While attending the Canadian Science Policy Conference for CIC last fall, I was introduced to cOAlition S, a European-based open-access publishing initiative that is spearheading a project called Plan S. First launched in 2018, Plan S has been championed by the European Commission and the European Research Council as well as the World Health Organization and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Plan S has also been endorsed by the governments of China and India, two large countries that have become leading producers of scientific articles.
With such prominent support, then, what exactly is Plan S? In the simplest terms, it would demand open access for any publicly or privately funded research results. This requirement would begin in 2021, accompanied by 10 guiding 10 principles that include: allowing authors should keep the copyright on their publications; placing those publications under an open license; assigning publication costs to funding agencies or universities; and capping fees imposed by publishers.
These principles respond to problems that were created by our current pay-to-play system of scientific publishing. There are always going to be costs around the production and distribution of research results, but the larger question is whether those costs can be borne up-front — before publication — so that they do not become a barrier to anyone wanting to read the finished product.
Despite the enthusiasm for Plan S, it comes with its own set of challenges, such as how open access might be applied retroactively. Scientific publishing traces its roots to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in the 1600s, the starting point for a massive body of research that could ultimately become open and accessible. And while the large, highly profitable publishing consortia that retain the rights to much of this material may be able to afford this new approach, the same is not necessarily true for smaller, newer publishing firms.
That difficulty could be just one of several introduced by Plan S, according to the multinational journal giant Springer Nature. As one of the major consortia under attack from open access advocates, the company issued an open letter of responses to cOAlition S shortly after the CSPC took place in Ottawa. For its part, cOAlition S argued that a new class of “transformative” journals would pave the way for a broader form of open access within a few years.
Such journals would slowly increase the proportion of their articles that are open access every year, until all contents become open access by the end of 2024. At that point they would break down their pricing and their services, offering waivers and discounts to prevent any further publication barriers. Zenodo, an open access site that allows researchers to store their data openly for others to view it, published an analysis indicating that this strategy would in fact allow most existing journals could comply with the terms of Plan S.
The debate over Plan S also reminds me of one of the most intelligent yet idiotic lines I have ever read. “If you think information should be free of charge, go to Wikipedia”, said Tom Reller, Vice President of Elsevier, another one of those major scientific publishing consortia. His comment is intelligent since it reflects how Elsevier makes its money off the backs of researchers, which of course they would not want to change. Yet it is idiotic because only through the spread of information in a fair and open manner can more information be produced, which is also what Elsevier needs to make its money.
Reller’s remark also implies that publishers should be able to set a price on knowledge and the work produced by others, even though they may not understand the work itself or its benefits. On the other hand, perhaps they do understand the benefits of it, which is the justification for putting a price on it. If so, that would be the opposite stance of anyone purporting to assist the scientific community. Scientists and science itself benefit the most when we can debate, share, and communicate with others, be it our peers or the lay public.
Reller also conflates open access publications with the random assortment of questionable Web sources that are blamed for spreading misinformation and faulty science. Wikipedia should be prominent on that list, even through it does have checks and balances to regulate what is being published on the site, is completely publicly funded and publicly accountable, is completely open access, tries to improve their model and editing model, and more often than not is a reliable source thanks to an active community that is dedicated to producing images and other resources that anyone can use. This might not make Wikipedia better than scientific publications sitting behind a steep paywall, but it does mute the claim that “free” means “lesser”.
Above all, and regardless of how you may feel about Wikipedia, if Reller speaks for a system that regards it as unreasonable for information paid for by the public to become freely available to that same public, then the system making that judgement needs to change.