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Plan ‘S’ must listen to the scientific and scholarly community: Interview with Luke Drury

As the Plan S initiative to open up scholarly publishing gains momentum, we speak to Luke Drury, lead author of the ALLEA (ALL European Academies) Response to the Plan.

‘Plan S’ – which aims to ensure that all scientific publications on the results of publicly funded research are made freely available by January 2020 – is gaining new supporters across the world. Whilst its authors are still working out the details of how the scientific publishing industry can make the transition to immediate Open Access – informed by an ongoing public consultation – the Plan has been welcomed in countries as diverse as India and Canada.

However, despite the urgency of moving towards a more effective system of scholarly publishing, funders backing Plan S must take the time to consult with and listen to the concerns of scientists, according to Luke Drury, ALLEA Board member and lead author of the ALLEA Response to Plan S. Luke spoke to us in a personal capacity.

To get us started, I wondered if you could tell us why Open Access matters to you and to ALLEA?

Open Access is a core underpinning of the universality of science – of all scholarly communication. What’s needed is an efficient free market for ideas, where people with interesting ideas can exchange those ideas, comment on them and be informed. That should be opened to everybody and be as easy to use, transparent and efficient as possible. Open Access is a means to that end. It also allows scientists from developing countries to participate on an equal footing with those from better-off countries. These are things we have to defend. The danger is that in pushing to implement Plan S we might actually compromise of some of those principles.

In what way?

There’s always a risk that if you run too fast you may fall over. I understand why cOAlition S want to set very ambitious time scales: this has been dragging on for years. But let’s not underestimate the difficulty of the task. It’s very important to bring the scientific and scholarly community with you, and that means having consultation, and bodies like the ISC should be involved because they speak on behalf of the scientific unions.

Could you give us an insight into preparing the ALLEA statement in reponse to Plan S – were there specific issues where it was difficult to find a consensus?

There was a pretty broad degree of consensus, but with different emphases. The biggest difference was around the question of intellectual property: the ALLEA Working Group on intellectual property, which has historically mainly looked at patent law, had a rather different view to the people coming from the digital humanities, for example, but we were able to find a compromise.

There was discussion on licence agreements, and whether one should use the CC by NC licence that says that you can publish under Creative Commons but bars commercial use, which could rule out valuable data-mining applications. A key principle is that information must be findable, and that means the full text has to be searchable and you have to be able to mine it, in my view. You cannot just say that data-mining can be done by academic researchers – if a commercial body wishes to build and make available a really valuable search tool, then we should not prevent them from doing that.

Could the Plan in fact be more radical?

I don’t think more radical, but there needs to be more clarity. The implementation guidelines are evolving and that’s important to note: this is a very rapidly moving field. I think that some of the specifications for compliant repositories, for example, are far too specific and narrow and I am quite sure those will be relaxed.

If I have one criticism of Plan S – and this reflects my experience and background as an astrophysicist – I think the role of preprint services like the arXiv is not sufficiently recognised in the current version. At the moment, the arXiv would not be compliant. That seems to be a very strange anomaly – historically you can argue that the move towards Open Access came from the success of the arXiv.

Could you tell me more?

We have a long tradition in astrophysics of using preprints as our primary mode of getting ideas out quickly. We used to do it on paper, then for the last 15 years or more this has all moved on to the electronic arXiv. Ninety per cent of the research in astrophysics appears first on that preprint server, and that’s where you go to find out what is happening. Subsequently, the preprints migrate into traditional journals and go to peer review. The other thing which is possibly unique to astrophysics is that NASA funds the astrophysics data system – a virtual library which gives you full data-mining capability to rapidly find any paper that’s relevant to a topic you are looking at, wherever it is, including on the arXiv. That’s really what we use as our library, and it’s an interesting model for other fields.

There are moves towards preprint servers modelled on the arXiv in other disciplines – chemistry has one now, and biology is experimenting with it. However, it’s relevant to note that theoretical physics and astrophysics, which are the traditional users of the arXiv, don’t have the same social problems that other disciplines have. If I personally post a paper as a preprint, it is not going to have much impact on people’s lives, but if I were researching cancer and I published a paper with a new cure for cancer, people would jump on the preprint before the research had been properly peer reviewed or evaluated. Part of the challenge is ensuring the trust-worthiness of scientific and scholarly communication.

It’s not just a matter of going towards more Open Access: there is a complicated interaction between the mode of publishing, research evaluation processes and career progression. If you’re on a panel evaluating 30 applications and everyone has sent in a CV with 100 papers, you can pay lip service to the DORA principles of research evaluating – which say you should look at the work and not where it is published – but the reality is you look at whether the candidate has published in what’s regarded as a high-quality journal or not. Getting away from that would make the transition much easier. That’s a major transformation and it’s necessary and good but it’s not easy.

Are there signs that the academic community is increasingly looking at factors other than Journal Impact Factor to evaluate researchers?

It is difficult, and I am very pleased that Plan S recognises this and makes reference to the DORA declaration. The problem is how to make it easy for organizations to adopt DORA – in some sense we do need a mechanism whereby the community of peers can say ‘this work is ok, this work is outstanding, this work is a real breakthrough, or, we have discovered problems with this piece of work and questions should be raised’.

We have to find some method of easily seeing what the community thinks – some kind of ongoing, community rating of research. That would make this whole process so much easier. It’s a bad analogy, but one could imagine an academic version of TripAdvisor.

Could digital publishing offer the possibility for more nuanced reviews?

There are interesting experiments with open, continuous peer review. By using online media rather than print media, retractions and corrections are actually much easier – we should regard the literature as more dynamic and not as static as the print paper model leads us to think.

These things can be done, but the challenge is that people will try to game the system. It would need to be well designed – this is a human problem and needs the fields of the human sciences and social sciences to solve it.

There could be a role for academies – they would actually be going back to their original function, which was to act as the gate-keeper for what is and what is not a real scholarly contribution. When you go back to the 18th century, the process of preparing the proceedings of academies was the mechanism for identifying and publishing valid research. The big change was in the late 20th century when a lot of learned societies and academies started outsourcing to commercial publishers. I think that was a mistake.

But many societies chose to outsource to improve efficiency and reduce costs

With online, collaborative tools, a lot of those arguments fall by the wayside. When you look at the exorbitant profits that some of the commercial publishers are making, it’s quite clear that they are not in it for the good of humanity or science, they are in it for profit. Obviously, it’s in their interest to maintain the integrity and quality of their journals but their primary motive is to make money out of the system.

In terms of next steps, what – in your opinion – should cOAlition S be doing from tomorrow to ensure that the Plan doesn’t have any unintended consequences, particularly in the short term?

A lot of it comes down to communication. There has to be more of an effort to explain to the scientific community exactly why cOAlition S is doing this. I think people would buy into that and accept it.

People are now beginning to engage with the topic and understand it, but there still needs to be a communication effort. I cannot speak for other countries, but in speaking to my colleagues in Ireland – where our major scientific funder is a member of cOAlition S – 90% have never heard of it. But I think everybody, in principle, supports Open Access. It is an easy enough sell – you just have to persuade people that there will not be short-term disadvantages.

You will have seen the opposition, particularly in the chemistry community, and a lot of that is justified anxiety on the part of early career researchers. We must be cognisant of the challenges for early career researchers, whose careers – at the moment – depend on their publication record. They are legitimately worried that they may not be able to demonstrate how good they are if they’re not able to publish in prestigious journals.

If Plan S is to succeed, it has to be a global movement. It cannot be confined to Europe, and it’s very promising that significant funders in North America and, in particular, China are now openly backing the Plan. There’s a momentum building behind it and I think there is a real chance that we could effect a global transformation, but then who speaks globally for science? The ISC has to be involved in this.

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