Arguments over European open-access plan heat up

Biochemist Lynn Kamerlin tells Nature why she has coordinated an open letter — signed by more than 950 scientists — objecting to Plan S.

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Lynn Kamerlin smiles during an outdoor portrait.Uppsala University.

Biochemist Lynn Kamerlin has coordinated a letter objecting to the terms of a bold open-access publishing push launched in September.Credit: Mikael Wallerstedt

Debate is intensifying over Plan S, an initiative backed by 15 research funders to mandate that, by 2020, their research papers are open access as soon as they are published.

The Europe-led statement was launched in September, but details of its implementation haven’t yet been released. And while many open-access supporters have welcomed Plan S, others are now objecting to some of its specifics.

On 5 November, more than 600 researchers, including two Nobel laureates, published an open letter calling the plan “too risky for science”, “unfair”, and “a serious violation of academic freedom” for the scientists affected; more than 950 have now signed.

Letter coordinator Lynn Kamerlin, a biochemist at Uppsala University in Sweden who sits on the boards* of both open-access journals and publications that may be affected by Plan S, talks to Nature about her problems with the plan.

What are your objections to Plan S?

I firmly believe in promoting open science, but not in the way Plan S is doing it. The idea is to mandate publication in open-access journals or platforms, under liberal publishing licences (such as CC-BY, which allows for commercial re-use), and the plan states it will bar publication in hybrid journals [subscription journals that make some content open]. As a result, Plan S could restrict its researchers from publishing in more than 80% of journals — many of them the most well-known and influential in my field.

I think some of the high-quality journals in my field will find it hard to sustain what they do if they flip their business models to open access. And I find it hard to believe that many journals will flip anyway, because grantees of funders that have aligned with Plan S represent a small fraction of their audience. So, based on the stated principles of Plan S, if one of my main funders, such as the Swedish Research Council, were to sign up to it, I’d probably have to tell collaborators that after 2020 we could not publish in a large proportion of journals. Plan S funders limit their grantees’ choices of who to collaborate with and say that they can’t publish in journals that will be important to their careers.

I want the scientific-career reward system to change — so that scientists aren’t so heavily evaluated on where they publish — but these are the facts of scientific life right now.

That is why I see Plan S as unfair and impinging on my academic freedom, and it is one of the main criticisms in the open letter. As the plan is written now, it’s a huge gamble and if the rest of the world doesn’t come along, European researchers are going to pay the price.

Like many scientists, you sit on the boards of journals and therefore may have a vested interest in the outcome. Is that a problem?

My position on these editorial and editorial advisory boards is a non-remunerated position. I am not arguing that they need to be saved because I serve on their boards. My argument comes as a practicing academic researcher, and as can be seen from the long list of signatures, is one that resonates with a large part of the research community.

The letter mentions some chemistry journals, and the researchers who have signed it are mostly in that field. Is this a chemistry-specific issue?

I don’t think so. More chemists signed because the letter started out in the chemistry community. But we have a broad spectrum of people cutting across career levels and geographical areas who are concerned. However, I do think that chemistry has a reproducibility crisis, with more low-quality publications appearing — and I worry that Plan S will incentivize the business models of journals that do relatively low-fee, high-volume publishing. It is hard for these journals to keep that up while also ensuring stringent quality control.

Plan S states that it does not advocate any particular open-access publishing model — couldn’t a wide range of options open up?

It says that, but I and others who have signed the letter believe Plan S funders are heavily pushing for fee-paying open access. Robert-Jan Smits [the European Commission official who instigated Plan S] has suggested that one of the alternative sharing models — making manuscripts freely available online while publishing in a subscription journal — would be compliant under only a very limited scenario: instant deposition of an accepted manuscript under a CC-BY publishing licence. You can’t conjure up a barely existing scenario and say ‘people can do that if they want’. I also think there’s not been enough discussion of direct-sponsorship models making journals free to read and to publish in. And the proposed ban on hybrid journals shows there’s very little enthusiasm for ‘offset’ agreements, in which researchers can make their work open in subscription journals, even if these will be allowed only for a transitional period.

This week, the UK biomedical funder the Wellcome Trust became the first Plan S supporter to lay out detailed plans. What do you think of them?

I think Wellcome has taken a more balanced approach, because it says it won’t pay for hybrid-journal open fees, but it won’t ban its researchers from publishing in them. But it still mandates a CC-BY licence for open papers and accepted manuscripts. I personally prefer more restrictive open licences, such as CC-BY-NC [which does not permit commercial re-use]. I actually don’t mind commercial firms text-mining my work and building services on that, but I don’t want my text to be republished for commercial gain — perhaps a different open licence should be created.

What kind of adjustments would you like to see in the plan, which Smits has suggested will be out for public consultation at the end of November?

Two things would really help academics retain their options while still pushing for openness: if the funders didn’t actually bar hybrid journals, but just said they wouldn’t pay fees for them; and if Plan S allowed a researcher to post their accepted manuscript online without the need for CC-BY, for instance on a preprint server, that would really help.

Have you talked to Smits about your concerns?

Yes, I and other researchers met with him and it was constructive. The Plan S principles are written with good intentions, and they also talk of changing the way researchers are evaluated. But I hope Plan S supporters realize the risks of their current plans for the research ecosystem.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07386-x

Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its publisher, Springer Nature.

*Lynn Kamerlin is on the editorial board of Electronic Structure (a hybrid journal), on the editorial advisory boards of ACS Catalysis, The Journal of Physical Chemistry A, B, C, & The Journal of Physical Chemistry Lett. (all hybrid journals), ACS Omega (an open-access journal), and on the research advisory board of F1000 Research (an open-access publishing platform).

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