Open access – “S” club is going to show you how

Research policy is a lot bigger than just one country or one system. The international and collaborative nature of science means that decisions often need to be made at a regional or global level. For this reason a Europe-wide agreement between 11 major research funders brought about by Science Europe and the European Commission is very big news indeed.

The gnomically-named “Plan S” aims to address many causes long held dear by the open access lobby – subscriptions and article fees, journal and platform development, licensing, and copyright ownership.

Starting point

Over 15 years, the open access (OA) movement (however loosely defined) has seen numerous successes. The broad aim of making academic research available to those who wish to read it is now generally accepted. All major UK funders – including UKRI – require OA and it is an underpinning criteria for those participating in REF2021.

While there are many winners from the OA movement, publishers, in particular, have struggled to find new business models. With the loss of their major income stream from subscriptions, some publishers have sought to replace this with another revenue source called article processing charges (APCs), which sees the author of the article pay a fee to have their research published, thus shifting the cost burden from the user of research to the producer.

For some researchers, the prestige of a journal is very important – some journals have been able to transition to a “hybrid system”. Here a “closed” article (readable only with a subscription) is free to publish, but an OA article requires an additional fee from the author.

Many publishers employ an embargo period between closed publication and OA. This is a period of exclusivity wherein only journal subscribers can access an article. Six months is common.

In other cases, authors have assigned their copyright to an article to a publisher. This allows the publisher to pursue forms of reuse in search of financial remedy, including granting permissions for commercial reuse, and pursuing fraudulent use. But this is a controversial position, to say the least. OA licenses explicitly permit reuse with attribution – part of the point of Creative Commons is to facilitate wide reuse without the need for further permission.

Standardisation

Most major funders now have OA requirements, but these are variable in their scope and nature. “Plan S” aims to harmonise these conditions and shift them far closer to what the plan describes as “full and immediate access”. It also sets a very short deadline of “by 2020”.

From that date, all research funded by grants from participating funding bodies must be published in compliant OA journals or platforms. Compliance will be measured against a set of requirements developed by the funders. This is still in progress, but from what we learned yesterday these seem likely to include a standardised APC across Europe, paid by institutions or funders and set at a level that allows scientists to publish even if their institutions have limited means.

The “immediate” wording prohibits the use of embargo periods. And a further shot across the bows of publishers suggests that where journals or other suitable platforms do not currently exist, funders will support their establishment.

Remember, this is not a directive or mandate – “Plan S” is an agreement between funders. If they decide not to pay APCs above a specified cap, any publisher trying to charge more than that will simply not be able to publish the results of publically funded research. The European Commission has been closely involved in the development of the plan and, as a research funder (Horizon Europe will most likely follow Horizon 2020 in having a clear OA requirement), is a signatory.

Schiltz

The president of Science Europe, Mark Schiltz, is in fiery form in the preamble to “Plan S”. This cannot be comfortable reading for traditional journal publishers:

“There is no longer any justification for [research behind paywalls] to prevail and the subscription-based model of scientific publishing, including its so-called ‘hybrid’ variants, should therefore be terminated. In the 21st century, science publishers should provide a service to help researchers disseminate their results.”

In an pointed passage, he notes the pressure on researchers to publish in prestigious journals resulting from “a misdirected reward system which puts emphasis on the wrong indicators” – committing to “fundamentally revise the incentive and reward system of science” in line with DORA.

As Jisc’s Neil Jacobs recently described for Wonkhe, this plan sits within a range of other European OA initiatives.

Suspicion

Both Science and Nature have published articles that include statements of concern. Science quote a “Springer Nature spokesperson” suggesting the plan will undermine the whole research publishing system, and a spokesperson for Science’s publisher (AAAS) adds that such a plan would “disrupt scholarly communications, be a disservice to researchers, and impinge academic freedom”. Nature went to publisher interest group STM (the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers) who offered some similarly apocalyptic language about academic freedom.

Though some would argue the Mandy Rice-Davies defence (“They would say that, wouldn’t they?”) clearly applies, this is a disruptive proposal that could make many major scholarly publishers unsustainable. A de facto price for publication set without a full understanding of the costs of administering a journal seems unfair. Just how unfair depends on how much value is accorded to the work of publishers in scholarly communication.

In contrast, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) have been supportive of the plan. “The move to full open access was stalling, and this plan is a major step forward in the right direction”, said chair Paul Ayris, expressing a frustration that the hoped-for “transformative move” to OA has not yet happened.

Signatories

The unfortunately named “cOAlition S” – the initial 11 signatories including UKRI and the European Research Council – will work together with a full range of research stakeholders (researchers, institutions, libraries, and publishers) to deliver the plans. Other funders are encouraged to join in offering public support.

It’s a bold – perhaps unexpectedly bold – intervention from the actors who hold a lot of power and money. The timeline is tight and the vision appears uncompromising. The forthcoming appearance of UKRI’s own OA strategy will offer some indication as to how well “Plan S” will work in practice. And even if this is less ambitious, things won’t stop moving.

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