Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Nature Communications serves its first papers

The new Nature brand journal (Nature Communications) has published its first set of papers this week. It is an interesting development in scientific publishing for many reasons. This is the first Nature brand journal that is online only and offers an (expensive) $5000 open access choice. Also, they are positioning this journal specifically as lower tier journal than previous Nature journals. According to the scope section:
"papers published in Nature Communications will be of high quality, without necessarily having the scientific reach of papers published in Nature and the Nature research journals."
So why is Nature dipping its toes in higher volume open access versus its typical market of highly selective closed access papers ? A bit of context might be required and some of the discussions from 2008 about the PLoS business model are worth revisiting. A few years ago, Declan Butler, a reporter from Nature, wrote an overly negative news piece about PLoS ONE which generated a huge online discussion (see Bora's link fest). Timo Hannay's reaction to this discussion was a much more balanced point of view from Nature's side of things. Essentially, Timo Hanny was pointing out that PLoS had failed to make a profit with their more selective journals and that it was showing that a lower tier of less selective journals are required to subsidize the higher tiers. Timo also said that PLoS was creating barriers to market entry for other OA publishers because they were using philanthropic grants to sustain their business.

So with this in mind, Nature Communications could be seen as bet hedging. Open access might be here to stay due to mandates from funding agency. If that is the case, the example from PLoS shows us that the only way to sustain highly selective journals is to publish also lower tier, less selective journals. This way the publishing house can also directly pass papers down its chain of journals and even possibly pass around the referee reports to expedite publishing.

If most publishers try to cover the whole range of journal selectivity how may publishers will there be a market for ?

While PLoS and Nature and expanding down this perceived pyramid of journal selectivity, BMC has been trying to expand up. This week, BMC Biology and Journal of Biology announced that these two journals are fusing to be the new flagship journal of BMC. I wish the best to the re-birth of BMC Biology but expanding up the ladder of "perceived impact" is much harder than expanding down.

Through this all we have still not managed to do away with this idea of journal prestige or impact. PLoS ONE promised us they would provide us with ways to filter and sort papers on their individual value but we are still not there yet. Ironically these "editorial" services might end up coming from third party programs like Mendeley, CiteUlike or Papers.