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The Scientific Literature

The EU Open Access Fight Continues

I wrote here about a European plan to mandate open-access scientific publication – one whose sweep many found startling when it was proposed. And some of the ones who were startled were researchers themselves, it seems – here’s an open letter opposing the plan as written. Chemists seem to be among those leading the charge, because as written, “Plan S” would probably take away the greatest number of well-regarded publishing venues from that field. The letter starts off with just that point:

The complete ban on hybrid (society) journals of high quality is a big problem, especially for chemistry. Apart from the fact that we won’t be allowed to publish in these journals anymore, the direct effect of Plan S and the way in which some national funding agencies and academic/research institutions seem to want to manage costs may eventually even lead to a situation where we won’t even be able to legally read the most important (society) journals of for example the ACS, RSC and ChemPubSoc anymore. Note that in their announcement of Plan S, the Dutch funding organisation NWO (for example) wrote that they expect to cover the high article processing charges (APCs) associated with the desired Gold OA publishing model from money freed by disappearing or stopped subscriptions to existing journals. As such, Plan S may (eventually) forbid scientists access to (and publishing in) >85% of the existing and highly valued (society) journals! So effectively Plan S would block access to exactly those journals that work with a valuable and rigorous peer-review system of high quality. As a second note on this aspect: In the Netherlands, already for more than 6 months, researchers don’t have legal access to most RSC journals. Fully banning even more society journals is completely unacceptable and unworkable.

I hadn’t realized the “we’ll pay for it by dropping non-OA journals” aspect of this (nor was I aware of the RSC-Netherlands dispute). This is indeed a big potential problem, but there are more. As the letter goes on to say, researchers in the US, China, Japan, etc. will continue to publish in the various other journals that fall short of Plan S standards (which includes the great majority of the most widely read and well-respected ones out there, given the proposed ban on “hybrid” OA models). Joint publications will become much more difficult, as will attracting post-docs and new faculty members, as long as publishing in these journals is considered a good thing for one’s career. Meanwhile, scientists in Plan S countries will probably still be asked to referee papers from journals they can’t even publish in.

The argument is also made that the problems above are in fact a violation of academic freedom – although the funding agencies that have proposed the plan in the first place might be in more of a “He who pays the piper calls the tune” mood about that. At any rate, here’s how the letter ends up:

We call on both funding agencies who are already part of cOAlition S and those who have not (yet?) signed up, to take into account the full landscape of ways that papers can be made Open Access, and not just the very narrow definition provided by Plan S (including the hybrid ban, and the fact that peer reviewed pre-prints such as allowed by the ACS are currently not an obvious compliant solution). In addition, we demand that cOAlition S signatories take responsibility for the implications and risks Plan S may have for the European research landscape, and to therefore take every possible action in the implementation stage to prevent these potential and unintended consequences.

As far as I know, there have been no big public moves by the scientific societies and publishers (often the same people, true) regarding Plan S, so it looks like the first one is now from the scientists themselves, at least some of them – and they’re not overjoyed. One wonders if the plan itself was deliberately written so as to provoke reactions and shake everyone up (if so, it’s probably succeeded). And if there will be a new fallback position now that the points have been made, with some allowance for reviewed preprints, some sort of hybrid publishing, etc. For what it’s worth, I’d probably prefer some solution in that range. Or perhaps the people signing this open letter (and those who agree with them) will in the end get the European equivalent of “Gosh, maybe y’all need to pick some new favorite journals and deal with it”. After all, they’re already saying something similar to the publishers themselves, namely “It’s your problem to come up with journals that we’ll accept”. More popcorn.

31 comments on “The EU Open Access Fight Continues”

  1. Isidore says:

    I am wondering if anyone has any information on how much of the operating budget of the ACS or the RSC comes from their journals and what the revenue loss would be if they switched to an open access model. I assume that the societies probably have this information but perhaps they have not made it public.

    1. You can discover this information via required disclosures for non-profits. In the US, Guidestar is a great source. Not so sure on the UK charities like RSC, but I think there is a counterpart.

    2. Druid says:

      The annual reports of the RSC are freely available on their website. In 2017, on turnover of £53.6million, publishing made a profit of £17.4million, whereas membership fees brought in £3.9million. The profits from publishing subsidize the membership fees and also conferences, education and advocacy. I like a conference but I depend on publications and I think of this sort of intellectual property as intellectual theft, although the Law says I am the criminal for reading it. In the age of the internet, it does not make sense to restrict access to knowledge to the few who can afford it.

      1. Nick E Calcaterra says:

        Mmmm, discourse ethics….

      2. CET says:

        …and a description of the problem Plan S is intended to correct can be found here:

  2. Dr. Manhattan says:

    The American Society for Microbiology has adopted a practice that an article becomes open access in most of their journals six months after publication. Some ASM journals are immediate open access (e.g. mBio). This might be a model for some societies (ACS) to still have journal revenue but be in compliance with NIH provisions of open access. Of course this won’t satisfy all open access issues, but is a compromise route. Right now, many articles are in perpetuity behind journal firewalls.

  3. A statement last week from the Association of American Publishers:

    Others are in the works from other groups representing non-profit publishers and societies. They are generally thinking this goes too far, and represents an expansion of patronage that exceeds need or reason.

  4. Calvin says:

    Unfortunately, this has become a battle, that I strongly suspect will result in a number of publishers in chemistry simply disappearing. In the EU at least. Interestingly both Gates and Wellcome have back Plan S so this whole thing clearly has a lot of support on the funder side; they have historically been highly influential. I suspect that Wellcome/Gates are not too worried because have very little interaction with chemistry they simply think it is a price worth paying. I have mixed views. The chemistry journals have been squeezing epic amounts of cash out of people for so long my sympathy is limited, but at the same time I agree that this could have a very serious and negative outcome for EU-based chemistry in particular. This is going to get messy.

  5. Hypnos says:

    Some commercial publishers generate huge profits based on a limited contribution to the overall scientific publication process. In efficient markets, that should not be possible for an extended period of time (e.g. due to the entry of new competitors). If markets are inefficient and not working as they should, one has to think about regulation. At the very least, the EU has now the attention of the publishing industry and can make a point about some of the existing inefficiencies.

    1. Anonymous says:

      “Some commercial publishers generate huge profits based on a limited contribution to the overall scientific publication process.” – I don’t know the printing biz, but some journals and books used to be (still are?) printed (hardcopy) cheaply by photo offset lithography and they required the submission of camera-ready manuscripts (e.g., Tet Lett). Just collate the accepted mss; send the stack to the printer who adds the header (journal info) and footer (pagination) and a cover, and, voila, it’s done. For years, it’s been all digital so that even typeset journals are highly automated.

      I know someone who chaired a conference (~1988) (on photo electron transfer) and put together, edited, and multi-indexed (comprehensive author, subject, chemical indices; well, a bunch of students did the indexing) a three-volume, >2000 page product. Camera-ready copy went to the publisher which published it and listed it at ~$600 per volume (~1989). The academic editor was outraged. The publisher did not pay for any of the work that went into the preparation (which was subsidized on their regular academic salaries and stipends paid by other agencies). It took a lot of effort, but he got them to lower the price by almost half. (Reminds me of Sanofi’s opening price of $100k for Zaltrap. After the outrage, they cut the price in half.)

      I know another guy who wrote a chapter for an important, well-known and widely distributed chemistry series. He posted his royalty check on his bulletin board: 10 cents.

  6. Anon says:

    HHMI is throwing around a similar proposal to create a new open access journal. They are throwing around the idea of mandating all HHMI fellows be required to publish solely in that open access journal as a way to get it into the mainstream. Interesting to see what would happen in that scenario!

  7. Anon says:

    This has to be done, and it has to be done as soon as possible. Sure, banning non-open access journals will have short-term drawbacks, but it will force them to adapt and stop making profits out of the scientists work.

    The actual model (which has existed for decades btw) is far from being fair, we all know that.

    1. Curt F. says:

      This is a common critique of publishing, but I don’t get it. How are “excess” profits related to open-access? It’s possible to have an open access journal that costs lots to publish in (e.g. Nature Communications). And it’s possible to have a closed-access journal whose fees are quite reasonable (e.g. JASMS). Open-access might be good (I generally think so), or it might not, but the argument that some people somewhere have an unsavory business model (which may or may not involve OA), therefore we need to mandate OA, well, that hasn’t made much sense to me.

      1. Ian Malone says:

        The argument is that publicly funded work should be available to the public. It’s hard to argue with that when there aren’t issues of national security involved and the only barrier is that a private company is reselling it. Charitable funding doesn’t have quite that justification, but the sentiment is the same.

        1. Isidore says:

          Publicly funded work available to the public does not, in my humble opinion, necessarily imply that it hast to be available for free. Even FOIA requests carry a fee. Open access journals transfer the burden of payment from the individual to the authors and since the authors are most likely be paying from grant (i.e. public) money rather than from personal funds, access to such publications by the public is not actually free. It is certainly arguable that many journal subscriptions or fees for single reprints are unreasonably high, but at what price does one draw the line? Would the clamor for open access publishing be significantly diminished if the price for, say, annual subscription to Science or JACS cost $10-15? In other words, is this a matter of principle (“publicly funded research should be available to the public at no extra charge”) or a matter of cost?

          1. CET says:

            It’s both. But the degree of the problem is roughly proportional to the cost.

            If the ACS charged 100 per year for an institutional subscription to their core journals, it’s not ideal but it’s not bad enough to justify more than a shrug.

            Since the actual cost of the ACS core package to a small college is closer to 40k per year, and your program’s accreditation depends on maintaining those subscriptions….it’s a problem.

      2. In short, if authors choose journals and readers pay, there is no competition on price, as payers don’t choose. If authors both choose and pay, journals start competing on price.

      3. And partial open access won’t do: for costs to decrease you need to be able to cancel subscriptions. Hence the need for radical moves such as Plan S.

  8. Curt F. says:

    I am still wondering why the funding agencies need to impose policies about interactions with third-party publishers at all. (The first party being the funding agency and the second party being funded researchers.) Is funders want open science, why don’t they just require that all funded researchers disclose all generated data in an annual report that gets posted on the funding agency’s web site?

    1. Curt F. says:

      I also wonder why universities don’t publish journals. They publish books, after all. (e.g. Yale University Press) They also have those nifty mottoes about truth (Lux et Veritas) which would lead one to believe that disseminating some veritas would be a core part of their mission. But they don’t seem interested in it.

      1. Curt F. says:

        I tentatively infer that neither side — not funders and not universities — wants to roll up their sleeves and review, edit, and publish academic journal articles? Implicitly, both funders and fundees seem to agree on the need for some kind of third-party agent to do the publishing. Why is that? Until that’s answered, I’m not confident that any new policy or mandate will ultimately accomplish much. I’m not necessarily a fan of the status quo, but I don’t see any clear vision of where things should be going.

        1. eub says:

          That’s an interesting point. Let’s see.

          For researchers, journals are a source of reputation. They serve because they are seen as having some non-zero credibility and fairness in the review process. If journals were done by universities, people publishing in their house organ would gain no reputation, so there’s no point. You could publish in some other university’s journal. They don’t get much concretely for running a journal, but neither do paper reviewers for reviewing. So maybe this could fly. Examples of journals like this now?

          Journals are also a source of reputation to the funders, though it’s less critical. Funding research that gets published in a good journal is a feather in your cap. Acceptance in the funder’s house journal again is not the same. The funder surely does their own internal evaluation of what a grant delivers, but if program heads are reviewing their own programs, there’s going to be puffery.

          That’s all about the review. The actual editing and publishing, meh.

      2. sgcox says:

        Oxford University Press ?

    2. Stephen Brookshire says:

      Disclosing all generated data would be great, however there are already certain ‘markets’ for this (arXiv, bioaRxiv, etc). I think one of the reasons they aren’t utilized more is that some journals have a policy that if the data/results are disclosed previously then they won’t accept them. I.e. if you put it in an annual report or on arXiv, they will automatically reject your manuscript.

  9. MoMo says:

    Funny, not HaHa funny, but Incredulous and Suspicious funny that 25% of the signatory scientists are from the Netherlands, home of the 800-pound publishing Monkey-King known as Elsevier.

    1. Viking from the North says:

      Nah, quite many of us from Sweden as well and we are without a major national publishing house (although we regret Wiley snatching Acta Chimica Scandinavica). We are more concerned about EU bureaucrats without any knowledge in Science telling us scientists what to do. Isn’t it enough that we are already dancing around their ERC/Horizon 2020 pipe, trying to fit our research into a stringent political agenda already? Do we also need to publish in a newly founded journal called: Chemistry-An Open European Toilet Paper?

  10. Isidore says:

    As people know there are quite a few non-peer reviewed journals out there that publish contributions of authors without the requirement that the data not be published already. They do not charge authors to publish and they are always available at no charge, even the printed copies often and certainly the online issues always. I am wondering if the EU directive would be met if authors published their results in whatever journal they pleased and additionally they sent them in one of these non-peer reviewed journals.

  11. Mark says:

    We, the scientists, have made this silly situation. We’ve made it by our approach to recruitment – by creating a system in which we judge someone by how many Nature papers they have. The consequence is that everyone is under tremendous life-pressure to disseminate their science in Nature – and thus Nature can be as expensive and awkward as it likes. The same goes for other top-end journals.
    No one wants to deprive the publishers of their income stream, but since they’re charging more than ever before, and doing less than ever before, it’d be sort-of nice if they could make the tiniest concession to their customers rather than treating us as naïve cash-cows. I suspect the point of this plan is to tell the publishers that enough is enough: their ethics have been reprehensible, their attitude shows contempt to public funding and to scientists, and their sense of entitlement is outrageous. If they want to continue in business, they need to be a bit more realistic with their business model.

  12. David Edwards says:

    @MoMo … you might be amused by this little affair in Sweden over Elsevier’s attempts to strangle a Swedish ISP. If you don’t mind the hideous noise of a 1990s dial up modem blasting through your computer’s speakers, this is the Swedish ISP’s response to Elsevier’s strong-arm tactics. Enjoy.

    Incidentally, there’s a growing movement among certain academics, to refuse to perform peer review unless the resulting paper is open access. Not least because it’s costing them, and their institutions, a small fortune in fees to have access to material … some of the nastier publishers even charge the authors of papers for access to their own work.

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