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Early-career researchers respond to Plan S: Interview with Sabina Leonelli of the Global Young Academy

When Plan S was launched in September 2018, concerns were immediately raised about the prospects for young and early-career researchers, who depend on publication records for future career development.

We heard from Sabina Leonelli, Professor of Philosophy and History of Science at the University of Exeter, UK, and one of the co-authors of the Global Young Academy’s Statement on Opportunities and Challenges for Implementing PLAN S.

The GYA Statement sets out two very different scenarios for a post-Plan S future: one negative scenario, in which researchers and disciplines with limited funding are marginalised, while a few publishers increase their market share; and one positive, in which high-quality diamond Open Access journals flourish, and publishers essentially exist to provide services to scholars, who agree which journals to fund. Following the publication of the implementation guidelines, where does Plan S now stand on the spectrum between these two extremes? What are the priorities for clarification?

Progress has been made: There is greater recognition that Article Processing Charges (APCs) will need to be capped, there’s more sensitivity to the diversity of outputs in research, and there’s a clear recognition that monographs need to be considered separately. At the same time, the scenarios we proposed still hold. There are still big questions to ask around the business model behind Plan S and which players will support it.

We’re happy that the Plan has built momentum towards open access (OA) around the world, but at the same time, we’re concerned that the option of subsidising the move to OA through author fees is still on the table. That doesn’t challenge the existing business model in the publishing industry, and is unsustainable. It could negatively affect researchers who are not in very fashionable fields, or are in geographical or institutional locations that don’t attract much funding, or operate without need for external funding (as many of my colleagues in philosophy). Creating barriers to who can afford to publish is just as unfair as closing publications to readers.

We’d like to see a move towards a system which is free for authors and readers, but where the institutions who are producing and consuming the research are made to support and pay for the system. We recognize that there are costs associated with high-quality publishing, and there have been interesting experiments in thinking differently about how to subsidise those costs. We’d like to see an even more decisive move from the architects of Plan S.

In drafting the statement, what concerns did you hear specifically from young researchers?

The main concern continues to be that if we are going towards an ‘author pays’ system, a very large number of people will be excluded from the research publishing world. Many of our members come from countries with low research subsidies, but we also have representatives from disciplines including the humanities and the qualitative social sciences, which are not the most well-funded (often because carrying out research in those areas doesn’t require a lot of funding). Holding those disciplines hostage to a system where people can only publish if they have external funding will irreparably damage the research landscape and create even more inequalities between countries, between institutions and between disciplines. That’s a huge concern.

Have young scientists been sufficiently consulted?

In the last few months we’ve had constructive conversations with the actors behind Plan S, and it’s been great to see the wide consultation bringing more stakeholders to the table. They’re probably completely overwhelmed by evidence now, so there will be choices to be made about which of these very discordant voices they’re going to listen to.

From the young researcher’s perspective, our argument is to say that organizations like ours represent individuals and groups at the cutting-edge of their fields, who are going to be very active for the next twenty years or so. In many ways, we’re the target audience and the target user of Plan S, so it would be good to pay particular attention to what young researchers think.

Do you think Plan S will be easy to implement? Is there a need for more guidance, or greater recognition of its implications for the workload of individual researchers?

Implementation will be very difficult. First of all, we have to zero in on a business model for sustainable open access, by providing some funds for publication, but at the same time making sure those costs don’t fall on researchers. Systems like the one proposed by the Open Library of the Humanities are very good but they still have to be implemented on a wider scale. I am hoping that Plan S will make a stronger gesture towards support for that kind of initiative.

Secondly, I don’t think Plan S can be implemented without also implementing serious changes to the ways in which research institutions and funders assess scientific research: the two go hand-in-hand. The use of metrics such as journal impact factor and citation counts as the only indicators of research excellence is incompatible with trying to implement OA.

I’m a member of the Open Science Policy Platform and we’re working hard on indicators for open science. Work done on the alternatives to impact factor and citation counts indicates that the best possible alternative is to have qualitative indicators and assessment which is not based on numerical capturing. At the same time, we know it’s costly to implement and difficult for many institutions. There are some signs that evaluation systems may be changing, for instance the University of Ghent has started a new system for evaluating promotions and hires, but this is yet to happen systemically. But if we don’t change the research system in terms of evaluation and assessment, then it’s going to be extremely difficult to change the publishing incentives. That discussion needs to happen at the same time as the discussion on open access.

We’re concerned that if these tensions are not resolved, the people who suffer the most will be early-career researchers, who need certain kinds of publications to progress and don’t have the kind of reputation that would allow them to get their work recognized otherwise. We’re at a very delicate moment, particularly for people who are coming out of their PhDs and post-docs.

Plan S ‘strongly encourages’ open access to research data, but without going into much detail about how to do this. Are more specific guidelines needed?

Experts on open data have clearly recognised that as much as we’d like to have as much data as possible being openly shared, there are serious ethical and scientific concerns around which data should be shared, which data are most useful, which are less useful, and how we make those choices. In many situations you need case-by-case assessment of what data to share and what to not share. In that sense I think it would be difficult and misguided to add strict guidelines around open data to Plan S.

What probably could be done to help to create cultural change, would be to ask researchers who publish to explain their choices around what data they’re sharing, if any. Part of the cultural change we need is to get researchers to be more reflexive with regards to their data practices, and to be able to more clearly account for their choices. There are often very specific reasons behind why people to choose to curate or share data, or not to do so. It would be interesting to see Plan S take a stronger stand, whilst being agnostic on what the result should be. The researchers who are the experts on their own data should decide whether it’s possible to make them open and under which conditions.

There’s also a strong relationship with the evaluation system. At the moment, there is almost no recognition of activities such as data processing or data curation, which are crucial to making data open. As long as the evaluation system for science does not provide incentives, anybody who engages in these practices is automatically penalised. Open Data is even more fraught an issue than Open Access.

What do you think the next ten years will look like for open access, and what do you hope to see?

I hope to see all the efforts and thinking that have gone on in the last 10-20 years on open science come to fruition. I’d like to see that happen through a transformation of the publishing industry so that it more obviously becomes a service industry, serving the needs of any consumer of knowledge. Publishing is an important craft, requiring a set of important skills, but I would hope to see a change in the ways in which the system of publishing is financed so that it becomes possible, for instance, to pool resources that are now used for journal subscriptions to subsidise the whole of the system, making it free for researchers to submit to journals, and free for readers around the world to access research results. We keep hearing that there is enough money in the system for this to be possible; what’s needed is the will to make it happen. I’m hoping that we will see this realized in the next ten years.

When it comes to other aspects of open science, I think many changes will take longer than ten years. The question of Open Books – monographs – will take longer. In ten years’ time it would be great to see a diversity of options there. In the case of data, the greatest challenge is how to disseminate and store the data. Right now there are a lot of movements towards making data storage, curation and retrieval much easier and more affordable, but we’re at the beginning of that process. I think it will take longer than currently envisaged for the European Open Science Cloud to really work as intended. It’s probably the most important initiative ever taken to try and coordinate a federated system across Europe, no matter what discipline you’re from – but the process to put that in place really demonstrates how difficult that is. I’d love to see that working properly within ten years’ time.

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