Could Plan S be a turning point for global Open Science? Interview with Robert-Jan Smits

Following the launch of Plan ‘S’ — a radical initiative to ensure that all scientific publications resulting from publicly funded research are made freely available — we spoke to Robert-Jan Smits, Open Access Envoy of the European Commission, who’s spearheading the Plan’s development.

Robert-Jan Smits, Open Access Envoy of the European Commission.

The launch of ‘Plan S’ – an ambitious initiative for Open Access publishing – aims to transform the landscape of scientific publishing by ensuring that from 1 January 2020, all scientific publications on the results of publicly funded research must be immediately available in Open Access.

Since its launch in September 2018, the Plan has been endorsed by a number of European funding institutions, and received statements of support worldwide, including from the National Science Library of China and the African Academy of Sciences. However, the Plan has also generated lively debate within and outside the Open Access movement, raising questions about academic freedom to choose where to publish – and under what licence. For the publishers of paywalled content, Plan S represents a radical challenge to existing business models. Beyond the the major multinational publishing houses, the Plan could also affect some scientific learned societies who depend on revenue from hybrid journal publications to fund their activities.

As a public consultation on the implementation of Plan S continues, we kick off a short series of blogs on the global implications of the Plan with an interview with Robert-Jan Smits, Open Access Envoy of the European Commission.

To get us started, could you tell us – in a nutshell – why Open Access matters to you?

The basic principle is that the results of publicly funded research should not be locked behind expensive paywalls which only the happy few can access: the results of publicly funded research should be available to the public at large, and immediately, at a fair price. It’s about democratizing access, and that means shifting to a completely new business model.

In Africa they say it’s a human right to have access to knowledge, and that means Open Access: no-one should be left behind. The Africans I’ve met while talking about Open Access have made a very clear case that if they want to build up the knowledge base in Africa, the first thing needed is access to knowledge. At the moment that knowledge is locked behind expensive paywalls that their academic libraries can’t always afford. That gives the whole debate about Open Access a new dimension: as way to help build the knowledge economy in developing countries.

Others look at Open Access from the angle of the public purse. At the moment the public purse pays three times: First of all, we pay for the research done by universities; secondly, we pay the salaries of the professors who do peer reviews of scientific articles for free, and thirdly, we give money to university libraries to pay for expensive subscription fees. We pay three times and the money ends up in the pockets of the shareholders of big publishing houses. A couple of multinational publishing houses make on some journals profits in the order of 30% – 40%, of which Apple, Amazon and Google can only dream. Another angle on Open Access is of a moral nature – public money is not supposed to lead to big profits for a few companies off the backs of the taxpayers.

The issue of Open Access is largely discussed in terms of its importance for scientific researchers and publishers. Do you think it can have relevance to the wider public – people who are not necessarily accessing scientific articles? Why should it matter more widely?

I’ve sometimes heard people question why the layperson should have access to scientific knowledge that they can’t understand. I don’t think that’s fair: we’ve all been in situations where a family member has an illness – for example – and we start searching online to find out what’s going on and immediately come up against the paywalls.

We live in an age in which knowledge is shared and must be shared – we no longer live in the era of an academically trained elite that says they own the knowledge. The days of that kind of thinking are over.

Things seem to be moving quite fast on the initiative – it’s obviously something that draws on many years of work. Could you give us an insight into the background to Plan ‘S’ at the Commission?

Although the whole debate has accelerated over the last year, we should not forget that in academic circles and at the political level we’ve been talking about Open Access for 15 to 20 years. There were all kinds of declarations by the science community. In 2016 the 28 Science Ministers of the EU even got together and unanimously said they wanted full and immediate Open Access to be settled by 2020. But today only around 20-30% of journals are full and immediate Open Access – which means that, on average, 80% of the knowledge in scientific articles is still locked behind paywalls. We have not made any progress since the discussions 25 years ago or since the statement made by Ministers in 2016.

That’s why I got this assignment: To try to come up with a robust plan to accelerate the transition to full immediate Open Access. The momentum was there because the relations between the publishers and the academic community had deteriorated and the big deal negotiations had collapsed in Germany*, France, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands and an enormous mistrust had emerged.

The climate was there for a radical plan to change things for once and all. ‘Plan S’ has a very simple rule: in future, if you get a grant from any member of cOAlition S or the other funders who have signed up, you can only publish in high-quality Open Access journals or on high-quality Open Access platforms. You cannot publish behind paywalls.

That has led to an enormous debate at world level, which I never expected. On the day we published the Plan it got 70,000 tweets, and 120,000 the following day. We were able to build the coalition of funders in Europe quite quickly. Soon after this, we were joined by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and by the Wellcome Trust. China recently expressed its support and we now have the first African countries signing up.

Originally the big publishers told me that Europe only produces a limited percentage of the world’s science and that their new market was China, which would never support Open Access. Now China is going Open Access! The more countries join, the greater the pressure on the big publishers to flip their journals to Open Access. The only way to change the system is to really go global.

There’s perhaps a difference between me and some other Open Access supporters – many people in the movement say they don’t need big publishers anymore as they can create their own platforms and journals instead. But I want the change to be all-inclusive, including the big publishers with their so-called prestigious journals.

What are the main sticking points for funders that have not yet supported the Plan? What do they have questions about?

There are different reasons why certain funders have not yet come on board. First of all, it’s due to not knowing enough about Plan S and its details. Several funders told us they want to understand more about Plan S before they can take a decision, which is a fair point. That’s why we published implementation guidance on Plan S on 26th November.

Then there’s a small percentage of funders who take a completely hands-off approach and let scientists do whatever they want when comes to publishing. This sounds nice but will of course not accelerate the transition to full and immediate Open Access.

What will happen once the deadline for providing feedback on the Plan S guidance – 1 February 2019 – has passed? Will there be another iteration of the guidelines?

At the moment cOAlition S has 3 priorities; the first is to continue the acquisition of new members. We’re in touch with India, Brazil, Canada, Argentina and South Africa to get more funders from these countries on board. The second priority is to keep discussing with the science community — and notably young scientists — so that they understand what it’s all about and why we’re doing it. And following the consultation the third priority will be updating the implementation plan. I want it to be crystal clear what the implementation of Plan S means and what it does not mean, for instance regarding the role of repositories and diamond or platinum Open Access — to use these old-fashioned terms (which by the way I normally don’t use anymore) — so that we are very clear about all the details. There will be a new version of the guidance and then we can go on to implementation beyond 2020.

So the new version will come out during 2019?

Absolutely – we end the consultation on 1st of February and then we’re going to digest the hundreds of contributions, which will take a couple of months, and then we should be ready towards late spring. Then it’ll be for each funder to implement the guidelines. It will not be a straitjacket – each funder has a different way of implementing Plan S and the ten principles and that’s fine, as long as people understand what we would like to achieve at the end.

Will the updated guidelines clarify the situation with regards to Article Processing Charges (APCs)? Will they set a cap or will that happen further down the line?

The cap is one of two things we’re looking into at the moment. I’ve always been a big advocate of a cap to stabilise the market and to avoid outrageous APCs. We decided for the time-being to follow the Wellcome Trust model which talks about ‘reasonable’ APCs. That means where there is an APC – don’t forget most Open Access journals work without APCs – we’ll have a reasonable amount. We want to go to a system based on the services – type-setting, layout, formatting, and peer review and so on – which are being provided, and identify a maximum or fair amount for each service. That will be specified in the implementation guidance.

The second thing we’re looking at is where scientists feel that there is no good Open Access journal for their community. We will carry out a gap analysis, and if we identify gaps, we will then give incentives to create good Open Access journals or good Open Access platforms.

In some sectors where high-impact journals are published by learned societies, they insist that they need to have charges in order to fund their other activities. What would be your message to them?

The overall majority of the learned societies run Open Access journals. There are, however, ones who have hybrid journals and we’re talking with them to see how we can help them to flip their journals to Open Access.

There are also a couple of big societies who run extremely expensive subscription journals and they’re not keen to change because it’s a money maker. They are not keen to flip their journals into Open Access; that is their responsibility, as long as they know that the members of cOAlition S will no longer allow people to publish in their journals. It’s very simple.

What would your message be to individual scientists who would like to publish in those [paywalled] journals?

My message would be: share the results of your research with as many as possible so that your peers can build on your achievements and you on theirs. Therefore, don’t lock the results of your work behind paywalls, but embrace Open Access.

You hear the argument that the Plan S will make it difficult for scientists from developing countries or from smaller universities to publish. What is your reaction to this?

First of all, these countries often don’t have access to any information at the moment because it’s behind paywalls, so the current system is worse for them than anything else. Then there’s still the issue of whether going from a pay-to-read to a pay-to-publish system will still allow scientists from less developed countries to publish. Plan S is clear: there’s enough money in the system to allow these scientists to publish at reduced fees or to completely waive the fees for publication. The only problem is that the money is in the wrong place at the moment.

Are you hopeful that eventually there will be sufficient pressure for all the journals to flip?

That’s what I hope: I’ve talked to big and small publishers, to learned societies, to Open Access journals. I have talked to everyone who wants to meet with me because I want the transition to be an all-inclusive process. However as cOAlition S we are not giving in: We want to stick to the principle that the results of publicly funded research should be available to everyone at a fair price and not behind paywalls. We are very much aware that we’re talking about a global market of about 12 to 15 billion dollars per year and that there are huge vested interests, notably of multinational companies that make a lot of profits with their journals and are not keen to see the system change.

What else is needed to make Plan S a success?

If we want Plan S to succeed there is another element that is important, and that’s to get rid of the obsession with the journal impact factor and change the way things are done in the academic world. We’ve all signed up to the DORA (Research Assessment) Declaration and the Leiden Manifesto for research metrics and said that we are not going to look at journal impact factor anymore, but it’s still there. Academic organizations really have to be serious about recruiting and rewarding people on the basis of other metrics, and certainly not on where they publish but on what they publish.

So you see that it’s not just about Plan S, it’s about open science, it’s about new metrics, new reward systems and a new way for our universities and academic systems to work.


*Since this interview was recorded, a consortium of German libraries, universities and research institutes under the name ‘Project DEAL’ announced a new agreement with academic publisher Wiley that will allow scientists at more than 700 institutions to publish Open Access in all of Wiley’s journals. For more information see Groundbreaking deal makes large number of German studies free to public, Science, 15 January 2019.

Share: