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Scientists slam closed-access publication model as EU open access plan gathers steam

What unites a Venezuelan computer scientist, a Swiss engineer, an Israeli professor and a American ‘mad scientist’? The open access movement, of course.

In September, twelve European nations and two charities announced their intention to make all science research they fund open access by 2020; the result of ‘Plan S’, forged by the EU Ministers of science and innovation in 2016.

That consortium, known as ‘cOAlition S‘, has since gained traction. Nearly 2,000 (and counting) proponents, including the abovementioned ones, have signed a petition in support of it.

In the petition, posted on UC Berkeley biologist and open-access advocate Michael Eisen’s blog, they condemned the current, largely paywalled model as “inequitable”. “[It] impedes progress in our fields, and denies the public the full benefit of our work,” the petition reads.

“Funders are uniquely positioned to transform scholarly publishing by changing the explicit and implicit rules under which we all operate.

“We understand that effective scholarly communication costs money, and support substantial investment in this endeavour, but only if it allows everyone to freely access and use the scholarly literature.”

Implicit in this reasoning is the notion that researchers have much to gain, and seemingly nothing to lose, in their work being publicly accessible. The more people that read it, the greater the chances of it being cited, and therefore, potentially more prestige and career opportunities are afforded to them. Essentially, open access publication provides free exposure for researchers.

The signatories’ rationale for promoting open access research, however, mirrors that of cOAlition S, which makes its case on the basis of universality. “Only results that can be discussed, challenged, and, where appropriate, tested and reproduced by others qualify as scientific,” it provides on its website.

“Publication paywalls are withholding a substantial amount of research results from a large fraction of the scientific community and from society as a whole. This constitutes an absolute anomaly, which hinders the scientific enterprise in its very foundations…”

The coalition cites Robert Merton, the ‘father of American sociology’ and an early open access proponent, in delivering its message. “The institutional conception of science as part of the public domain is linked with the imperative for communication of findings. Secrecy is the antithesis of this norm; full and open communication its enactment,” Merton wrote in 1942.

If implemented, the Plan, available for public comment until 1 February 2019, will prohibit articles from being published in around 85 per cent of journals. This includes some of the most prestigious ones like Science and Nature, which have unsurprisingly opposed it.

Also resisting the plan are some researchers. An open letter, signed by 1514 people and circulated by Lynn Kamerlin, a biochemist at Uppsala University in Sweden, suggests that Plan S is too restrictive for researchers. It also raises questions about some of the Plan’s intricacies, including the apparent prohibition on publishing in ‘hybrid’ (only partially open access) journals.

Plan drafters subsequently indicated that the publication of articles in hybrid journals is fine, so long as the articles are also made immediately freely available.

Nonetheless, it appears that voices like Kamerlin’s are increasingly isolated: unlike the nations of cOAlition S (the UK, the Netherlands, France, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Luxembourg, Italy, Northern Ireland and Finland), Australia (via the ARC and the NHMRC) has already mandated that all of its nationally funded scientific research is open-access. Indeed, Australia exceeds the principles of Plan S by encouraging scientists who receive government funding to share the data upon which their research is based. Given the vagueness of Plan S, however, an NHMRC spokesperson told Campus Review it “will be considering its position…in the new year”, to ensure “researchers and their institutions are well taken care of”.

Meanwhile, the US goes further than Australia. From 2013, the largest Western publisher of scientific research required large federal agencies to make the research (and research data) they fund open access.

Surpassing the US is China, which leads the world in scientific publishing, volume-wise. The NSFC and CAS, two of its largest science research funders, held open access policies from 2014.

Altruism aside, countries may have a practical reason for releasing their research publicly. Sites like Sci-Hub and Library Genesis have been illegally publishing journal articles and books for years. So, for governments, it could also be a matter of playing catch-up.

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