When did you first engage with open access and why is it important for you as an academic, also considering the different roles you have in the scholarly communication system (reader, editor(-in-chief), advisory board member)?
I became actively interested in open access around 2011/2012, when Timothy Gowers launched the Elsevier boycott and the Cost of Knowledge protest against Elsevier’s expensive subscriptions and journal bundling. A number of very good reviewers informed me that they would no longer review for Lingua, the Elsevier journal I had been an editor for since 1999. This was worrisome, because without access to the right reviewers, a journal cannot maintain its peer review processes. So I started to think about alternatives. In 2011, I had also met Saskia de Vries, who at that time was director of Amsterdam University Press, and who provocatively asked me if I was not interested in flipping Lingua to open access, and what would be required to do so. That conversation led to many more contacts, including Natalia Grygierszyk, director of the Radboud University Library in Nijmegen, and we jointly decided to look into possibilities to make Lingua open access.
You were an Editor-in-Chief of Lingua, a hybrid journal at Elsevier. At some point in 2015, you made a bold step and resigned, and immediately started a new full, non-APC (diamond), open access journal. What made you decide to eventually leave Elsevier?
As I said, I had worked for Lingua since 1999. At the start, it was a simple gentleman’s agreement. I didn’t have a real contract, and just received a one-page statement that declared the number of subscriptions they had and the percentage of royalties they would give me for my editorial services. I was free to run the journal as I wanted, there was clear trust that I would serve the journal in the best interest of the linguistic community, and that the publisher would benefit from my expertise. Ten years later, I found myself having to sign a 27-page contract that stipulated among other things, that all mail I exchanged with authors was Elsevier’s property, that the list of 3,000 authors and reviewers, which I had carefully curated, was also their property. In addition, I was being pressured to hire associate editors from China, possibly because they were selling so many new subscriptions there (however this was never made explicit). At annual meetings with the journal manager from Elsevier, I felt like I was being subjected to an exam about the journal’s performance. So I increasingly felt like a prisoner, an extremely small cog in Elsevier’s knowledge machine, with very little in exchange. I did receive an honorarium, but if I divided that by the hours invested in Lingua, I would have been better off distributing newspapers or washing windows in my neighbourhood.
I increasingly felt like a prisoner, an extremely small cog in Elsevier’s knowledge machine, with very little in exchange.
Could you tell us a bit more about how that process of leaving Elsevier went?
I started by discussing the idea with my editorial team and some board members in late 2012: if I find a sustainable open access alternative to transfer the Lingua community to, will you support that move and join me? The answer was an overwhelming yes. So I went back to Saskia and Natalia, and we started exploring options. I had two very elementary conditions for the transition: I did not want Lingua to be the only journal to flip to open access, but to involve at least two to three other linguistics journals to show that this was part of a broader movement. That is why we set up Linguistics in Open Access (LingOA), a foundation for promoting open access in linguistics. We managed to convince three other journals to join us in flipping to open access: Laboratory Phonology, Italian Journal of Linguistics and Journal of Portuguese Linguistics.
And secondly, I wanted a long-term sustainable plan for the sustainability of these journals in addition to initial funding for the transition. All too often, journals are given some money to transition to open access, and when the money runs out the journal ceases to exist. Giving money at the beginning of a journal feels very virtuous to sponsors, but in fact what journals need is permanent, sustainable funding. In the case of the LingOA journals, we were able to secure both funding for the transition and a solution for long-term sustainability. The money for the transition was secured via the Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU) and the Dutch Research Council (NWO): we obtained 500,000 euros for five years to transition the four journals to open access. The long-term solution was an agreement with the Open Library of Humanities (OLH) that they would adopt the journals after the transition period of five years, and pay for the associated costs via their consortial library funding scheme. The OLH publishes a total of 29 journals in the humanities via a system where libraries contribute a relatively small sum, between 700 and 2,000 euros a year, to the OLH that support the costs of running the journals and of maintaining their Janeway submission system and platform, a truly innovative and easy to use publishing platform for journals.
Open access challenges
What were, and maybe still are, the biggest challenges of Glossa, starting immediately as a full, diamond open access journal?
I think our main challenge was how to reach the community and inform and convince them of this change. Because for the new journal to thrive, we had to convince the entire community to move to the new journal with us. A bit like abandoning your old car and buying a new one: will it be as good as the old car? Because, of course, Elsevier kept the old journal alive after we left, and managed to find replacements for us. They also completely changed the aims and scope of the journal while maintaining the old title. Apparently a title is a very flexible thing for a publisher.
And this is where the power of social media became apparent. We were able to rally the researchers belonging to the Lingua community via Facebook for instance, and mobilize them to support the move to Glossa. A few key figures in linguistics also heavily promoted the move, and they also engaged the community into a boycott of the old Lingua, which was called ‘Zombie Lingua’ for quite some time. Suddenly, many linguists refused to publish there or review for them.
I think without that social media campaign the move might not have succeeded. There really was a confluence of several elements that reinforced each other: we had institutional backing and support which allowed us to hire a lawyer to advise us on key aspects of the contracts Elsevier had with us, we had the support of the research community, and for some reason the story of the flip also attracted a lot of media attention and support from various organisations worldwide, which also helped a lot.
Another challenge was governance: what does it mean to have a journal owned and led by scholars How does that work? How do we imagine ownership in such a way that the journal cannot be bought by a commercial entity in the future? That is a process that we laid down in the Glossa Constitution, a document that specified that the Glossa title is in the hands of the community, and represents no monetary value. Recently, we were offered 300k to sell the journal title. We made that simply impossible via this Constitution, so there cannot even be a temptation. And you can easily understand why someone would want to offer 300k for a journal like ours: we publish between 120 and 150 articles a year. If a commercial publisher were to charge 2,000 euros per article, that could mean a gross income of 300k per year. Deduct costs of about 500 euros per article for production and manuscript handling, and you are left with a tidy profit of 225k.
An essential research infrastructure
What were the experiences in the first years of being an independent, self-controlled journal? What are good practices? And, in hindsight, what could have been organised better/more efficiently?
The experience was an exhilarating one. Suddenly I received emails from people in Indonesia, Africa and South-America who had previously been unable to read the journal. But on a daily basis of course, there was also a lot more work, because we had to set up a system of governance for the journal: how is the editorial team and the editorial board selected? How do we ensure continuity? I also think the help and commitment of experienced people in LingOA, like Saskia de Vries and Natalia Grygiercyk was crucial in this first phase. But it also helped that we were able to work with a professional open access publisher like Ubiquity Press, who helped us think about many questions of good practices.
Secondly, the increasing realization that a journal is in fact a community, and not just an outlet for articles owned by a commercial publisher, led us to make explicit the good practices that can be shared by other journals. We formulated author guidelines, not only in terms of what authors must do before submitting their paper, but also in terms of what they can expect from the editors and the reviewers. We formulated editorial policies and reviewer guidelines, again with the generous help from people in the community. We developed data policies, and ethics guidelines in line with COPE.
Funding is a major issue here and in the last decade or so, many journals that started as a diamond journal struggled with their long term ambitions, due to lack of sustainable funding. What do you think is needed (and let us focus here on the Dutch situation) to support diamond open access journals (and platforms) in a sustainable way?
Indeed funding is essential. Very often, diamond journals are treated like commercial startups. Various organizations are quite enthusiastic about giving some initial funding which makes them look good because it allows for considerable virtue signaling. The idea then is that the journal should be able to sustain itself after a number of years. But that is erroneous: since diamond journals typically do not charge authors or readers, they entirely depend on revenue streams from the public sector: ministries, research funders, universities and their libraries, donors etc. And that money tends to come in the form of time-limited projects that do not even ensure renewal of the money as a function of successful and sustained publication.
While in fact journals should be viewed as essential research infrastructure, in the same way as university buildings, labs, and libraries: you have to maintain infrastructure for the long run. Imagine you were to tell professors: here is a classroom, but three years from now, we expect you to be able to pay for the chairs and the tables and the blackboard and the chalk. That would be completely ridiculous, but that is how scholar-owned and scholar led journals are being treated today. Now of course we need not just throw money at journals just because they are journals: funding can be made conditional on the regular evaluation of good practices, the regularity and quality of their outputs etc. But temporary funding is no good.
What is really required is a change in perspective: journals are essential research infrastructure, and if we do not fund it, nobody will.
Focusing on the Dutch situation and Dutch diamond open access journals, I think it would be good to adopt a model like that of the OLH, that is a system where a number of libraries contribute to sustaining those journals that have a proven record of quality outputs, good governance, and good practices. This need not be limited to libraries. I also think there is a role here for the ‘landelijke onderzoekscholen’ (national research schools). These organisations already organise work at a PhD-level nationally, and often operate the publication of PhD dissertations, such as the Landelijke Onderzoeksschool Taalkunde (LOT). These research schools could also play a role in organizing the disciplinary communities that cluster around journals and make choices to found new journals or cluster existing ones, and make financial contributions to them. They could even be involved in the governance of these journals.
In addition, disciplinary institutes could formally recognize editors involved in these journals to make this part of their duties. Right now, that is not the case: editing for a journal is tolerated but not encouraged, as the top currency of research outputs are peer-reviewed articles, and any type of community service is somewhat looked down upon and certainly not valorized. So what I am imagining here is sustainable funding for diamond journals that involves various permanent institutional revenue streams – coming from libraries, research schools, and in-kind contributions from individuals and their department – conditional on periodic, say three to five year, external evaluation. But what is really required is a change in perspective: journals are essential research infrastructure, and if we do not fund it, nobody will.
What do you expect from (big) publishers with a commercial for-profit publishing model, which already have started moving specific journals to non-APC (e.g. publishing as a service, or S2O). How can we ensure prices for commercial services are fair and will stay that way?
I think the only way to ensure that prices are fair is to ask for price transparency. This is something that I started to do with the Fair Open Access Alliance on a small scale in 2016, but of course that initiative has now been overtaken by the cOAlition S Price transparency initiative that will result in a Journal Comparison Service that will allow librarians to compare a breakdown of commercial publishers’ services and their prices. And indeed, library consortia negotiating read and publish deals should also ask for detailed price transparency: when libraries are paying up to 3,000-4,000 euros per article in these deals, and when prices can differ from one country to the next by about 1000 euros, library consortia should ask what that is based on. And the answer can no longer be that it is based on historic subscription spend: we should pay for publishing services alone, not for reading privileges.
I also think a well-organized European or even global Diamond Open Access community could help us gain insight into prices. If we take back academic publishing, and only use very specific publishing services, say copy-editing and typesetting, and open source platforms and submission systems, we can easily calculate ourselves what the cost of various publishing services is, and compare that to the services provided by commercial publishers.
We see an increase of open access (funder) mandates. We need to touch upon this, since you are also executive director of cOAlition S, the coalition behind Plan S. Could you say something about the ideas and work the coalition is doing to promote equality and inclusiveness in scholarly publishing?
cOAlition S is of course an alliance of funding agencies, and their remit is that of their funded researchers, not that of all researchers in the world. At the same time, the cOAlition is keen not to promote inequities. I think there are two initiatives that we have developed that transcend the narrow scope of our funded researchers and are promoting equality and inclusivity. Rights retention strategy: claiming a CC BY license on the Author Accepted Manuscript of an article in a subscription journal allows authors to deposit that article in a repository. This does not require the author to pay anything. The Diamond action plan: strengthening and aligning diamond open access journals that do not charge authors or readers.
But more is needed, and not only from cOAlition S. We would like to promote globally equitable pricing for services. That is each country and university contributes financially as a function of their means (for instance income, but also purchasing power). This is something library consortia should also take up: they should ask how the price they pay offsets the price charged to countries with lower purchasing power.
Still, we’re stuck in the traditional academic credit (and funding) cycle where prestigious journals and presses can stay dominant players and further commercialize the academic publishing sector because they also own and/or use elements of this cycle, which in a sense stalemate the much needed transformation of recognition and rewards structures based on impact factors, excellence, and prestige. It is one of the reasons why open access (especially full and non-APC) is lagging behind, at least in some disciplines. Often heard arguments are: it can’t be good, because there is no one taking care of the quality, it doesn’t have an Impact Factor (IF), so it can’t be of high-quality, etc. etc. What do you think of this? And what is needed in order to make sure full (non-APC) open access journals are taken equally into account in recognition and rewarding structures?
Well, first of all there is of course the illusion that the IF measures quality. It does not. As we know, it is a very flawed measure that is based on very questionable underpinnings. Those people who invoke the IF as a measure of quality would never apply methodologies used in determining the IF for their own research. And yes, we need to change the incentives and rewards system, cOAlition S is contributing to that via its principle 10 in which funders pledge not to take the publisher, the name of the journal, or purely quantitative metrics into account when selecting grant applications. Narrative CVs are now widely used among cOAlition S funders, also by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) which has been a Plan S signatory from the start. And clearly, also we need new quality-based metrics that do a better job of measuring the impact of an article and a researcher in a given community. That is also something that depends on the size of the community, and its validation practices. Validation is not always given through citations. We need to have a much better and fine-grained understanding of such mechanisms. And last but not least, editing a journal and reviewing for journals should be much better rewarded. We know that every article requires three reviews, so we should ask people for their review-to-publication ratios during annual reviews. That is a metric I could get behind as a journal editor.
When it comes to full open access journals we of course already have the Directory of Open Access journals (DOAJ) that is doing a great job in determining the quality (academic and technical) and the practices of open access journals. cOAlition S, for instance, only recognizes fully open access journals that are registered in DOAJ.
But still, there are many obstacles. For instance, so-called ‘official’ recognition as a proper journal in many countries still requires being registered in the Web of Science (WoS), which is owned by Clarivate. And in many countries, researchers can only publish in journals that are in WoS and that have an IF. So this leads to the crazy situation that if you want to attract authors from those countries, you need to have an IF, even if you know full well that the IF is a completely flawed metric, and also that if you flip a journal from a commercial publisher to open access, you need to wait for five years to get that recognition. While the old journal you left behind, which was taken over by a new community, still takes advantage of the hard work of the previous community for five years after they resigned. This is what happened to Lingua: only now is it becoming apparent in Google Scholar’s h5 index for instance that the journal’s papers in that journal are being cited much less than before the resignation of the editorial board in 2015.
What does ‘publishing with impact’ mean in practice?
– The following post was originally published on the scilog – the magazine of the Austrian Science Fund FWF –
Interview: Ingrid Ladner
When it comes into force at the beginning of 2021, the Open Access initiative “Plan S” is poised to help opening up and improving academic publishing. Ulrich Pöschl, a chemist and Open Access advocate of the first hour, explains why free access to research results is important and how an up-to-date academic publishing system can work.
FWF: For around 20 years, research and funding institutions have been working to bring academic publishing into the digital age and to enable free access to knowledge. A large number of initiatives have resulted in considerable progress. Plan S is the latest attempt in that direction – what do you think of it?
Ulrich Pöschl: Open access to research findings via the Internet has been developing in science since the early 1990s. Originating directly from active researchers, the motivation and underlying principles were developed and initiated in a “bottom-up” process. In the early 2000s, science institutions also adopted these principles. The Berlin Declaration on Open Access of 2003, for example, was signed by more than 600 leading research organisations worldwide. Many of them are also working together in the global OA2020 initiative to achieve a timely transition to Open Access in line with academic interests. As a result, the proportion of freely accessible and freely usable scholarly journal articles has risen to around 15 percent in recent years.
On the other hand, a large part of publicly funded research results still remain under lock and key subject to the subscription and payment barriers of traditional academic publishers and cannot be used efficiently in research and teaching either by the general public or the business community. For this reason, Plan S has been developed as a top-down initiative by public and non-profit research funders who also call for Open Access. This approach is an important supplement to the existing bottom-up initiatives from the research community and will accelerate the transition to a modern academic publishing system, something that is long overdue.
All these efforts are intended to facilitate and improve the exchange of knowledge and the provision of education. This holds true both for the research community and for human society worldwide. In times of alternative facts and post-factual claims, these values are more important than ever. One of many important aspects is to bring scientific insights and general knowledge closer together again. In this context one may explain the benefits of Open Access using the example of the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, which even researchers frequently use for quick reference. Nonetheless, there are usually very few illustrations of scholarly content on Wikipedia and other websites because the copyright of the corresponding original illustrations has been transferred to the publishers, and not even the researchers themselves are free to use them. As a result, scientific content on the Internet is often presented in a far less appropriate and comprehensible manner than should be both possible and desirable.
FWF: What does the implementation of Plan S mean for researchers?
Pöschl: An Open Access publication is worth a great deal more than an article under lock and key – both for the public and for the research community. Researchers benefit from a faster and wider dissemination of their results, from knowledge being exchanged freely between different disciplines, and from authors who retain the copyright on the published text and illustrations. This may seem to be a minor detail to outsiders, but it is of enormous importance. There is good reason for its being enshrined in Plan S as the number-one principle. Plan S breaks up oligopolistic structures and also gets large academic publishers to allow Open Access publications in established journals in a scientifically and financially appropriate way. In the past this often did not materialise owing to the publishers’ dominant position and excessive striving for profit. The scheme is designed to result in no effort, or as little effort as possible, for the researchers themselves – in terms of time and/or money. Plans S, OA2020 and related initiatives aim at ensuring the most efficient and smooth transition possible from the subscription systems of the past, which are obsolete in many respects, to an Open Access publishing system fit for the future.
FWF: One objective of COAlition S – the supporters of Plan S – is to provide free access to all scholarly publications under public domain licenses – without the usual embargoes set by the publishers. At present, some publishers are not yet ready to publish open access in important science journals. Could this constitute a problem for some disciplines?
Pöschl: It has been demonstrated for many years that Open Access is compatible with operating high-quality journals successfully and sustainably. This is true of both the so-called STM subjects – science, technology and medicine – and of the humanities and social sciences. There are many successful examples to show that both options are readily achievable: launching new high-quality OA journals and converting traditional subscription-based journals to OA. Some glossy journals also offer various options, such as archiving a version of the manuscript in a freely accessible repository. Moreover, there are many voices in the scientific community who believe that the importance of glossy journals is overrated. Among other things, Open Access also facilitates a better evaluation of individual publications through so-called “article level metrics” and reduces the tendency to overrate certain journals and indicators such as “journal impact factors”.
The profit margins of the large publishers and the public expenditure on journal subscriptions are so large that there is more than enough funding available for a sustainable transition to OA. Experience shows that small publishers can also transition successfully to OA, and it offers them additional opportunities in a competition which has been strongly distorted in favour of the large publishers and hampered by oligopolistic structures. The development of Plan S involved representatives from a wide range of disciplines. If practical application should reveal that, contrary to expectations, the flexibility and diversity of publishing and archiving options already provided for in Plan S were not sufficient for certain fields and disciplines, the scheme could and would certainly undergo further adjustments and differentiations. As a representative of a bottom-up initiative such as OA2020, I consider it particularly important that the practical implementation of Open Access takes into account the needs of different research fields and communities. As far as I can tell, the representatives of Plan S, a top-down initiative, share this view and have achieved a good result.
FWF: Thereare also critical voices from the research community who consider the Open Access plan to be too fast or too far-reaching. You are a chemist. Can you understand this scepticism from a scientist’s perspective?
Pöschl: I can actually understand it and would probably be a sceptic myself if I had not explored the matter in great detail. Most of the concerns arise from a lack of information or from the lobbying and oligopolistic position of traditional publishers. One problem in the past was that individual researchers were confronted with the question of whether and where they could publish their articles in Open Access mode. And the question was, in particular, whether or not publications in established scientific journals are compatible with Open Access, and what the costs and consequences of Open Access publication might be. Plan S is now designed to eliminate these concerns and uncertainties by making Open Access the default option, by changing the financing of publishing and by demanding corresponding services from publishers.
This should not result in additional expense, let alone disadvantages, for the researchers. Funding agencies such as the FWF, research institutions such as the Max Planck Society, and national consortia in Germany and other countries have already concluded so-called transformative agreements or “publish & read” agreements with large and small publishers, which enable authors working in these fields to publish open access articles in traditional journals without additional effort. Publishers can offer these or similar agreements to all academic institutions and other subscribers without too much effort. This makes it possible to fulfil the bulk of the goals and objectives of OA2020 and Plan S, and to translate Open Access into a global reality.
Irrespective of such agreements, the minimum requirement must be that authors of journal articles be allowed and able to archive the final version of their articles in freely accessible repositories without embargo periods. Usually, this is already the case. Wherever this is not yet possible, science publishers have to adapt to it, because the papers they publish in journals are mainly based on publicly funded research. Also, the income of publishers and their sometimes exorbitant profit margins of up to 40 percent are also funded predominantly out of public money. For this reason, it is not only appropriate and feasible, but it is long overdue for the general public to be able to freely access and use results and publications of publicly funded research.
FWF: In spring 2020, the Springer Nature publishing house, which counts 3000 journals in its portfolio, announced that the renowned journal Nature would be converted to Open Access in line with Plan S as of 2021. It seems that the publishing giants are now starting to come on board.
Pöschl: That is exactly the point. What is at stake is breaking up outdated and petrified structures or overcoming structural barriers. This requires catalysts such as OA2020 and Plan S. By coordinating the highly diversified world of non-profit research funders, universities, research institutions, public libraries and other academic institutions, it is possible to stand up to the large international publishing houses, which are often driven by the desire to maximise profit and preserve market clout. When asked to implement Open Access, various publishers raised almost absurd claims, demands and objections, and skilfully asserted their business interests along the lines of “divide and rule”. Thanks to national and international scientific initiatives and collaborations, people are now starting to realise again that it is the publishers who should provide a service for research and not the other way round. In addition to Springer Nature, Wiley and other large and smaller publishers have also read the signs of the times and are increasingly participating actively in the global transition to Open Access. On the other hand, Elsevier, the largest and most profitable publisher of scientific journals, has hardly moved at all so far, which only serves as confirmation that introducing Plan S makes sense and is necessary.
FWF: Analyses have shown that universities and research institutions would save costs by switching their publishing systems to open access and that publishers could still remain profitable. How can a modern system work for all the stakeholders?
Pöschl: Comprehensive analyses of the global publication market illustrate that expenditure for access to journals averages around 4000 euros per article in the traditional subscription business dominated by large publishers. In OA journals of comparable quality, realistic prices per article are at around 2000 euros or less. In my own field of research, the atmospheric sciences and geosciences, some of the world’s leading and largest journals of the highest quality and visibility have been pure Open Access journals for two decades. They are owned by the European Geosciences Union, which holds regular conferences in Vienna with up to 16,000 participants, and are produced by a medium-sized German publishing house. The income and profit for both the publisher and the society are respectable. Moreover, efficient use of modern technologies keeps the average price per article there at only around 1500 euros. This example shows that Open Access is not so much a threat as a great opportunity for small publishers in Europe. Based on the above analyses and empirical data, we can assume that the financial buffer and scope for the transition to Open Access, and for an academically appropriate design of the journal publishing system, is something like 50 percent of current expenditure and available public funds in real terms. Consequently, the alleged threat to the academic publishing system and its fundability through open access simply does not exist.
Even if average costs were not to fall as a result of the transition to Open Access, the cost-benefit ratio of publishing as a whole will improve significantly, since the practical value of academic publications for science and society will increase several fold through free access and usability. Moreover, making the system more practically useful for the general public is considerably more important than any cost reduction, since the publication costs as a whole make up only about one percent of public expenditure on research. It is actually hard to explain why this transition is taking so long and did not occur some 20 years ago, when the Internet became widely available and most of the world’s leading academic organisations committed themselves to Open Access. Just one more reason why the introduction and implementation of Plan S is long overdue.
FWF: The Max Planck Society actively supports Open Access initiatives in Germany. What are the key findings obtained so far?
Pöschl: In the Max Planck Society, Open Access has been promoted by the scientific members and endorsed by the management for many years. Not only do we call on traditional large publishers to use Open Access, we also support small and new Open Access publishers. As a result, and as a consequence of transformative agreements concluded at both institutional and national level, the Open Access share of our journal publications has already reached around 80 percent, which means that we have already largely met the objectives of OA2020 within our institution. Regrettably, this is not yet the case worldwide, but it shows that each individual institution by itself can make a big difference and thus also foster global progress. Fortunately, other organisations are also successfully pursuing this path, including the University of California as one of the largest academic institutions in the world, but also including the FWF, the University of Vienna and other Austrian institutions.
FWF: Would it be easier with uniform standards?
The wish for and the benefits of a common approach, and uniform – or at least compatible – standards, are among the main reasons why many countries and institutions in Europe and throughout the world have already joined Plan S, OA2020 and related initiatives. The greater the unity, the easier it is for the interests of science to prevail over the oligopoly of the international big players in the publishing world.
FWF: What does this mean for society and science communication?
Pöschl: Around one percent of the total expenditure and public spending that society invests in science goes into publishing. When you take a good look at this ratio, you understand that various lobbyists have been successful too often and for too long in doing what the English language so idiomatically refers to as “the tail wagging the dog”. It is absurd that about 99 percent of the total public expenditure and the associated benefits are locked away behind the pay walls of commercial publishers for about one percent of the costs, even though the Internet makes it possible to offer free access without significant additional costs.
Making the results of scientific research and its illustrations in publications freely accessible and usable will benefit all areas of our social life. This applies to research itself, particularly in its interdisciplinary work and global networking; to education at schools, universities and in adult education; to the media and their handling of fake news, alternative facts and post-factual claims; and to business and technological innovations. It is very difficult for smaller companies to use original scientific publications, regardless of whether these are up-to-the-minute or decades old. Even large companies that have the resources to buy access to scientific journals can encounter massive constraints in using content efficiently via data mining or machine learning because of technical access restrictions created by the security measures and pay walls of publishers. All these areas offer huge potential that can be unlocked through Open Access. The corona pandemic has shown how important scientific exchange is – including for the media and the general public. I am confident that this experience will help raise awareness that free access to knowledge is a value in itself. This is true not only, but also, of crisis situations.
A revolutionary Plan S
Plan S operates with the objective of making the results of publicly funded research freely accessible from 2021 forward. In addition to the Austrian Science Fund FWF, 16 other national – mainly European – funding agencies have joined the initiative, as have seven of the world’s largest private sponsors and organisations, including the World Health Organisation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. Among the Initiative’s supporters one also finds the European Commission, which intends to base its Open Access policy on Plan S.
In the context of FWF-funded research, Plan S applies to all research projects approved as from 1 January 2021. Academic articles with peer review resulting from these projects must be made openly accessible without delay. This will apply to the first FWF-funded projects from around the end of 2021 or early 2022. For publication formats such as monographs and anthologies, binding guidelines will be drawn up by the end of 2021.
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world as we know it, and research is no exception. Globally, scientists are working together at unprecedented speed, in a race against time to understand the virus and its treatment, sharing data and results as fast as they can. Journal editors are cooperating and becoming more flexible. Embargoes are lifted, paywalls abolished and preprint servers like MedrXiv and bioRxiv have accelerated research evaluation and discussion. Suddenly the demand for instant access to the relevant research literature has become self-evident. How could the argument for full and immediate Open Access still be ignored?
The global research response demands Open Access
Governments and international organisations, working hand in hand with the research community, have risen to the challenge in an unprecedented global effort for openness. On 20 April the European Commission launched a Covid-19 data sharing platform for researchers. On 4 May, the Commission registered €7.4 billion in pledges from donors worldwide to the Coronavirus Global Response pledging event. The Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation mobilized new funding for research into a vaccine. On 13 March, science advisors from a dozen countries asked scientific publishers in an open letter to make all research related to the coronavirus and Covid-19 freely available. Over 50,000 research articles were rapidly made public thanks to this emergency initiative. On 28 May, the G7 Science and Technology Ministers issued a Declaration on Covid-19 recognizing the importance of open science for government-sponsored epidemiological and related research.
Despite these good intentions, a recent study shows that the number of publications on pandemic studies behind a paywall is still growing faster than the Open Access ones. With such funding being spent on understanding Covid-19, developing vaccines, and refining interventions, the resulting research must remain fully Open Access for it to have the greatest impact. National policies should reflect the need to move to Open Access as soon as possible.
Temporary access is not Open Access
By opening up research in times of crisis, subscription publishers have implicitly admitted that their paywalls and embargoes were unjustified and inefficient to start with. They have proved that keeping knowledge behind barriers harms the advancement of science and serves little purpose other than generating profits which the research community hardly benefits from. The very fact that this request even had to be made is striking: most of the research results reported in these papers had already been paid for by public funds and should therefore have been openly available to everyone in the first place.
In addition, some publishers only agreed to making this research available on a temporary basis, narrowly focusing on access to Covid-19 related papers. This is hard to justify, as the fight against the disease requires perspectives from multiple scientific disciplines. Publishers temporarily releasing articles from paywalls does not represent Open Access. Full, immediate, and permanent Open Access should not only be required for research papers related to Covid-19, but research on other deadly diseases should also be accessible to researchers, medical professionals, patients and patient organizations, and citizens. So should research on climate change, education, inequality, indeed all research. It is no longer acceptable that 75% of the research literature is still behind a paywall. We don’t know which research papers that today remain largely inaccessible could inspire solutions and bright ideas for tomorrow’s challenges.
Accelerating the transition to Open Access
cOAlition S funders believe the rapid changes currently faced by a globalized society require equally nimble solutions. The Covid-19 crisis illustrates that full and immediate Open Access to research results can provide fast answers to protect lives and curb disasters. It is time to make full use of that potential for other global crises that are threatening us.
To achieve this goal, cOAlition S are working on solutions to make full and immediate Open Access a reality. Plan S offers several routes that allow authors to share their research and fulfill Open Access conditions without giving up their freedom to publish in the journals of their choice. cOAlition S funders require their grant holders to retain copyright of their research results and publish them with a CC-BY license that allows the work to be used and re-used freely. Through our Price Transparency Framework we will require publishers to provide more information on publishing costs in order to make academic publishing more transparent, fair and sustainable. The Transformative Journal framework helps publishers to rapidly transition their subscription journals to Open Access. We are continuously exploring new ways to make open access publishing affordable and fair to scientists all over the world, and making sure that there is no way back from the transition to Open Access.
If not now, when?
Let’s not waste this crisis, but build on the current momentum. We appeal to all research financing and performing organizations to join cOAlition S and support our commitment to make all research results immediately and permanently available, without embargo, and irrespective of the publication venue. The time for full and immediate Open Access was yesterday, but the chance to learn from our mistakes and to act is now.
cOAlition S Open Access Champion
European Science Foundation
1, quai Lezay – Marnésia
67080 Strasbourg – France