Open Access and Plan S: The rocky road to academic utopia

What does Science Europe’s recently announced initiative mean for the open access movement?

Writer: Bruno Reynell
Editor: Elly Chaw
Art: Mazeda Khanam

Imagine a world of academia without the frustration of paywalls. A world where researchers are afforded unfettered access to the findings of others, which they can then discuss, challenge, and add to. One where taxpayers are able to see the results of the research they have helped to fund, and teachers and students in institutions around the globe can read the latest findings in any field.

This is the idealistic vision of open access, and one posited by the Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2002 – a seminal moment in forming our contemporary understanding of this term. Its statement identified a hitherto unavailable opportunity found at the intersection between the desire and willingness of academics to disseminate their research for the public good, and new channels of dissemination offered by the internet.

In the years since, however, defining openness has proven to be challenging, and the issues stem from the multiple levels of nuances to be considered. For example, the megajournal PLOS’s “HowOpenIsIt?” guide evaluates six different factors from reader rights to machine readability, demonstrating the extent to which openness can be seen as a spectrum. This multi-dimensional nature of openness means that it often becomes an area of great complexity and debate.

It is against this backdrop that Plan S, an initiative supported by an international consortium of research funders (cOAlition S), was announced last autumn. Plan S mandates that, by 2020, scientific research funded by these participating bodies must be published in compliant open access journals or platforms.

The initiative’s principles are certainly bold, and the kind of language it employs leaves little doubt about its ambitions or expectations. For example, on the subject of academic responsibility, cOAlition S states that “researchers must realise that they are doing a gross disservice to the institution of science if they continue to report their outcomes in publications that will be locked behind paywalls”.

For open access advocates, Plan S is clear progress towards a future that could see the gradual abolishment of the traditional subscription-based model, whereby librarians have to pay publishers substantial sums of money to have access to their journals. The argument goes that this will allow for greater dissemination of knowledge by helping researchers and driving innovation, ultimately benefitting society as a whole.

This all sounds wonderful, so where’s the catch? Well, unfortunately, at the moment, there are many catches, several of which concern money. If an academic publisher is no longer gaining revenue from subscription fees, who is paying for the value that they are adding to research? Publishers in this situation require the payment of an article processing charge (APC) to cover the cost. However, this spells problems for authors who haven’t budgeted for APC costs in research grants.

Furthermore, this becomes even more of an issue for researchers in low-income countries who might lack the funding to pay the APCs to publish in prestigious, high-impact journals. For example, the 2018 STM Report commented that “a single APC of $2,000 is equivalent to many months of a researcher’s salary”, giving rise to concerns about the creation of “new professional hierarchies”.

Then there is, of course, the small matter of academic freedom. While this isn’t something enshrined in law, there is a longstanding tradition and understanding in academia that researchers should be able to publish without institutional restriction. Many commentators have highlighted the fact that Plan S would impose great constraints on an author’s choice of publishing venues. Lynn Kamerlin, a biochemist at Uppsala University, coordinated a high-profile open letter criticising Plan S last November and claimed that cOAlition S-funded authors would be forbidden from publishing in more than 80% of existing journals. She also added that not being able to publish in certain journals would stall the career progression of researchers.

Finally, it is difficult to predict the extent to which Plan S will trigger a shift to openness in academic publishing. While it is backed by some powerful bodies like the Wellcome Trust, the grantees of these funders still account for only a small fraction of the audience of prestigious journals in many fields. In other words, unless the initiative gains greater traction, it will remain difficult to convince publishers to “flip” to fully open access models.

Wider transmission of knowledge leads to enriched discussion of science and an efficient uptake of research by society. Few question the worthiness of the idea of open science. However, as concerns and criticisms around the open access movement and Plan S (of which the above are but a small selection) demonstrate, there remain many questions to answer and a long way to go before it becomes a widespread reality.

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