EU Research Funders Announce Plan to Implement Aggressive Open Access Requirements

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Publication date: 
7 September 2018
Number: 
104

National research funding agencies from 11 European countries plan to require all publications resulting from work they fund to be published in open access journals starting in 2020.

This week, national research funding agencies from 11 European countries announced the launch of “Plan S,” an initiative that will require all publications resulting from projects they support to be published in “compliant” open access journals or platforms starting in 2020. The group implementing the plan, known as “cOAlition S,” includes leading funders such as UK Research and Innovation and the French National Research Agency.

The plan also has support from the European Commission and European Research Council, although several prominent national research agencies have yet to sign on. Meanwhile, some major journal publishers have warned the plan could upend the scientific enterprise and impinge on academic freedom.

Smits_EU.jpg

Robert-Jan Smits, open access envoy for the EU

Robert-Jan Smits, who is serving as the open access envoy for the EU, has spearheaded the development of Plan S in collaboration with Science Europe, an advocacy organization that represents European national funding agencies.

(Image credit – Nikolay Doychinov / EU2018BG, CC BY 2.0)

‘Someone needs to take the lead’

Championed by former European Commission Director General for Research and Innovation Robert-Jan Smits, Plan S is designed to achieve the European Union’s goal of implementing by 2020 full open access to the results of all publicly funded research immediately upon its publication. The plan also complements broader efforts underway to encourage a transition toward open science practices through the EU’s next flagship R&D framework program, Horizon Europe.

Smits has said he drew inspiration from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which since 2017 has required articles resulting from research it funds to be made open access upon publication. That policy has led several prominent journals to offer immediate open access publication options, although Science has since ended its pilot agreement with the foundation.

Plan S will effectively prohibit grantees from publishing in thousands of journals, including many top-tier outlets such as Nature and Science, unless the journals change their open access policies. Currently, many journals only make their articles freely available about an embargo period.

The plan also notes the “hybrid” model offered by some subscription-based journals, which provides researchers and institutions the option of paying a fee to make their articles immediately open access, is not compliant with its 10 guiding principles. A preamble document accompanying the plan says the funders will only allow publication in hybrid journals “during a transition period that should be as short as possible.”

Funding agencies and universities implementing the plan will pay the article processing charges associated with making publications open access at an amount that is “standardized and capped” across Europe.

The plan does not directly address “green” open access, in which researchers self-archive a copy of their articles in freely accessible repositories in addition to publishing in a journal, although it acknowledges the importance of such repositories’ “potential for editorial innovation.

Other principles in the plan include stipulations that authors retain full copyright to articles and that funders develop incentives for supporting new open access platforms and police non-compliance with the plan.

In an interview with Science|Business, Smits likened the initiative to “a kind of Robin Hood story,” explaining, “We want to take money from publishers’ shareholders and give it back to the labs.” He added that he does not regard publishers as an “enemy” but rather as having little incentive to change a system that benefits them. He elaborated:

[Publishers] simply have their own agenda, and so do I. They tell me that ‘we can only flip to open access if the US and China are on board too.’ But it’s a bit like tackling climate change — someone needs to take the lead.

Smits also attributed some blame to universities, saying they are “obsessed” with using journal impact factor metrics to make recruiting and promotion decisions. “It should not be important where you publish, but what you publish,” he said.

Publishers and some funders push back on plan

Several prominent EU national funding organizations have yet to sign on to the initiative. For example, while the German Research Foundation has welcomed the coordinated approach toward adopting open access, it has expressed concerns the new mandates could increase article processing charges and would require "fundamental changes to the system by which reputation is created and research success is rewarded away from indicators such as journal impact factors."

The Swiss National Science Foundation has also refrained from signing on despite expressing support for the effort. The agency noted in a statement that it introduced an open access policy earlier this year that differs from Plan S in that it allows grantees to publish articles in subscription-based journals and then later make them available on open access platforms.

Publishers have also expressed concerns. Nature’s publisher told ScienceInsider the plan “potentially undermines the whole research publishing system. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science, told Nature the plan “will not support high-quality peer-review, research publication and dissemination.”

The International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical (STM) Publishers, which represents over 100 nonprofit and for-profit publishers, issued a statement that “urges caution” so as to “avoid any unintended limitations on academic freedoms, and continue to ensure the overall viability and integrity of the scholarly record.” (AIP Publishing, which is owned by AIP, is a member of STM.)

“Above all, it is vital that researchers have the freedom to publish in the publication outlet of their choice,” the group emphasizes, objecting to the plan’s opposition to publication in hybrid journals. It also argues that capping article processing charges would further restrict researchers’ publication choices and could undermine research quality.

Anticipating hurdles confronting a global transition to open access, the group writes,

Publishers support a move towards full and immediate access to research publications where this is desired, but urge that this needs to be fully funded; in the absence of adequate funding, a transition to Open Access as envisaged by cOAlition S is unlikely to happen in practice.

Disclosure: AIP is supported in large part through revenues generated by AIP Publishing, an independent, nonprofit subsidiary of AIP that publishes scholarly journals in the physical and related sciences.

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