MANY scientists have championed the idea that publicly funded research should be available to all and not locked away in pricey journals. Although this “open access” ethos has become more popular in recent years, most researchers’ work remains fenced off by an online paywall. That may change with a radical European initiative unveiled earlier this month.
Eleven European countries, including Britain, France and the Netherlands, have signed up to what is called “Plan S”. This requires scientists who benefit from those countries’ national-research funding organisations to publish their work only in open-access journals on freely accessible websites by 2020. That would in turn prevent papers from appearing in around 85% of periodicals, including some of the most esteemed, such as Nature and Science.
Plan S was forged under the aegis of Science Europe, an umbrella group of European research funders. Marc Schiltz, its president, takes a muscular stance. “Monetising the access to new and existing research results is profoundly at odds with the ethos of science,” he has written.
Not surprisingly, publishers have given Plan S a frosty reception. The policy “potentially undermines the whole research publishing system,” said Springer Nature, which publishes more than 3,000 journals, including Nature. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes Science, said it would “disrupt scholarly communications, be a disservice to researchers, and impinge academic freedom”.
That is not what Robert-Jan Smits thinks. He is the European Commission’s open-access envoy and is pushing Plan S hard (the “S” can stand for “science, speed, solution, shock”, he says). Shock is certainly right. Plan S would, after a short period, also prohibit publication in “hybrid” journals that make papers free online provided the authors pay a fee (a subscription is required for readers to access other papers). Publishers argue that this mixed model has helped to open up established subscription journals and is a useful stepping stone to full open access. Critics say hybrids have simply inflated publishers’ profits by allowing some journals both to charge scientists to publish and libraries to subscribe.
Another point of contention is that the publication fees which scientist pay to open-access journals would be capped across Europe. A figure has yet to be set, but the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers, which represents 145 publishers, believes this could reduce the level of peer review that journals could afford, and thus undermine quality. Backing up that view, the AAAS argues that a wholesale switch from subscriptions to open access would be “unsustainable” for the group.
Plan S is not yet a done deal. Agreements will be needed for how the terms of future grants will be changed. A middle way might be found. One possibility is that universities will be able to post peer-reviewed papers online as soon as they are accepted for publication, while libraries would continue to pay for the final typeset versions. As it stands, this approach is often prohibited by the publishing agreements made with scientists.
In the meantime, momentum is on the side of the reformers. Horizon Europe, the European Union’s seven-year, multi-billion-euro research programme, which begins in 2021, may well have requirements akin to Plan S. Mr Smits is off to America in October to lobby funding agencies there to sign up to the plan. If he succeeds, then the era of the subscription journal, which began with the publication in 1665 of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, may come to an abrupt end.