Wednesday, October 10, 2018

“It is for publishers to provide Plan S-compliant routes to publication in their journals.”

An interview with Robert-Jan Smits, with preface

Robert-Jan Smits
On 4th September, Robert-Jan Smits, the Open Access Envoy of the European Commission, and Marc Schiltz, the President of Science Europe, announced Plan S, a radical new initiative designed to ensure that by 2020 all research papers arising from funding provided by 11 (now 13) European funders are made open access immediately on publication.

The plan is based on 10 clear principles but short on detail as to how those principles will be implemented. If successful, however, Plan S could have a dramatic impact on both publishers and researchers. For instance, reported Nature, as written the 10 principles could see European researchers barred from publishing in 85% of journals, including influential titles such as Nature and Science.

The ‘S’ in Plan S can stand for ‘science, speed, solution, shock’, Smits told Nature. Shock would certainly seem to be an appropriate word, and shock was surely what publishers felt when Plan S was announced. After all, they have successfully managed to delay and subvert open access for some 25 years now. They perhaps assumed they could continue doing so. But if successful, Plan S could bring this dilly-dallying to a dramatic end. Alternatively, Plan S could fail to achieve its objectives.

That publishers do not like Plan S is, of course, no surprise. That was doubtless what the architects of the initiative anticipated. What they perhaps did not anticipate was that they would face pushback from researchers. Yet just a week after the announcement nine researchers published a critical article entitled, A Response to Plan-S from Academic Researchers: Unethical, Too Risky! This appears to have shocked the Plan S architects as thoroughly as their plan must have shocked publishers. Smits immediately summoned two of the authors to Brussels, and Schiltz took to Twitter to suggest that the article was “slanderous”. [See comment below for more on this].

Since then there has been a torrent of commentary and critique of Plan S, and the initiative is proving uncomfortably divisive. While publishers (and at least some researchers) are appalled by Plan S, open access advocates, as could be expected, have welcomed the initiative.


The problem right now, however, is that there is too little information on how Plan S would work in practice. This means it is nigh impossible for informed commentary to take place, and we are seeing frequent calls for clarification.

On 12th September, therefore, I invited Smits to do an interview with me, in the hope that he could provide that clarification. I suggested we do this either by telephone or email. Smits agreed and said he would prefer to do it by email. So, I emailed him a list of questions and waited for his replies. These arrived on Monday this week.  

I have to confess to being disappointed on reading them. From my perspective, they do not provide the clarification I was hoping they would. I accept that my questions are long and somewhat sceptical (some might say tendentious) but, as I saw it, they offered Smits a chance to dispel some of the confusion around Plan S and to demonstrate that my scepticism is misplaced. I didn’t feel he did either.

When I shared my disappointment with Smits he expressed surprise and replied, “I looked once more to the replies I sent to your questions and remain of the opinion that they address the issues you put forward.” He added that he is getting over 300 emails a day and tries to reply to each one – signalling that time is in short supply for him. 

I am, of course, entirely sympathetic to the challenge Smits faces with Plan S, and the huge demand it must be making on his time. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of confusion out there, and on reading his replies I could not help but feel he had missed an opportunity to clarify matters.

This seemed the more striking given his assurance to me that, “my door is open to anyone who wants to drop by to discuss Open Access and Plan S”. He added that he prefers a ‘face to face’ approach to using email. Perhaps it might have helped, I thought, if he had taken up my offer of a telephone interview – or even a face to face on Skype.

Meat in the sandwich

But maybe I was missing the point. What we learn from what Smits says below perhaps is something that had not occurred to me, and perhaps has not occurred to the many commentators on social media calling for clarification. In two of his answers, Smits indicates that the ball is now in the publishers’ court. As he puts it the first time he says it, “We expect publishers to come forward with offerings which comply with the principles outlined in Plan S”. Later he says, “It is for publishers to provide Plan S-compliant routes to publication in their journals so that researchers can choose where to publish when accepting funding from those who sign Plan S.”

This would seem to imply that Smits and the members of cOAlition S (the group of funders who have signed up to Plan S) are not currently especially concerned about the details of how the 10 principles will be implemented, just that they will be implemented. In other words, cOAlition S is saying to publishers: “These are the conditions that we plan to insist on when funding research in Europe from 2020. So long as you can meet these conditions the details of how you do so are not of great interest to us right now. It is for you publishers to tell us how you plan to implement the principles.”

Presumably, it is only after publishers have done this that cOAlition S expects to publish the implementation plan that Smits talks about below. And while he says he is happy to discuss Plan S with “all interested groups”, Smits insists that cOAlition S will “stand by the principles set out in Plan S”. We might wonder what benefit there is in discussions if cOAlition S is immoveable on the 10 principles. And in the meantime, of course, researchers can expect to face a great deal of uncertainty.

That said, at first blush, this might seem like a good approach. In fact, I have myself on a number of occasions argued that publishers should not be treated as stakeholders, but as service providers. As such, the research community should be telling them what services it would like them to provide, and then inviting them to quote for providing them. Only if the conditions and the price are acceptable should the research community then proceed to contract any particular publisher to provide the service tendered for.

The problem with the way in which Plan S seems intent on doing this, however, is two-fold. First, regardless of the talk of (unspecified) APC caps, it is not clear how these can be effectively applied – particularly if the rest of the world does not follow Europe’s example. As a result, the research community may find it has to shell out even more money for publishers’ services, regardless of any caps. And what happens if publishers decide not to engage with Plan S in any meaningful way?

Second (and more importantly), it could be argued that European funders are not part of the research community. They are its paymasters. And in the neoliberal environment in which universities now have to operate, researchers’ interests are not fully aligned with those of research funders. This means that in its battle with publishers, cOAlition S may end up punishing European researchers as, or more, brutally than it punishes the real target – publishers. Researchers will be the meat in the sandwich of Plan S, collateral damage in a war that the vast majority of them never signed up to, or wanted to see take place. There are also very real concerns that Plan S will wreak havoc on learned societies.

It is for these reasons, I believe, that in opposing Plan S researchers often do so in terms of a threat to academic freedom.

That OA advocates tend to ridicule and deride those who fret over academic freedom suggests to me that they have become so focused on the ends of OA that they are blind to the damage that the means might inflict on their peers, and on many societies.

Highly unlikely

Finally, I want to answer one of the questions that Smits puts back to me below. He asks, “Why do you keep on saying that Plan S is about Gold Open Access? Do read the 10 principles again and you will notice that the plan does not use Gold or Green terminology. The plan welcomes self-archiving and repositories.”

My answer is this: It doesn’t matter whether the terms Green or Gold are used. Principle 1 of Plan S states, “Authors [must] retain copyright of their publication with no restrictions. All publications must be published under an open license, preferably the Creative Commons Attribution Licence CC BY.” And cOAlition S insists that this applies to both gold and green OA, and in all cases OA must be immediate.

It seems highly unlikely to me that for-profit legacy publishers will offer green OA on those terms. Instead, they will focus on gold OA and seek to extract as much money as possible from the research community, caps or no caps, even as many non-profit learned societies face an existential financial threat.

Importantly, as Peter Suber has pointed out, there is no acknowledgement in Plan S that repositories can provide OA. This suggests they are seen as archival tools alone.

The good news is that when I expressed my disappointment with his answers Smits said he would be happy to meet with me when he is in London next month. If that meeting takes place perhaps I will be able to get a clearer view of how Smits sees Plan S achieving its objectives, and why he routinely pooh-poohs any talk of academic freedom in relation to his initiative.

The interview begins …

RP: As I understand it, the background to Plan S is that during the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2016 the EU issued the Amsterdam Call for Action on Open Science. (At the time you were Director-General for Research and Innovation at the EU). This called for “immediate” open access to all scientific papers by 2020. But by the end of 2017 it was clear that this goal was not going to be achieved unless more drastic action was taken, not least because the Amsterdam Call offered no specific strategy for achieving OA by 2020. Earlier this year, therefore, you were appointed Special Adviser on Open Access and Innovation and charged with making sure it happened. Plan S is your solution and it consists of 10 principles, the key one being that “After 1 January 2020 scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.” In fact, Plan S is a list of principles, not a detailed action plan. That is, it is not a mandate but what OA advocate Peter Suber describes as “a plan for a mandate”. I realise that some transition arrangements are envisaged, but how realistic is it to expect that in 15 months’ time all European research will be made immediately available on an OA basis, particularly if legacy publishers prove reluctant to co-operate in a meaningful way?

R-J S: The 2016 Amsterdam Call set the 2020 target and, since little progress is being made, Plan S provides the specific strategy which you mention to achieve that target. However, Plan S cannot and will not override contracts which are in place before 1/1/20 and of course, we are willing to respect short-term transitional arrangements and on-going discussions on such arrangements.

RP: I wonder if it might be more accurate to say that Plan S is intended to frighten legacy publishers into moving more quickly towards OA, with the end game (presumably) of having them flip all their subscription journals to open access (as some have proposed), and reducing their prices in the process? Either way, do you expect legacy publishers to accept all the principles outlined in Plan S (and incorporated into cOAlition S under the aegis of Science Europe?). As things stand, it would seem that the International Association of STM Publishers does not accept the proposal that hybrid OA be outlawed. And I do not think it expects publishers to reduce their prices. As STM puts it, “in the absence of adequate funding a transition to Open Access as envisaged by cOAlition S is unlikely to happen in practice.”

R-J S: We expect publishers to come forward with offerings which comply with the principles outlined in Plan S. We make no statement about whether publishers are ‘legacy’ or whether they are new providers with new platforms.

RP: I assume you anticipated there would be pushback from publishers, but perhaps you did not expect pushback from researchers? Either way, we are seeing pushback. Last week, for instance, one of the leading open access advocates Stevan Harnad called for Plan S (and all OA policies) to drop any requirement for gold OA publishing and focus exclusively on mandating green OA (self-archiving). This would seem to envisage Plan S being reversed since it is currently almost exclusively focused on gold OA. Three days earlier, eight researchers published a highly-critical article about Plan S, denouncing it as unethical and too risky. I assume such criticism is of concern as I am told you called the lead author of the article Lynn Kamerlin and invited her to Brussels to discuss Plan S. How confident are you that you can address her and other researchers’ concerns? They clearly feel they are becoming the meat in the sandwich in the struggle between research funders and legacy publishers. And might we see resistance amongst researchers grow as the implications of Plan S are more widely publicised and become clearer? Combined with publisher resistance might this necessitate significantly watering down or even abandoning key Plan S principles?

R-J S: You probably have seen the many positive reactions from researchers and representatives of the science community to Plan S. Of course, there are also critical voices. I have indeed invited Britt [J Britt Holbrook, one of the co-authors of the above paper] and Lynn for a meeting to see why it is we differ of opinion. In developing the implementation plans there will, of course, be discussion with all interested groups. We will, however, stand by the principles set out in Plan S.

The role of repositories

RP: One of the concerns being expressed is that Plan S portrays green OA and repositories as having little more than an archival role, not as providers of OA. This is one of the concerns expressed by de facto leader of the OA movement Peter Suber, who has written of Plan S, “There's no acknowledgement of their [repositories and green OA] importance for OA itself! This is the same mistake made by the Finch Group in 2012, which was inexcusable even at the time, and should never be repeated by informed, high-level policy-makers.” I assume, however, that the reality is that green OA inevitably conflicts with the principles of Plan S, which calls, amongst other things, for papers to be made OA “immediately” and with a CC BY licence attached. I cannot envisage many legacy publishers agreeing to this. So I guess the point is that if green OA cannot conform to the principles of Plan S then it cannot be viewed as providing open access, and that is presumably why Plan S does not view it as such. Would that be right? If not, how can this circle be squared?

R-J S: Plan S does not talk about Gold, Green, Diamond or Platinum Open Access. Plan S is entirely supportive of pre-prints and repositories and welcomes those journals where the final publication is published without paywalls and no embargo, being also published under a CC-BY or similar licence.

RP: Another concern that has been raised is that Plan S is contrary to long-standing principles of academic freedom. For instance, since Plan S says that hybrid OA is not compliant with its principles European researchers will be banned from publishing in a great many journals that they currently publish in and love. As Nature put it, “as written, Plan S would bar researchers from publishing in 85% of journals, including influential titles such as Nature and Science.” This concern about academic freedom might seem a genuine grievance in light of a 1997 UNESCO document that states, “higher-education teaching personnel should be free to publish the results of research and scholarship in books, journals and databases of their own choice”.

Concern about academic freedom is also being cited as one of the reasons why some countries (notably Germany) have not signed up to Plan S. Indeed, researchers at the University of Konstanz have taken their university to court for simply trying to mandate them to self-archive their papers in their institutional repository, which might seem far less of an imposition than telling them that they are henceforth barred from publishing in 85% of the journals they currently publish in.

Some also argue that requiring researchers to publish their work with a CC BY licence attached raises issues of academic freedom.

On the other hand, in the Plan S document signed by Science Europe President Marc Schiltz it says, “We recognise that researchers need to be given a maximum of freedom to choose the proper venue for publishing their results and that in some jurisdictions this freedom may be covered by a legal or constitutional protection.”

How do you respond to the claims that Plan S threatens to infringe researchers’ academic freedom? And how does Schiltz’s statement about freedom to choose fit with the principles of Plan S? Once again, how can this square be circled?

R-J S: Strong mandates have been in place from many funders in different countries for many years so the principle of funder mandates in the research system is well-established. See what Peter Suber writes about this. It is for publishers to provide Plan S-compliant routes to publication in their journals so that researchers can choose where to publish when accepting funding from those who sign Plan S.

RP: Plan S also argues that current researcher evaluation systems need to be changed so that publishing in prestigious legacy journals is no longer encouraged. Might it not have been better to change evaluation systems before banning publication in subscription journals? Would this not have been fairer than suddenly telling them to stop publishing in 85% of the journals that their universities are still incentivising them to publish in, and have been doing for many decades?

R-J S: The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment and the Leiden Manifesto both pre-date the Amsterdam Call for Action. There is nothing ‘suddenly’ happening. That during all years not much action was undertaken, is exactly the reason why Plan S was developed.


RP: Another reason why some European countries appear to be dragging their heels over signing up to Plan S is that they assume it will increase the costs of publishing rather than reduce it. The DFG, for instance, says that “it surmises that open access mandates can lead to increased article processing charges (APC), an effect that the DFG strives to minimise.” I understand Plan S envisages APCs being capped, but what in your view is a reasonable APC? And how would a cap work in practice? (Presumably, for instance, universities and researchers could decide to themselves pay more than the cap in order to have their papers published, and indeed to publish them in expensive hybrid journals produced by Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, and Elsevier?).

R-J S: Caps on APCs will be considered as part of the implementation of Plan S. Publications arising from our funding must be Plan S-compliant.

RP: Plan S says that it will support the creation of open access journals or platforms and open access infrastructures where necessary. Another concern raised by Suber is that this does not include a commitment to creating and supporting open infrastructure. I.e., he says, “platforms running on open-source software, under open standards, with open APIs for interoperability, preferably owned or hosted by non-profit organizations.” As such, Suber says, Plan S, will not prevent open infrastructure being appropriated by legacy publishers in the way that SSRN and bepress were acquired. As you will know, a number of funders (Wellcome, Gates etc.) have created their own publishing platforms but outsourced fulfilment to the for-profit company F1000. The F1000 platform, I believe, is a proprietary, and details of what it charges funders are secret, which does not seem to fit with the ethos of open science. The EU also plans to create its own publishing platform. I wonder, therefore, if the reference to platforms and OA infrastructures in Plan S is essentially a reference to the planned EU Open Research Publishing Platform? As I understand it, this will not necessarily be open source, and some believe that the exacting requirements specified in the tender document means that it could only be operated by a large legacy publisher or similar. Can you comment on these points?

R-J S: Plan S sets out the principles for an open access funding system. It says nothing about the ownership of journals and platforms. It does not mention any particular platform.


The same trap?

RP: Open access is a hugely complex topic. I believe you suggested to Kamerlin that in order to better understand the issues she should watch the movie Paywall. However, I wonder if the issues are more complicated than either Paywall or Plan S assumes? The movie, we could note, was made by an OA advocate, funded by an OA advocacy organisation, and consists of interviews primarily with other OA advocates. It includes interviews with just two legacy publishers. As such, as I pointed out in the review I did for Nature, Paywall is an advocacy film, not one intended to explore the complexities of open access. At no point, for instance, does the movie mention APCs or explain how OA can be funded. As such, it tells us what OA advocates want, but fails to explain how this can be achieved financially. The OA movement has a history of making declarations, issuing calls, and offering up what in the movie John Wilbanks calls “witness and testimony” but it has consistently failed to come up with financially feasible solutions. Is there a danger that Plan S has fallen into the same trap?

R-J S: Plan S does not mention the Paywall movie. All of the parties involved in Plan S will have their own views about the publishing industry but Plan S states what we have collectively signed up to.

RP: How likely do you think it is that all European countries will sign up to Plan S? Neither Germany nor Switzerland has yet done so, and researchers in Norway are asking whether the likely consequences of the proposed changes are proportionate to what can realistically be achieved in such a short period of time. Meanwhile, those European countries with limited research budgets will surely be unhappy to commit to paying for gold OA. I understand you also hope to get the US to buy into the Plan, which would seem to be an even greater challenge since the US has historically preferred green OA and it does not have the same centralised system as Europe. As Roger Schonfeld has put it, “[T]he higher education sector in most of North America is very different from Europe, in one key element: North America is as decentralized as Europe is, at a national level, centrally coordinated.” The challenge here surely is that Plan S can only achieve its objectives if the whole world signs up to it, or at least all those countries with large research budgets? Unless they do, for instance, Europe will find it is having to pay for gold OA plus continue to pay subscriptions in order to access the research produced in countries that do not sign up. Would you agree? How hopeful are you that you will manage to sign up a sufficient number of countries to make Plan S workable?

R-J S: Why do you keep on saying that Plan S is about Gold Open Access? Do read the 10 principles again and you will notice that the plan does not use Gold or Green terminology. The plan welcomes self-archiving and repositories. I am confident that Plan S is workable.

The global South

RP: On the other hand, if Plan S does succeed it will further marginalise and disadvantage those in the global South. If all the world’s subscription journals flipped to gold OA, for instance, where today researchers in the global South are not able to afford to access the world’s research, in future they would be unable to afford to publish their own research – which might seem a worse position to be in. Does Plan S have a solution to this problem? Will it provide money to enable those in the global South to publish their research? I am not aware that this issue is discussed in the various Plan S documents.

R-J S: Getting rid of paywalls will help researchers in the global South to access publicly funded research without charge. This huge advantage cannot be denied. Furthermore, there are many routes to publishing research available to all countries including no-embargo open access.

RP: It seems to me that one thing most people agree on today is that legacy publishers have become too powerful and have acquired indefensible monopoly powers. Is it not time to hand the matter over to the EU Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager with a view to, say, breaking up these monsters?

R-J S: I still am optimistic that through plan S, we can accelerate the transition to full and immediate Open Access in partnership, including in partnership with the publishers you are referring to.

RP: I understand that on 1st March you will be moving on, to become President of TU-Eindhoven. Would it not be better to stay with the project until it is clear that it has been a success? 

R-J S: Plan S is carried by a consortium of funders under the umbrella of Science Europe. It is not the work of one person. Furthermore, I am far from being indispensable.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Paywall: The Business of Scholarship — a review

My review of Paywall: The Business of Scholarship has been published in Nature. Below are the first two paragraphs. The full review can be read here.

Billed as a documentary, Paywall would be more accurately described as an advocacy film. Its intention seems to be to persuade viewers that the paywalls that restrict access to journal content online are an unnecessary hangover from the print era, and now serve only to perpetuate the excessive profits that legacy publishers such as Elsevier, Wiley and Springer Nature make from the public purse.

The film makes a convincing case that the paywall system creates problems — and that universal open access (OA) to scholarly articles would be better for society. But it fails to adequately explore the thorny challenges that arise with OA publishing. These include the fact that the publishers castigated by the film would continue to dominate scholarly communication in an OA world; the increasingly expensive ‘pay-to-publish’ model, which substitutes inequities in access for inequities in affording publication; and the rise of predatory publishing. And although Paywall acknowledges that current reward systems have slowed the progress of OA publishing, it does not address the puzzling question of why academics have proved so reluctant to make copies of their published papers freely available in their institutional repositories ...

More here.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The OA Interviews: Virginia Steel, Norman and Armena Powell University Librarian at UCLA

Those wishing to go directly to the Q&A with Virginia Steel can access the pdf here and then click on the link at the top of the document.

Who would have thought in 2002 that the sixteen “open” enthusiasts who that year launched the Budapest Open Access Initiative were about to unleash on the world a chain of events that some believe will eventually upend the 350-year old scholarly publishing system, and has in the meantime thrown researchers, librarians, universities, funders, governments and scholarly publishers into what at times looks like a dance of death.
Virginia Steel
Of course, the key driver for the changes that scholarly publishing is currently going through was the emergence of the internet, since those changes would not be possible without the web. And in fact, publishers had begun to take advantage of the new digital network a decade before open access became a thing. Elsevier, for instance, launched its online database of electronic journals ScienceDirect eight years prior to BOAI. But publishers had assumed they would simply port the traditional subscription model to the online environment and carry on much as before, all be it a subscription model re-imagined as the now infamous Big Deal.

In other words, as the name suggests, what was radical about the BOAI was not its recognition that journals could now be put online, but the assumption that this could be done without the imposition of paywalls. In retrospect, we can see that this simple idea has ended up calling into question practically every aspect of traditional scholarly publishing, not excluding traditional peer review and the need for legacy publishers.

Yet …

Yet for all its revolutionary potential, and the significant mindshare that open access has acquired over the past 16 years, some of the key aspirations articulated by BOAI have yet to be realised. And they may never be. Yes, today more research is freely accessible. But leaving aside the fact that the openness of that content is fragile[1], the truly revolutionary potential of making it open has not yet been exploited.

So, for instance, OA has yet to solve the affordability problem that BOAI promised it would, and in pursuit of which goal most librarians joined the OA movement in the first place.

More importantly, OA has failed to create the more equitable knowledge infrastructure envisaged by BOAI. Let’s recall: the promise was that removing access barriers would allow the world to “accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich … and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.”

The reality today, however, is that paywalls are simply being replaced by publication walls, a development that threatens to disenfranchise those in the global South even more thoroughly than paywalls.

These failings are a product of the fact that the strategies adopted and promoted by OA advocates have too often had unintended consequences. Above all, they advocated for the use of pay-to-publish gold OA. In doing so they enabled legacy publishers to co-opt open access, and so lock themselves and their high profits into the new environment, not least by introducing overpriced hybrid OA.

The pay-to-publish model also gave rise to a plague of predatory publishers, and the accompanying tide of fake science now threatens to corrupt the scientific record.

The nub of the problem is that OA advocates too often fail to think through their ideas and strategies, with the result that their interventions often worsen rather than improve the situation. It does not help that they are susceptible to groupthink and tend to flock around any idea that has superficial appeal. The way that dissident voices are challenged and policed on Twitter is indicative of this tendency. Moreover, OA advocates will often cling to a faulty idea long after it has become clear that it is flawed.

And while there were plenty of warnings about likely unintended consequences, these were ignored or poo-pooed. In 2004, for instance, the world’s largest and most experienced publisher Elsevier cautioned: “By introducing an author-pays model, Open Access risks undermining public trust in the integrity and quality of scientific publications that has been established over hundreds of years.”

Elsevier added, “Because the number of articles published will drive revenues, Open Access publishers will continually be under pressure to increase output, potentially at the expense of quality.”

Elsevier is of course not a disinterested party. Nevertheless, its point was a valid one and should have been listened to since it is also an obvious one. (Ironically, as soon as it realised that gold OA would allow it to increase its profits Elsevier quickly distanced itself from its warnings, thus proving the point it had made!).

But the most knowledgeable and far-sighted commentator has been publishing consultant Joseph Esposito. True, Esposito is not a disinterested party either, and he has a habit whenever a change to the status quo is mooted of muttering darkly “be careful what you wish for” (e.g. here, here and here). Nevertheless, his warnings have generally been on the money.

In 2004, for instance, Esposito predicted that in an OA environment, “the overall cost of research publications will rise, though the costs will be borne by different players, primarily authors and their proxies.” This has proved accurate.

In the same vein, in 2014 Esposito predicted that open access would be additive rather than substitutive, and so further increase the costs of scholarly communication. As he put it, “revenue from OA will be additive to the revenue from traditional journals.”  That is today’s reality.

And in 2105 Esposito predicted that open access would be co-opted by legacy publishers. Few would now deny that that too is today’s reality.

For open access advocates, this is all hugely frustrating and the cause of a lot of hand-wringing. The uncomfortable truth is that almost every initiative, idea or proposal introduced by the OA movement is rapidly derailed, subverted, or co-opted by publishers for their own benefit, or leads to undesirable developments like predatory publishing.

Too gloomy a view?

But is this to take too gloomy a view? While many of Esposito’s predictions may be today’s reality, it does not mean that they will be tomorrow’s. After all, we are in the middle of a revolution, and perforce seeing through a glass darkly. We may simply be witnessing the inevitable teething problems that any largescale social change can expect to experience.

To put my cards on the table: I am a sceptic by nature and so Esposito’s views resonate more with me than the perpetual Pollyannaism of many OA advocates. Nevertheless, I can see that it may just be that the research community is going to have to wade through a lot more mud before it reaches the promised land.

I assume, however, that whether the vision of BOAI is ever fully realised will to a great extent depend on whether those who support, promote and implement open access learn from experience and adapt and change their strategies as a result.

Here there are encouraging signs. Conscious that the institutional repository movement has failed, for instance, the Confederation of Open Access Repositories has developed a new strategy focused on creating what it calls a “Sustainable Knowledge Commons”.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Falling prey to a predatory OA publisher: Individual failure or community problem?

Depending on whom you speak to, so-called predatory publishing is a serious threat to the scientific record, a minor irritant, or an elitist misunderstanding. 
Courtesy Azizofegypt CC BY-SA
Thus, while some argue that predatory publishers represent “the dark dangerous force” of scholarly publishing, others insist that, by contrast, they have introduced valuable low-cost journals that have levelled the playing field for less privileged members of the research community. As such, the latter say, the journals they publish would be better described as “new wave journals” or examples of “innovation in publishing”, not predatory journals.

Others argue that any harm predatory publishers do is small and has been significantly overblown by the enemies of open access, or that the problem is “not as big now as it once was.”

Yet others maintain that the real predators of scholarly publishing are legacy subscription publishers, who have been robbing the research community blind for years and are now corrupting open science.

These complexities point to a central problem in any discussion of predatory publishing: no one is able to adequately define (or agree on a definition of) the phenomenon. And yet however one defines it, it is clearly casting the research community in a bad, bad, bad light.

Hugely controversial

Whatever the truth (and likely predatory publishing is some mix of the above) the topic is a hugely controversial one and engenders bitter disputes. For instance, the person who coined the term predatory publisher –  Jeffrey Beall – has been the recipient of a constant stream of verbal attacks and legal threats, not least because he created the foundational blacklist of what he calls “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”. Beall also regularly publishes articles (e.g. here) in which he maintains that predatory publishing is a direct consequence of open access, and that OA has as a result thrown scholarly publishing into “crisis mode”.

Many were not surprised, therefore, when last year Beall’s site disappeared overnight. And shortly afterwards he left his post at the University of Colorado without explanation (that I am aware of). 

[Update 22nd July: On the same day I posted this an interview with Beall was published in the Indian Express in which he offered his explanation as to why he left his job.]

To add to the confusion, as concern grew, and both blacklists (e.g. Beall’s list, now Cabells) and whitelists (e.g. the Directory of Open Access Journals) began to appear, a new problem emerged: even if an OA publisher tries to be honest and straightforward and has the papers submitted to it assessed in a diligent manner, it may at any point (and for whatever reason) be deemed by the community to be predatory. As a result, all those researchers who have published with it can expect to suffer reputational damage.

Given these complexities, I plan to use the term predatory publishing in this article in a very specific way. I will be referring to those OA publishers who clearly and deliberately trick researchers – essentially, by failing to provide the promised (or even a meaningful) service and/or deceiving them about the nature of that service, simply in order to extract money from them. I will not name any publishers, or journals, but simply refer to some of the deceptive practices they engage in that I know take place. I know they take place because I am regularly contacted by the victims of such unethical behaviour, and these victims share with me the details of what has happened to them.

So, for instance, the publishers/journals I am talking about often do not inform authors at the point of submission that they will be charged an APC if their paper is accepted. And they often tell them (or imply) that the papers they publish are properly peer-reviewed where in reality they are not.

It’s true, there are also some dishonest researchers who deliberately seek out predatory publishers in order to bulk up their CVs. Nevertheless, I have been contacted by a sufficiently large number of scholars who have been tricked by unscrupulous OA publishers that I am confident there is a serious problem out there. And it leads me to believe that a great many of the researchers who publish in these journals are hapless victims of a scam.

In my view, predatory publishing (or whatever you choose to call it) is a serious problem and a solution will eventually have to be found. Here, however, I am concerned primarily with the victims of predatory publishers.

The consequences can be serious

When authors fall victim to a predatory publisher the consequences can be serious. Not only will they be conned into handing over (usually public) money for a service that is never (or very inadequately) provided, but (more seriously for them) their reputation (and likely their career) may be negatively impacted as a result. Unsurprisingly, therefore, victims of predatory publishers experience a great deal of anguish, anger and resentment.

Monday, July 09, 2018

OA Big Deals: VSNU embraces greater transparency

Over three months ago (in March) the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) published a very brief news item announcing that it had reached agreement with Springer Nature on a new OA Big Deal. 

Curious as to the details of the agreement, I invited VSNU to answer some questions, both about the Springer Nature deal and VSNU’s failure to reach agreement with the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), concerning which another short news item had been published at the same time. VSNU’s Spokesperson and Advisor Public Affairs Bart Pierik agree to answer my questions.

When I sent my list of questions to him, however, Pierik appeared to change his mind. “Considering the fact that we are finalising some more deals with publishers at this moment (we just published good news about Oxford University Press) my proposal is that we would be glad to make one Q&A in April about all of these deals,” he emailed me.

I was disappointed but decided instead to write something more wide-ranging about the growing number of OA Big Deals we can see being agreed between legacy publishers and the research community and to mention VSNU in that larger piece.

I concluded that article by again inviting VSNU to answer my questions, adding, “By doing so they can help shine a light on this somewhat crepuscular corner of scholarly communication and demonstrate that affordability and transparency are just as important as accessibility.”

April came and went, and I assumed my questions had fallen into a black hole somewhere never to be seen again. 

To my surprise, however, this morning I received an email from Wilma Van Wezenbeek, Programme Manager Open Access at VSNU.

Not only did Van Wezenbeek attach answers to my questions but she informed me that VSNU has now published the contracts it has signed with both Springer Nature and Taylor & Francis (although Springer Nature has not permitted VSNU to disclose their general terms and conditions).

I publish below both the email and the Q&A, as I received them.

I could have wished that the answers were fuller and more detailed, but I guess Rome wasn’t built in a day!

The only other comment I would make at this stage is that it seems to me that if OA advocates and the wider research community want to see greater transparency over the rising number of OA Big Deals that universities, consortia and funding agencies are now signing with publishers on their behalf they are going to have to push hard. And they are going to have to keep pushing. 

The email

Dear Richard Poynder,

It has been a while that you sent Bart Pierik a list of questions to be answered by us. As we mentioned earlier we wanted to respond but needed some more time to flesh out the details.

We also thought the best moment would actually be now so that we could “put the money where the mouth is”, because we also worked on getting the contracts with Springer Nature and Taylor & Francis disclosed.

As you might have seen today, we have (partially, Springer Nature has not agreed with opening up their general terms & conditions) now done so.

Together with the Springer Nature negotiation team, I have answered the questions. I hope that you find them satisfactory. Please note that you can make them public if you wish to do so.

Kind regards

Wilma van Wezenbeek
Programm Manager Open Access, VSNU

The Q&A

Wilma Van Wezenbeek
RP: What are the main details of the new Springer Nature deal? How does it differ from previous OA deals with Springer Nature? What are the key changes over the last deal?

VSNU: The new deal is a continuation of the Springer Nature Compact deal, comprising both reading and publishing rights.

RP: I am thinking it is a deal that covers both reading and publishing, but perhaps not what the DEAL negotiators call a Publish & Read contract?

VSNU: It is too early to compare what we are doing, and what the result of the German DEAL negotiations will be. We can learn from each other, and for sure we know that there are more roads that lead to open access.

RP: What about numbers: In terms of access, how many journals does the deal provide access to? Is this all of Springer Nature’s journals? If not, what percentage of them?

VSNU: All of the Compact Collection, comprising 2,268 journals (compared to 2,079 in 2017).

RP: In terms of publishing, how many journals does the deal allow authors to publish OA in? Is this all of Springer Nature’s journals? If not, what percentage of the publisher’s journals? Are there any limits on the number of papers that can be published OA?

VSNU: In over 1,854 journals the articles by corresponding authors from the Dutch universities are published in open access (in 2017 we had 1,712 journals).

RP: How many (and what percentage of the total number of journals that authors can publish in as part of the deal) are hybrid OA journals, and how many (and what percentage of the total) are pure gold?

VSNU: The publishing part of the deal only covers the Compact Collection, being the hybrid journals.

RP: Has VSNU signed an NDC with Springer Nature over this? If not, are there nevertheless constraints on what it can release in the way of information about the deal and its costs?

VSNU: VSNU advocates openness and transparency regarding the contract. In the bilateral agreement between the Ministry of OCW (Education, Culture and Sciences) and higher education recently closed, the VSNU is asked to have “disclosure” as one of the conditions with which they enter the negotiations.

It took us several months after we published our notification that we had an agreement on the main issues to flesh out the details, but we are happy to note that Springer agreed with publishing the major details of our contract.

RP: Either way, can you say how much will be paid to Springer Nature as part of the deal, and how the price was calculated?

VSNU: Yes, this is in the public part of the contract which covers both reading and publishing rights. BTW, you might know that we did also have a request in the context of the Government Information (Public Access) Act and published a graph of costs incurred by publishers over the years 2011-2015.

RP: What is the estimated APC cost for the OA publishing part of the deal?

VSNU: Our negotiations are about non-APC based offsetting agreements. VSNU arranges what has been common practice for subscriptions for years – central financing. Calculations have been made of the virtual APCs in our deal; we refer to a publication written by Leo Waaijers, in September 2017, to the OpenAPC website, and to the most recent figures we update frequently on What you find about the APC costs in the contract, is Springer’s own interpretation/calculation.

RP: How do these costs compare with previous deals? Are there savings, or is it cost neutral, or perhaps higher than previous deals?

VSNU: Our VSNU mandate at the time of the start of our negotiations last year was very clear – no price increase (we only accepted the cpi, i.e., consumer price index) and a continuation of our full open access deal.

However, a full comparison is tricky, e.g. the Adis journals have been added to the reading part (we used to pay separately, i.e., we held individual subscriptions at several of our institutes).

RP: How do universities pay for the deal, and on what basis are their individual bills calculated, or is the government top-slicing the deal (i.e. paying Springer Nature directly for the deal)?

VSNU: Dutch universities make use of a model to allocate the costs. Cost division is based on the total budget of a university, student numbers and scientific output.

RP: Does the deal cover all Dutch research institutions and all researchers based in The Netherlands?

VSNU: The deal covers all Dutch universities and university hospitals. The KNAW is also taking part in the same deal.

RP: When does the deal go into effect? (I think the last contract ended in 2017)?

VSNU: The deal covers the period 1/1/2018 until 31/12/2021.

RP: So presumably it is a 3-year deal? I think the previous contracts were for 1 year. Is 3 years not too long a period to sign up for in today’s somewhat volatile OA environment?

VSNU: Yes, this (actually 4-year deal) is covering a long period. For us, it includes an important milestone year: 2020. The articles by Dutch corresponding authors in Springer journals will then be openly available for all to read.

RP: What went wrong with the Royal Society of Chemistry negotiations? What is the next move with the RSC?

VSNU: The Dutch universities and Royal Society of Chemistry Publishing (RSC) have been unable to reach a new agreement on access to scientific journals. The VSNU would be happy to reopen negotiations with RSC if and when the publisher is willing to make comprehensive and fair agreements on open access, which they have not been until now.

RP: What other publishers has VSNU failed to reach agreement with, and why?

VSNU: There was one other publisher, namely Oxford University Press. Happily, OUP was able to present an acceptable offer a year after the previous contract had ended.

RP: Why has VSNU published so little information about the deal? At a Couperin event in January VSNU president, Koen Becking said that the take-home point of the meeting for him was that VSNU and other negotiators need to communicate with the research community much better over what they are doing and why. Does that not imply a far greater amount of information should have been released with the announcement of the Springer Nature deal, and with the announcement that the RSC deal has failed.

VSNU: As happened in the past, we try to share information whenever and wherever we can, and we will continue to do so. The moment that we have reached mutual ground, it does not mean that every detail of the contract has been settled. It took us longer than we anticipated, and we are happy that we can share some more information with you now.  

Larger issues

RP: The VSNU announcement says: “the proportion of Dutch articles published open access in Springer Nature journals has risen from 34% in 2014 to 84% in 2017.” What does that mean? 84% of what: of Dutch output? Of the output of participating institutions? These are Springer figures I believe. Has VSNU done its own calculations?

VSNU: The figure means that 84% of the output by Dutch eligible authors have published his or her article OA at Springer Nature. In the author’s submission process the default option to publish is under a Creative Commons license. The VSNU receives monthly reports from Springer; in which these figures are shared. More information on the numbers of articles published open access at Dutch universities is available on  

RP: At the Couperin event Ralf Schimmer (Max-Planck Society) and Koen Becking (VSNU) said that these kind of OA Big Deals are simply not sustainable on a country-by-country basis. In other words, countries need to coordinate their strategy. But history suggests that this is very unlikely does it not, even within the EU? Science Business reported in 2016 that only five EU countries want to abandon the traditional journal subscription model and move to open access publication, and most EU countries prefer green OA. How then can these deals achieve their objective, or reduce costs in the way that Schimmer and Becking predicted at Couperin?

VSNU: The OA2020 initiative is growing, but you are right, we need more countries to follow us. This is something we also mention in our roadmap open access 2018-2020.  

RP: Meanwhile, we see funders moving towards building their own publisher platforms (mainly using the F1000 platform). Might that not be a better approach?

VSNU: Joining forces is an important condition to change the publishing landscape. For this reason, VSNU aligns with amongst others the Dutch funding organisation NWO and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences KNAW at the national level, and at international level (e.g. with EUA).

As we mentioned in our open access roadmap, we would like to see the research(er) to be more in control.  Creating a publication platform is one of the actions to change the way of producing and disseminating knowledge in order to reach the goal of making research output publicly available without delay.

RP: Many predict that these kinds of OA Big Deal contracts will lock legacy publishers into the new OA environment, lock in unsustainable prices, and threaten the continued existence of smaller publishers and pure OA publishers. How can you allay the concerns of those who worry about this?

VSNU: These are real concerns. VSNU strives for changing the scholarly output system, not to push researchers into the hands of some publishers that impose their rules and regulations. Therefore, other actions are needed, such as a change in the rewarding and recognition policies underlying researchers’ career paths and funding policies.

For smaller or pure OA publishers the VSNU takes into account what reasonable steps can be taken towards open access, as is mentioned in our open access roadmap.

RP: What happens if an organisation like VSNU agrees one of these OA Big Deals with a large legacy publisher and then when it comes up for renewal cannot agree on pricing for the new one. Much has been made of the fact that researchers cannot get access to journal articles if a subscription Big Deal is not renewed, but what happens if an OA Big Deal fails? Researchers will presumably struggle to pay to publish their papers and so are more vulnerable?

VSNU: The preferred road to open access for the VSNU is the gold route. In case this seems to be not feasible in the end, there are alternatives of green open access or delayed open access making use of Dutch legislation (the “Taverne” amendment, see again our roadmap open access).

RP: It turns out that most open-access articles do not have a license attached to them. This has led Jon Brock to argue that publishers can deny access to the majority of open-access articles at their discretion. What if anything is VSNU doing to avoid that possibility in the deals it is signing

VSNU: In the contracts, the VSNU negotiates the CC-BY license is seen by VSNU as the preferred default to prevent copyright issues.