Our present publishing system is not working well. The growth of Open Access (OA) has been slow, resisted by many publishers at the expense of the public purse. Researchers have outsourced our evaluation system to this dysfunctional industry, which continuously infringes basic academic freedoms and human rights. Plan S is the latest attempt to catalyze real change, surfacing new debates around scholarly communication. In “Open Science, Open Access, and the Democratization of Knowledge” (Issues, Spring 2019), J. Britt Holbrook does an excellent job of providing a nuanced and balanced overview of many of these critical issues, identifying that OA is not a universal solution or end goal. There are major intersecting and pernicious factors that need reform too: creating a healthier research environment, a fairer evaluation system, and more stable career prospects for researchers.
Plan S is not all just about OA. It calls for adoption of the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) to help improve research evaluation. If researchers remain constrained in their choice of publication venue, this sends out a strong message that this is what still counts—which is exactly what the architects behind Plan S are trying to challenge. It helps to rebalance the power more in the scholars’ favor; if a journal is not Plan S compliant, it will lose out, or must adapt.
We are now in a choppy transitional state. If publishers are forced to change their regressive business practices as a result of this, that is a good thing. But we need to remain mindful, as Holbrook points out, of the business savvy of some publishers. They have demonstrated historically that they are exceptionally good at staying ahead in this game and remaining adaptive to finding new ways to maintain profits, always as a priority over public access to knowledge. Standing against this is not easy. We need to act more principled, and more unified, in order to make sure that we are truly making sure science is a public good.
However, Holbrook notes that although OA does help to remove the paywall to knowledge, that does not necessarily make it more useful to society. It is just one steppingstone on a meandering path and requires an understanding of how science interacts with the wider public. If OA was ever truly about democratization of science for society, the way we have gone about it in Western society was never going to achieve this: you cannot reconcile this while financially supporting those elements of an aggressively commercial regime that will continue to do everything it can to stop progress.
Therefore, I completely agree with Holbrook that we should be looking at the success of community-driven initiatives in Latin America, such as SciELO and AmeliCA. These have demonstrated that it is possible to have sustainable, high-quality publishing initiatives in the hands of the research community. I think Plan S got it backward. By trying to impose a Eurocentric view of what the future of publishing should look like, it failed to look beyond its own borders to learn about what was happening elsewhere. Perhaps if we took that view from the start, instead of believing that we in the “global North” have the answers to all the problems (while also repeatedly demonstrating we have not), then we would be seeing a much more fair and equitable global scholarly publishing landscape.
Founder, Open Science MOOC
“Forum.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 4 (Summer 2019): 5–19.