Leaked: EU member states set out to reform scientific publishing

28 Feb 2023 | News

Draft EU Council statement says high processing fees charged to authors are a growing problem as scientific publishing edges towards a free-to-read model. Member states want to ensure fairness and sustainability

Photo: European Union

EU countries want to ensure the scientific publishing industry is fair and sustainable as it moves towards open access models, according to the first draft of council conclusions seen by Science|Business.

EU governments are working on a joint statement on the future of open access publishing, to be adopted under the current six-month Swedish presidency of the Council of member states. The conclusions are calling for immediate and unrestricted open access publishing to be “the default mode in publishing, with no fees for authors.”

The EU has been pushing open access policy for years through various initiatives and political statements, and it’s made a lot of headway. In 2018, a group of major research funding and performing organisations banded together under the EU’s “Plan S” publishing initiative. Since then, many science funders and organisations have adopted policies encouraging researchers to publish their work in paywall-free journals, allowing results to reach more readers.

And it's becoming a global trend. Last summer, the US made a major move towards open access, with the White House ordering an end to publishers putting most federally funded research behind paywalls.

The upcoming EU ministers’ position paper will build on the existing frameworks, seeking to ensure fairness and openness in scholarly publishing. The Swedes presented the first draft last week, reportedly garnering broad support from other EU member states. Many are looking to further boost the ambition in the final iteration of the conclusions. “The text will be beefed up with the different elements,” a source said. The current draft, another source added, “says a lot but shies away from using concrete terms.”

Some open access publishers welcome the member states' take on the issue but want to see more details on how  funders will ensure there's enough financing to run open access journals. Stephan Kuster, head of public affairs at Frontiers, says what is missing is sustainable support for open access publishing, with much of the money in the industry still tied up in journals that charge subscription fees.

“The Council goes a long way in acknowledging the problem but falls short of the obvious conclusion that this cost explosion is a legacy of the old subscription-based system. The oligopoly of the big five publishers has stifled competition,” says Kuster. “Over time, institutional funding has been ringfenced into big subscription budgets and small open access budgets. That ringfence should be removed.”  Frontiers wants to see demand-led models, which would allow researchers to choose what kind of journal they want to publish their work in. More often than not, Kuster notes, scientists tend to lean towards open access journals if given the choice. 

The fee problem

The big problem with open access publishing is that it’s expensive. Science is a big business, with more than $2 trillion spent on R&D each year, according to UNESCO, making the business of publishing research results a big cash cow.

Traditionally, researchers submitted the results of their research to publishers which organise peer review and, if accepted, make it available to readers with a subscription fee. But with the push for open access, subscription fees are disappearing and publishers are looking for other ways to fill the revenue gap and now charge authors article processing charges (APCs), which can come to several thousands of euros per article.

This is costing science funders a lot of money. A recent study by the French government showed the country’s spending on open access has tripled in the last decade, to €30 million a year in 2020, as more and more researchers choose the ‘gold’ open access publishing model, under which a researcher is charged a fee to have their work published in an open access journal. The fees are paid from public funds used to fund the research, shifting the financial burden away from readers and onto the authors.

In a recent report hitting out at the rising fees, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA) said publishers made around $2 billion per year from APCs.

And with high-impact journals charging significant fees, there’s a risk it will create inequity in who can afford to publish where. “It is essential to avoid situations where researchers are limited in their choice of publication channels due to financial capacities rather than quality criteria, and where they, as well as the broader public, are prevented from accessing research publications by paywalls,” the conclusions say.

The member states’ conclusions make it clear this funding model is unsustainable, as they look to lift the requirement for authors to pay fees. The ultimate goal is a ‘diamond’ open access model, where neither readers not authors are charged fees, although the current draft text contains no explicit mention of it. This is likely to change in the next draft conclusions, insiders say.

This doesn’t mean governments are going after for-profit publishers. They want to maintain a mix of for-profit and not-for-profit publishers, ensuring sustainability and affordability. And some member states are cautious about the push for ‘diamond’ access: they don’t want open science to put too much strain public finances if the private publishers are not in the open access game anymore.

Right now, it’s about playing catch up with the industry. “The policy is not catching up with the business models of dominant publishers,” a source told Science|Business. “They have adapted to the policy goal of achieving diamond open access, but this goal of having wider openness of all the publications is beginning to cost too much.”

How far to go

For some the current conclusions don’t go far enough to crack down on current gaps in the system.

One big question is what happens to all the research that’s already behind a paywall, with the rights held by publishers.

There are also calls among member states to make an explicit reference to ‘predatory’ publishers in the conclusions. This refers to publishers who take advantage of scientists’ over-reliance on publication metrics to further their careers. They’ll charge extortionate fees to simply put whatever paper is submitted to them on their open access platform, without ensuring quality.

And then there’s the question of how it all fits in with the rest of the EU framework. Open access is already a big pillar of the European Research Area (ERA) and its Forum, where member states, Commission and research stakeholders meet to discuss policy.

For one, open access publishing is closely linked to EU ambition to reform how research is assessed. There’s a push to move away from quantitative metrics measuring research and researchers’ excellence towards more holistic measures, taking into account societal impact and other factors. This goes hand in hand with open access policy, which ultimately aims to create more impact by opening up the science to a broader variety of scientists and stakeholders. But the link isn’t made explicit in the draft council conclusions.

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