Big funders back plan for instant free access to journals, but researchers say it is risky for science

06 Nov 2018 | News

Wellcome Trust and Gates Foundation announce backing for EU’s Plan-S, requiring journal papers to be free to read on day of publication. But 600 chemists say this is going too far

Microsoft founder Bill Gates and EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas. Photo: European Commission

Two of the world’s largest medical research funders, the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have added their names to a bold plan to make research papers free to read on the day of publication, adding considerable heft to the Plan-S initiative to pull down journal paywalls.

The plan has already received backing from 13 other funders, including national agencies in France, the Netherlands and the UK, since its launch in September, bringing cheer to Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s open science envoy and creator of Plan-S.

“I feel we’re now approaching a tipping point on open access; getting Wellcome and Gates on board is a huge deal,” he told Science|Business.

But the plan still has to overcome a host of obstacles, not least the scepticism of some established scientists.

Over 600 chemists this week released a letter condemning Plan-S because it “goes too far, is unfair for the scientists involved and is too risky for science in general.”

Meanwhile, the plan is unpopular with publishers who have urged “caution”. Elsevier, the world’s biggest science publisher, said, "It is vital that researchers have the freedom to publish in the publication outlet of their choice."

That comment, and the letter from scientists, underscore probably the biggest barrier to open access: in the current system, scientists are judged by where they have published when they compete for jobs, promotions, tenure and grant money.

Grant holders subject to Plan-S would be banned from publishing in hundreds of journals, including influential titles such as Nature, Science and The Lancet, unless those journals flip their business model. Publishing in these high impact journals remains the main measure of the quality of individual researchers or their work. It is also a route preferred by the big publishers running big media relations departments.

Signatories to the letter, including two Nobel laureates, Ben Feringa and Arieh Warshel, say the ban on so-called hybrid journals envisaged by Plan-S is “a big problem, especially for chemistry”, as it would prevent scientists from publishing in journals that are important for their career progression.

“I expected resistance because Plan-S is a radical plan,” said Smits. “People have been publishing in subscription journals for ages and they are obsessed with journal metrics.”

In response to the 600 signatories of the letter, Smits says the ball is in their court. They should get involved in adapting and pushing for change to an outdated model that drains the budgets of university libraries and shuts out people who cannot afford hefty subscriptions, he argues. 

“One thing I was quite disappointed by – although these scientists are extending the frontiers of knowledge, when it comes to publishing, they still embrace the traditional subscription based model and, with this, the journal impact factor instead of going for full open access and developing new metrics,” Smits said.

“It’s not just what Plan-S can do for you, but what you can do for Plan-S.”

Funders move in line with Plan-S

Plan-S says that following a transition period, “that should be as short as possible”, scientists would be barred from publishing in hybrid journals, which charge a subscription but make some articles free to use online.

Wellcome, which funds $1.3 billion of biomedical research per year, said it will follow the spirit of Plan-S, continuing to fund research appearing in hybrid publications until 2022, but only if the journal has a "transformative open access agreement" in place to knock down its paywall.

Wellcome and the Gates Foundation, with its $1.5 billion annual budget, said they will stop covering the fees charged by hybrid open access journals in their grant awards, as of 1 January 2020.

Wellcome will bring itself in line with the Gates Foundation by also requiring grantees to publish under the Creative Commons attribution licence, to facilitate reuse of the content.

Whereas previously Wellcome permitted a delay of up to six months after publication, in future, work it funds will have to be made freely available on the day it is published.

If researchers want to publish Wellcome-funded research in a pay-walled journal in the future, they must simultaneously archive their work to the open repositories PubMed Central or Europe PMC. Many top journals do not allow this until at least six months after publication.

“Wellcome Trust says they will insist you publish in open access. If you find money behind the sofa that you want to use to pay for publishing your article also in a subscription journal, go ahead. But is a researcher likely to pay thousands of euros from his or her pocket to do this?” Smits asked.

The Gates Foundation policy on open access is already broadly in line with Plan-S principles. Since 2017, the foundation has required papers generated with its funding to be free to read immediately on publication.

Looking for more recruits

Smits says that he has booked meetings to promote Plan-S in India, Canada, South Africa and the US, and is still pushing strongly to garner support in Germany, Switzerland and Belgium.

“The Germans and Swiss also push for open access – we go, however, a little further and say that therefore you can only publish in open access journals or on open access platforms. It’s a small nuance, but we’re clearly going in a similar direction,” he said.

A game of chess with publishers 

A task force led by John-Arne Røttingen, head of the Research Council of Norway, and David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England, will flesh out Plan-S principles in a draft plan by the end of the month.

Its members are consulting widely – with figures including Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project and the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Bianca Kramer, a librarian for life sciences and medicine at Utrecht Library.

“It won’t be a 300 page document,” said Smits, of the implementation plan. “We don’t want to impose a straitjacket.”

Under Plan-S, as with other open access initiatives, article processing charges, will be met by funders or universities, rather than authors. The plan also promises to cap these charges (the task force is trying to figure out what charge would be reasonable). 

Charges should be more closely linked to the services journals provide, Smits said. “If you run a journal in the biomedical field and you have to insert complex bio-imaging material into the article, it’s understandably going to be expensive.”

The task force is wary of coming out with a plan that journals can sidestep, said Smits.

“We need to think out the consequences of Plan-S. It’s a game of chess. We need to think three steps ahead. No one saw the hybrid journals coming, for instance,” he said.

A new model being scrutinised by the group is the ‘mirror journal’, where one half is the already-existing subscription or hybrid journal, and the other half is a new fully-open access version of the same title.

“It’s a clever way of approaching the issue – cutting hybrid in two, putting a ribbon around the OA part, and calling it a new and fully open access journal. I’m not saying I’m for or against it, but we need to look into it carefully, because we don’t want to be taken for a ride,” Smits said.

In the meantime, “I still wait and hope for the first big publisher to go full open access,” he added.

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