Open Access Week: Tim Britton profile

Open Access Week: Tim Britton profile

While it leads academic publishers in the sheer number of Open Access (OA) articles it brings out per year, Springer Nature is resolutely “business-model neutral”, insists Tim Britton, m.d. of the publisher’s Open Research Group. The publisher has no bias either to Open Access or subscription; instead the point is to put all publishing choices before its researchers and allow them to choose what will work best.

Britton’s brief is the OA half of the equation, including BioMed Central (BMC), SpringerOpen, Scientific Reports, the OA journals from Nature Research and OA monographs from Springer and Palgrave Macmillan. The publisher’s stats are impressive: in the year to June 2017, 27% of articles published by Springer Nature were Open Access—over 86,000 fully OA articles, in over 630 OA journals. A total of 77% of UK-based authors publishing with Springer Nature have done so via an OA model—either through a fully OA journal, a hybrid journal or via Springer Compact.

And the perspective has moved well beyond a focus simply on taking a journal and turning it OA, Britton says. “For us, it’s about Open Science—the availability of Open Data, Open Books, about making science generally more available to all.”

Before joining Springer Nature last year, Britton was strategy head at PwC’s research arm r2i, and before that, UK c.e.o. of market research and data analytics company YouGov. The use and reuse of the data that underpins research is therefore his area of expertise, and Open Data is a field he’s very interested in.

“In data, a lot of things that affect the industry as a whole are not things that are specialist to scientific publishing—far from it—they are things like digitisation, paywall, discussions as to how you use tools to make stuff as discoverable as possible, the issues one has with search,” he notes. “These are things that apply to information everywhere—from music, to publishing, to commercially available data sets. We are all struggling with these things.”

Britton says its “still early days” in the development of Open Data, “but we think it’s a really important part [of the whole]. In its idealised form, it fundamentally changes the way that science is done. Imagine a place where every experiment that was ever conducted was recorded—all those experiments that didn’t necessarily lead anywhere, that were left in the drawer. If you knew what had been done, you wouldn’t have to waste your time redoing it. “If you get this right, it brings efficiency into the process from a funder’s point of view—they don’t have to fund research which is replicating findings—and it makes it more interesting from the researcher’s point of view, because they can really build on what’s gone before.”

Levels of access

Springer Nature is rolling out Open Data policies across all its journals, with four levels of intensity, from a light-touch approach at one end to having fully peer-reviewed data and directional links, from article to repository, at the other. But there is a host of practical problems to solve, Britton says. “Many people say, ‘The data’s open, if you want it, please contact us.’What that really means is, you can email the author and if they can find the data they might email you back, but there are no common standards attached to the data.

“What’s really important is having structures around it, and having metadata that describes where the data is, what it is you are looking at, and how it was created. Really simple things—does the file have a name? Can the file be opened? Can you transport it? We’ve just launched a data support service for exactly that, where we say to authors: ‘Would you like to get some help to get your data in shape?’”

Open Access books are another area of focus. Compared to journal articles, the numbers are tiny: Springer Nature has brought out under 400 titles thus far. But it’s an important part of the mix, Britton explains, and there will be a research paper from Springer Nature coming out on the subject in November: “The early indications [from the paper] are that OA books get eight or nine times the number of downloads [compared to non-OA titles] and a significant double-digit increase in citations.”

“We work quite loosely with our book editorial colleagues on the Springer side of the business, to make sure we are putting the right options in front of our authors. In an ideal world, they can just choose—do you want it OA? Who are you funded by? We’ll know which funders have funds available for their sort of project, whether they are eligible, the process they go through.”

OA models have some significant advantages, he says: “Library budgets are under a lot of pressure to justify another title in a library package range—each book has to fight for its worth. And that does mean there are some niche titles that you wouldn’t necessarily publish under a subscription model but which might be viable under an Open Access model. But being niche doesn’t mean they are not necessarily going to be of great value.”

Open Access Week runs next week (23rd–29th October), a good opportunity for a real focus on the area, Britton says. But Springer Nature retains an “agnostic” position, he stresses. “There are some publishers and some partner journals that have very strong views in a particular direction. Our view is that we are just a little more agnostic. I am passionate about the advance and the value that Open Access brings —that doesn’t mean it’s right everywhere.”