Full comments about ‘Plan S’ and the future of Open Access in Europe

Today, an article was published in Science Business about some of the developments around Plan S, the European Commission’s ambitious new plans for Open Access. The piece includes a quote from me, and I want to share my full responses here for the sake of transparency.

Do you see any weaknesses in the plan? Some researchers are concerned about what the APC cap is going to look like, for instance…

Just to be clear, I think this is one of the stronger funder-based policies in Open Access that has been committed to in recent years, and they should be applauded for that. So one of the key weakness for me is again the focus on APC-driven Open Access. This is just one part of a complex ecosystem, such as green OA (or self archiving) which is free for authors, and would also motivate the improvement and connectivity of existing library/institutional infrastructure and subject repositories. It also seems to ignore the fact that around 12,000 reputable OA journals are fee-free, according to the DOAJ. Missing out these key low-cost options seems to me that Plan S does not pay due consideration to creating an equitable system of Open Access that does not continue to lock out those who are less financially priveleged. The EC again needs to be clear on these things to avoid having commercial publishers continue to corrupt OA through high APCs, restrictive licensing/copyright agreements, and embargoes on ‘green’ OA that are clearly not in the public interest.
Relating to this APC cap, I think that generally this is a good thing as it places some constraints on the market. However, a focus again on APC-driven OA discriminates on independent researchers, or those from less-well funded labs or institutes. The EC here has the opportunity to take a leading stance on how it controls incentives, for both researchers and publishers, through financial flows, and to me it needs to give due consideration here to the strategic expenditure of public funds and the social implications of this. For example, the EC has to make sure that it is spending its money, which it gets from the public, in the interest of the public, and not finding new ways of channeling it for private shareholder gains.
Another potential weakness that we see is the potential for disruption of the infrastructure by commercial players. For example, we see Elsevier and Springer Nature now moving rapidly into the world of scholarly infrastructure, and the EC needs to protect this from the control of commercial entities. For example, by demanding open source, open licensing, and open standards for any developed infrastructure.
Another potential weakness is that it seems to focus quite strongly on science, with only brief consideration to other fields. This is quite an over-simplification, as different research communities have a range of social norms, practices, and cultures, which need to be given appropriate consideration when drafting such holistic policies.

Do you fear Europe may be cutting itself out of top journals? A point raised to me today was that this was a potentially dangerous path for researchers to go on, unless China or the US followed too…

I might have a slightly more er, radical view, than many on this, but I think if Europe can rid itself of the desire to publish in ‘top journals’, whatever they are, then this is ultimately a good thing. Journal brands are often operated by commercial entities that are more interested in creating a product to sell than advancing scientific discourse. The corrupting effect that journal rank or brand has on science is well-documented, and it is time to move to a more rigorous, equitable, and, well, scientific system of research evaluation. This is why it is great to see the renewed focus on signing awesome initiatives like DORA too, and moving away from the mis-use of the Journal Impact Factor. This is the sort of high-level progress we have needed on these issues for some time.
However, this does raise the need for the importance of international collaboration on these matters. Why isn’t the EU working with China and the US, as well as Latin America and Africa, on these issues? There is the opportunity to coordinate on a global level to make scientific research something that is inherently a public good again, but this does not seem to be happening. I don’t see this as dangerous really at all, but indeed a good motivation for us all to work together to cast off the shackles of an inherently broken research evaluation system. It will be up to the funders who signed up for Plan S to go beyond a mere commitment to actually systematically redesigning the research assessment process, and that is not an easy task. What also needs to be given much more consideration is researcher attitudes and behaviour. The EC is not going to win hearts and minds in this arena through policies and mandates, that just isn’t how humans work. It needs to pay careful attention to developing and empowering communities that intrinsically understand issues around journal-based evaluation systems, and make sure that best practices on the ground are in line with this.

Is the plan enough to force publishers to change their business models? Or what do you think it will take for that to happen?

So this is an interesting question. You have to look at the history, and ask why are the business models of publishers so important here? If publishers are service providers, their business models should be dictated by the needs and demands of the research community. However, this often seems to be backwards, and we see instead publishers imposing restrictions on policies and practices through by enforcing constraints based on their own business practices. Sustainability of the publishing sector (including their profits) is a terrible argument to make when it comes at the cost of public access to scientific knowledge. Publishers should be told that they have to adapt, and if they can’t, well, tough.
Look at what SciELO did across Latin America and further. Researchers and governments came together to create a low-cost system of almost complete access to scientific knowledge based on the common understanding that access to scientific knowledge is a societal good. In the EU, we still have publishers whose primary job is to make money by denying this – their business model is based on knowledge discrimination after all. I think we all know that it is time for this senseless business model to change, and hopefully Plan S will be part of the change so that we look back in 10 years time at the chaos Elsevier and co. created we will wonder how we ever let them get away with it for so long.

4 thoughts on “Full comments about ‘Plan S’ and the future of Open Access in Europe

  1. I don’t understand where you see a “focus on APC-driven Open Access”. As Peter Suber has commented, Plan S has the merit of welcoming both green and gold OA. The requirements it sets out for immediate OA can be satisfied by green OA if all else fails.

    The explicit mention of the need to fund “Open Access Infrastructure” also sounds to me like good news for all green OA repositories, university and consortium-led fully OA journals, more experimental open science platforms and so on, which have the potential to grow very quickly if given a chance.

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