Plan S is a grand plan, but the devil is in the detail: Robin Crewe on Open Access in South Africa

The Europe-led ‘Plan S’ initiative for Open Access scientific publishing has been warmly received in South Africa, with the National Research Foundation expressing ‘in principle’ support. Yet South Africa already has compliant local solutions embedded within the research funding landscape, says Professor Robin Crewe.

Photo: Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash.
Lizzie Sayer

We sat down with Robin Crewe to find out more about the status of Open Access in South Africa, and to hear from him on how Plan S may affect researchers in South Africa – whether or not it is endorsed by national research funders.

Robin Crewe is Professor of Entomology at the University of Pretoria, where he is Senior Research Fellow and former Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship. He is Past-President of the Academy of Science of South Africa, and Past-Chair of the Network of African Science Academies.

How did you get involved with the Open Access debate and why does it matter to you?

I got involved in the open access debate at the turn of the millennium through the Academy of Science of South Africa. We were looking at how to ensure that local scholarly publications were of similar quality to any international publications. At the time, the possibilities for e-publications were beginning to develop and we thought it was important to consider the impact of these new technological developments for scholarly publishing in general and specifically in relation to South Africa.

Following discussions with the Departments of Science and Technology and of Education, the Academy was tasked with undertaking a study of scholarly publishing in South Africa. One of the things that became very clear was that it was important to embrace open access and new technologies for publications, because of the benefits of disseminating research being conducted here on a global scale. That report was published in 2006. The Department of Science and Technology and Department of Education accepted the Academy’s recommendations and, as a result, gave funding to set up the scholarly publishing programme of the Academy of Science, which has been very strongly involved in developing open access publication for South African journals.

Thirteen years on, how has the research community reacted?

The reaction has been a mixed one but I think that there’s been a gradual movement towards publishing in open access journals and also making data available on open platforms. Over that period of time, the increasing costs of journal subscriptions have meant that quite a large number of South African researchers have experienced difficulties in getting access to the material that they need for their research. As a consequence of that, there is general acceptance that there are many advantages to moving towards open access.

Have repositories been important?

Institutional repositories for self-archiving of material produced by academics and researchers are well developed in university libraries and Research Councils in South Africa and the rest of Africa. However, the development of trusted data repositories on the continent is lagging, resulting in the use of subject data repositories outside of the continent. This raises concerns about lack of infrastructure, intellectual property rights and the lack of skills development in data management.

The present development of Open Science policy is taking place through (1) the SA-EU dialogue report on Open Science  and (2) The African Open Science Platform that is being driven by the Academy of Science of South Africa, with support from the National Research Foundation, and by the Department of Science and Technology.

South Africa’s National Research Foundation has said that it supports Plan S ‘in principle’. Do you think South Africa will – or should – join? How has the research community reacted?

My feeling about Plan S is that it’s a plan that originated from the EU, which has been endorsed by a range of funders, and clearly it is going to have a major impact on the scholarly publishing landscape, but I don’t fully understand why people should ask whether South Africa is going to join or should join Plan S. South Africa has already committed to developing open access research publications, and through the Academy of Science developed SciELO SA, that provides a platform for journals to be published electronically whilst adhering to all the principles of Plan S. The Department of Science and Technology has provided significant funding for that. I think it’s clear that the National Research Foundation supports the principles of Plan S, but I think we need to have local solutions such as the African Open Science Platform and the SA-EU Open Science dialogue report.

Plan S is going to have consequences for people who are funded by Plan S- funders, so from that point of view, the research community is going to have to look at the implications of Plan S for funding and and for the dissemination of their scholarly work. But I think that South Africa has already shown that it not only supports the principles of Plan S but has put money into ensuring that these principles can actually be realised.

Other blogs in this series raise the issue of Article Processing Charges (APCs) and the possible cap or waiver – is that on the agenda for researchers in South Africa? What do you think about the risks that it could exclude people or create a two-tier system?

There are a number of issues. If Plan S is implemented, South African researchers are going to be beneficiaries of open access to various published works, so the issue of paywalls will disappear. From that point of view, I think it’s a significant advantage to researchers. The problem is that you replace a barrier to reading with a barrier to authorship, and essentially the APCs are a barrier to authorship.

I am not particularly impressed by the possibility of a cap for two reasons. Firstly, I think it’s price fixing, which is inherently unstable, and secondly, whatever the cap, the actual costs are going to be largely out of reach of researchers in South Africa and other African countries unless they have significant external funding. The proposed change from paywalls to APCs will raise a whole set of policy issues for government funding and for university funding of research and library resources that have not been sufficiently explored or understood.

The other question is the sort of agreements that are going to be entered into with the various publishers about these APCs. For instance, Germany has just gone into an agreement with Wiley for access to their journals and also access to APCs. There are issues relating to library resources, the survival of local journals and the funding of repositories that need to be explored in much greater detail, particularly in South Africa, and nobody has considered what the implications of this redirection of funding may be. Obviously there will be a tendency for governments to say that if we are not paying for subscriptions we will just save the money and then of course people won’t be able to publish their work.

South Africa has for several years had a subsidy scheme for papers that are published in certain accredited journals. Could the money be shifted from there?

I think it’s unlikely that the money will be shifted from there because that funding is for the outputs the institutions have produced and doesn’t necessarily go directly to researchers. The institutions would need to take a strategic decision about what to do with the funding that they are currently using to pay for subscriptions, together with this output funding which they get from published papers. It is possible that a combination of the two sources might provide a source of APC funding. There are only some institutions that pass on some of that money to their researchers in the form of a bonus, but that is not universal by any means.

Other blogs in this series have highlighted the important link between the current model of scholarly publishing and methods of evaluation for academic researchers – looking at journal impact factor, for example. Is this equally important in South Africa, or are researchers assessed on more diverse metrics?

In South Africa diverse mechanisms – which don’t rely solely on journal impact factors – have been used to evaluate the work of researchers. Reliance has been placed on proxies such as citations, H-indices and also on peer review. There has been quite a strong feeling that peer review of the work that’s actually being published gives you a better indication of its quality then simply using a proxy like a journal impact factor.

Do the national ratings reflect peer review? Are people able to find out about them easily?

The National Research Foundation ratings of scholars, which are based on peer review, are public information and made available. The peer reviewers use whatever proxies or information they need to evaluate a person, but essentially they have to make a comment on the quality and standing of the work that the person has done.

What changes do you hope to see on Open Access and Open Science in the next ten, twenty years?

I would like to see us moving very strongly into giving access to scientific work and making it readily available to everybody. By access I mean not just read access, but also author access and access to properly curated data. That would be immensely helpful and I think that the technological tools are available to make this a reality.

There are a number of issues, particularly for scientists working in Africa. Infrastructure is a serious problem, both in relation to the speed and availability of connectivity and in terms of the repositories where they need to place their work. Over the next ten years or so, I would like to see much more attention being paid to the infrastructure because even if everything is available as open access, if you cannot actually get access because the infrastructure is not there, then you cannot get the benefit. Ensuring that access is available at a reasonable cost is one of the key issues for the African countries. In South Africa we tend to be a bit complacent because the infrastructure is reasonably good and we have access to it, but that’s certainly not true in rural areas in South Africa and rural universities. In other African countries there is significantly less accessibility. There is an urgent need to develop an Open Science Policy framework that will be conducive to the implementation of an open research environment.

There are two additional factors that need to be taken into account. One is the funding for university libraries and how that is going to be managed in the future, particularly in relation to APCs and repositories. The significant costs of paying the APCs and managing the repositories are going to involve a very strong interaction between the universities and government policy development. I don’t think most governments have thought of the implications of what this means in terms of their funding of research institutions.

Finally, I don’t know if you have seen the recent article by Marcia McNutt about the risks to society journals, but I think that local South African journals haven’t explored sufficiently what risks this new world will entail for them. That’s another urgent discussion, because if Plan S comes into operation in 2020 then the society journals have very little time in which to change their practices and update their business models. We’ve been talking about whether some of the society journals should be getting some support from government in order to allow them to continue. That debate is going to continue over the next year or so.

The Academy of Science is just about to publish a second report on the state of publishing in South Africa and it makes a number of recommendations about the directions we should be going in with relation to open access and the open science platform. I think that Plan S is a grand plan, but the devil is in the detail, and the detail is the specific way in which funding takes place in a country like South Africa and the implications of actually drawing the benefits from open access and open science programmes. I think we need to interrogate this much more carefully.