Debate on Plan S (open access science)

07 November 2018

On Thursday 1 November 2018, the KNAW organized a debate about Plan S launched by a number of European Research Funders. The Debate “Plan S, the fast track to open access” (Amersfoort, STAeg), featured Wim van Saarloos (moderator), Stan Gielen (NWO), Detlef Lohse, Anna Akhmanova, Janneke Gerards, and Robert-Jan Smits. You can view a recording of the entire event here.

See also the report in Science Guide

Statement Birgit Meyer

Right at the beginning of this new academic year, I heard about Plan S via the media and felt a sense of shock – and this may have well been intended by those championing it.

According the The Economist, Robert-Jan Smits said: “S can stand for science, speed, solution and shock.” I had a close look at my publication list, and realized that more than 95% of the journals in which I publish articles and edit special issues, for which I do peer reviews, which I co-edit or support by being part of their editorial board are not fully open access. Many are covered by the recent deals between publishers and VSNU, and feature as hybrid journals that make it possible to publish oa for those covered by the deal. This is quite typical for my field – religious studies, anthropology, African studies – and in the humanities at large.

Here I do not speak for, but from the humanities. Publishing is heterogenous:

There exist many old and highly established journals that are often run by longstanding learned societies and research institutions, there are esteemed journals for scholarship in certain areas of specialist expertise, for instance in the sphere of area studies and languages, there are some relatively new open access journals, and then, of course, monographs and volumes (for now still exempted from Plan S). These journals are published by a diverse set of publishers, which include university presses, tycoons as Taylor and Francis, Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, as well as relatively small private publishing houses (Brill, Berghahn) and well-funded research institutions. I am in favour of open access, as this ensures much more exposure and visibility for our scholarly work. Many of my colleagues in the humanities by and large share this view. And yet, from our perspective Plan S gives reason for worries and critical questions. Surprisingly, given the speed of its planned materialization, so far there is little public information about the details of its implementation. Phrased in highly general, and somewhat millenaristic terms, Plan S is above all a short ideological statement, and this raises concerns as to how it will impact the actual publication cultures in various scientific fields.

While the good intentions are clearly stated, I miss a thorough assessment of possible risks and unintended consequences. I noted with interest that the German DFG has so far not signed the agreement, even though it is in favour of open access and the Berlin declaration.

One reason is that the DFG “puts great emphasis on the role of the research community in shaping the open access transformation.” NWO does not operate as the DFG, it is much more top-down. But still, as a scholar and researcher, I feel confronted with a fait accompli on the part of NWO, to which I am so much indebted for all I could achieve. I myself and colleagues in the field with whom I spoke are worried about the practical repercussions of Plan S for the ways in which we publish our work. The triangle of Funders, Publishers and Research communities is the current backbone of academic publishing practices, with universities and libraries forming key intermediaries. So far, however, scholars in the humanities have had little say in the formulation and implementation of Plan S. As our research depends more and more on funders, rather than first-stream-money via the universities, Plan S will have far reaching consequences for our work. In this statement, I want to share with you three burning issues: Quality, Money and Closure.

Quality

I entered the Dutch academic world as a young anthropologist in the early 1990s, a time of profound transformation of publication regimes. At the time there was a major shift going on from writing for and in Dutch language journals and for a broader audience, to the policy of writing for rated and preferably top journals, in English. Like my peers, I seized these new opportunities, and having gotten a permanent university position I have encouraged colleagues in the jaargesprekken to make sure to publish in esteemed international peer reviewed journals. I advise PhDs and postdocs to work on their cv, so as to be eligible for funding in the VENI, VIDI, VICI scheme, Hera and ERC, and to perhaps eventually even qualify for research awards and learned societies. Publications are one important criterium for assessing the quality of an article, and its author. In the past fifteen years domain-specific EHRI lists were made with designated top journals, and journals in B, C and lower categories.

These found their way as quality indicators in the SEP and other modes of assessing so-called excellence and ensuring quality, the recently established Landelijk Autorisatie Panel (LAP) plays a coordinating role in safeguarding humanities-specific standards for our scholarship. We see that this publication regime, even though contested, has yielded its intended results, above all the international visibility of high profile publications from scholars at Dutch universities, which feed into prideful positions in global university rankings, such as the Shanghai and Times Higher education rankings. So journals arguably play a central role in indicating and ensuring quality through critical peer review, language editing – very important for us!- , copy editing, and so on. The system is subject to discussion and not ideal, but I would still say that by and large it works well.

Now: What will be the impact of Plan S, which will also exclude the journals working with a hybrid model as of 1 January 2022, for the ways in which we assess quality and for our publication strategies? Many of these hybrid journals belong to the top in the various domains in the humanities, whereas newer open access journals usually do not – yet – have that esteem. How can we, as scholars located in Europe under the regime of Plan S, keep up with international developments in our fields, if we are no longer allowed to publish in established journals of learned societies and associations, many of them much older than ourselves and foundational for our domains? What would the interdiction to publish in such journals mean for things we are so proud of here in NL, such as the high level of visibility of our work, thanks to certain international flagship journals? How will this interdiction affect processes of evaluating the quality of especially young researchers in the ever more competitive arenas for research funding? How does the implementation of open access as a new prime instrument in our Dutch publication regime affect earlier instruments such as the emphasis on publishing in international peer reviewed journals? They are certainly at loggerheads with each other.

Which advice to give to our young researchers for their publishing strategies, for which our own past strategies can no longer serve as a model? Should I still try to get an article out in some of the flagship journals that mean much to me, or will I have to wait until retirement? May I retain my editorship and role in the editorial boards of hybrid journals, or does NWO want me to leave? What will the sanctions be in the case of non-compliance?

I want to urge the designers of Plan S, to assess the consequences of this plan for established and effective modes of quality assessment and control, and at the very least to consider extending the timespan for publication under the hybrid model.

Money

Open access makes scholarly work broadly accessible, and this is good. But publishing comes with costs – certainly if it is done well – and someone has to pay for it. I read an article in Nature in which Stan Gielen explains that Plan S goes beyond the economics of publishing, he says that it involves a “bigger transition towards open science and re-evaluation of how we measure science and the quality of scientists.” And yet, the radical transformation of the funding model raises many questions about the economics of publishing. Plan S involves a shift from a subscription model to a model in which publications are paid for by their authors or their funders/employers. The DFG, in the already quoted statement, hits the nail on its head: “As an institution based on the self-governing of science and research, it surmises that open access mandates can lead to increased article processing charges (APC), an effect that the DFG strives to minimise.” How to minimize the effects of APCs is indeed a big question, and so far I have not found much information about how Plan S will actually proceed to do this. There is a realistic fear that this shift will be feasible and beneficial for the big publishing companies, but much less so for the smaller publishers, of which we have many in the humanities. How to prevent that longstanding high-quality big and small journals that work on the basis of subscriptions vanish in the operation Plan S? And how at all do newly set up open access journals fare in ensuring high quality with regard to language- and copyediting, which is extensive in the humanities, giving the importance of writing? I know of two very good open access journals – one even set up with funds from NWO – that did not manage to continue operating open access, and went back to a subscription model under the auspices of a publisher.

Also, I wonder whether Plan S will only apply to research funded via NWO, ERC and HERA, or also become a general university policy? If the latter is the case, how to decide which articles would deserve funding and which not? What are the implications for young scholars, and even talented research master students and PhDs whom we now coach to work on their first single-author publications? How will the funds for open access be administered, and how to ensure democratic access to them? I foresee that the question of who is to decide who will get the money for a publication may become a huge bone of contention. And at the flipside of this competition for getting APCs funded, there may emerge a wildgrowth of articles put out on websites and blogs, the quality of which will be difficult and time-consuming to assess.

A New Closure?

Many of our journals are not confined to publishing work from scholars based in Europe, but publish work from scholars across the globe. If journals in Europe are now pressurized to go open access and shift to the APC economic model, this will have strong repercussions for scholars who do not work under, and also do not benefit from, Plan S. Being strictly and fully open access, a journal will have to demand APCs from all its contributors. How to deal with the fact that many authors outside of Europe may not at all have the money to do so? This pertains not only to scholars in rich countries as the USA that at least so far do not appear to implement Plan S but, also to scholars in countries in the Global South with very small budgets for research, for instance in Africa. Thanks to open access they can read these journals more easily, but they can no longer afford to publish in them. So my fear is that the turn to open access will imply new, and partly unintended closures, through which European scholarship might become isolated and de facto less open to the global scholarly exchange we need in our time.

* * *

In sum, while I welcome the idea of open access as such, its implementation raises many urgent issues that touch the core of our well-tried current publication publishes. The fact that open access has become heavily ideologized does not help in developing a realistic assessment. I certainly see many reasons for funders to criticize and put pressure on the publishers, especially the tycoons. So far I did not find serious argued responses on their part.

Maybe the deliberations between funders and publishers take place behind closed doors? My fear is that we, as scholars, will be caught in between this struggle, and may end up having to face multiple unintended consequences that will seriously hamper our work and potentially destroy our publication environment. How will NWO and VSNU ensure that our concerns as scholars at large, and the research community of the humanities in particular, will seriously be taken into account in this major policy change, which I so far still see as a rather mixed blessing. In any case, I am thankful to the KNAW for organizing this meeting and giving me the opportunity to raise these questions and concerns.