might be fewer “reviewer 2s,” because the editor might be willing to say look, this review you turned in was a hatchet job, not a review, you want to get paid, turn in an actual review.

    In other words, paying people allows the demand of professionalism from both sides. It doesn’t always work that way, but it is something that you don’t get from volunteer work.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    I’m pretty sure I spent an entire working week doing the very long, detailed and careful review for the big descriptive monograph on Galeamopus: https://peerj.com/articles/3179/

    That is a lot of commitment to dig out from your spare time. On some level, that was worth 1/50th of my annual salary, which I can tell you would have been substantially more than $450! I didn’t begrudge it, because it was for a significant work in a very open venue. But would I do that for Nature? Not a chance! (Then again, it doesn’t take so long to review three pages as it does 126!)

  5. dale McInnes Says:

    Even in science, so much comes down to $$$$! The science needs a wealthy patron devoted to setting up a properly funded journal within palaeontology. It may sound counter productive but economic strength is vital in any science. For palaeontology, one clamours for financial patrons. This is begging. We should develop a sub-field within palaeontology that specializes in commercial profiteering FOR science. This means that it is hands off profiteering off the science itself. This “sub-field” would specialize in exapting anything and everything it could grab from the commercial world to enhance scientific funding. This is an area I dipped into in the late 1970s and succeeded (on paper) in working out by the early 1980s. The seed $$$$ to get it up and running has taken 37 years. Getting the business world involved was a no go, up until now. I developed both artistic and writing skills to raise the seed money. I’m retired so have more time to put into it. But it’s a whole new sub division of the science. A critical one. No one wants to be a part of it. I get it. Proof of concept must be presented. So. That’s where I am today. It’s just another project for me.

  6. David Marjanović Says:

    My reaction is neither surprise nor outrage. It’s more like giggling at how far removed from the real world the people are who made this decision at Springer Nature.

    All fair thoughts, but on the difficulty of finding the time to evaluate people’s research, I just can’t get past the simple fact that a committee that doesn’t do this is Just. Not. Doing. Its. Job. That’s what it’s for. If it doesn’t have enough time to do it, then a change is needed to allow more time. In my own work, it’s not acceptable to say “Oh, I don’t have enough time to do my job, I’m just going to do something else instead”.

    The trick here is… the first job I ever applied for got four hundred fifty applications, and that’s normal. It already takes the committees months to burrow through all this. There are simply way too few jobs in science*, and the committees are not the ones who can create jobs or provide funding for job creation. So, the committees will use whatever shortcuts they can grasp. In some countries they have indeed stopped using the impact factors of journals for that purpose, but the shortcuts they’re using instead come with other problems, and they’re not in a position to not use any shortcuts.

    * Some people believe tertiary education is set up all wrong and produces lots of people with useless doctorates when it should do more useful things. No. There is so much to do in science, including urgent stuff with, say, medical implications, that can only be done by letting more people work at it. There are not too many grad students, there really are too few jobs. Reelio-trulio. The root cause of the problem isn’t in the science/university/whatever establishment, it’s a matter of political will.

    Then again, it doesn’t take so long to review three pages as it does 126!

    …unless you’re honest enough to review the 50 to 100 pages of “supplementary information”, i.e. the actual paper and not just the extended abstract.

    setting up a properly funded journal within palaeontology

    That exists; that’s not the problem. The problem is getting all of the world’s university systems and the like to agree that a journal’s impact factor says nothing about the quality of the scientists who publish there.

    This means that it is hands off profiteering off the science itself.

    Most of palaeontology doesn’t overlap with petroleum geology. There simply isn’t any way to profit from it. :-|

  7. william dale McInnes Says:

    “Most of palaeontology doesn’t overlap with petroleum geology. There simply isn’t anyway to profit from it.”

    Really? And what does petroleum geology have to do with it?Petroleum geology creates profit by producing a product that people actually need (wares). The other way is to produce a (service). Palaeontology produces for the public something similar to a (service) = education.

    Still. The profit in museums is actually “tourism”. Museums don’t need it but gov’t does. Hence gov’ts finance them. Even folk who build “private” museums design them on a gov’t template. They need people to come and pay an admission fee.

    Part of the problem is that museums since their inception, have been “optional”. What this means is that you actually have a choice to visit them or not. Come once a year. Come once every 5 years. Come once a month. Not interested? Don’t come at all. There is no rhyme or reason to any of it. It’s built into the design. And this pleases gov’t. It gives them complete control. Museums are useful when it comes to marketing tourism. Very important to gov’t.

    Exxon Corp. is not “optional”. They don’t care whether or not you like them, hate them or are indifferent. And they’re not into tourism. They are truly self sufficient. They know how to compete. And they don’t need gov’t support but will use it because they are opportunistic. They design their corporation as a “necessity”. You ignore them and they can take the clothes off your back, the food off your plate and turn your place into a freezing cave.

    I know of only one science that can do that very thing with greater efficiency than Exxon. That’s palaeontology. I doubt even after 200 years that we have approached anywhere near 1% of its true potential.


  8. As a researcher, I always was pro OA. But it was obvious from the beginning that we shall arrive to this sort of OA which punishes the creative researcher to pay for its creation. The mistake is in the split between “green” (archival) and “gold” (publication, why not with APCs?), which classifies huge advances like arXiv.org as “green”. This created a reset of OA to a worse version, which is now seen as the standard.

    Publishers behave like this because they can. Academic managers act in their favor, by forcing on researchers to comply, with the excuse that, after all, this is “OA”.

    I fully agree with the ire against Elsevier or, in this case, Nature, but let’s accept that the problem is elsewhere.

    Suppose I make an editor for scientific articles which charges the user with $1/word. Nobody will use it, right? Except if the academic world decrees that researchers have to use it, with the excuse that their articles will be read with no other fees. Because, look, this is OA!

  9. David Marjanović Says:

    “Not really. I couldn’t get a compressed three-page version of it into Nature, so I had to publish a full-length, rigorously argued, extensively evidenced, lavishly illustrated version in PLOS ONE instead.”

    …though at that point you’d go for PLOS Biology. Its impact factor is 4 × that of PLOS ONE :-)

    Really? And what does petroleum geology have to do with it?

    That’s where the money is.

    I know of only one science that can do that very thing with greater efficiency than Exxon. That’s palaeontology. I doubt even after 200 years that we have approached anywhere near 1% of its true potential.

    I agree with the last sentence, but have no idea what the first two mean. Please explain.

  10. llewelly Says:

    if paleontologists had Disney’s lawyers at their beck and call …

    nevermind, the world doesn’t need more ideas on how to build dystopian futures.


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