Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The OA Interviews: Peter Mandler

In September a new European open access initiative called Plan S was announced. The stated goal is to ensure that from 2020, “scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants must be published in compliant open access journals or platforms.” 

In other words, the aim is to make all publicly-funded European research papers freely available to the world immediately on publication.
Peter Mandler
Plan S signatories currently include 13 European funders and two charitable foundationswho have banded together as cOAlition S in order to oversee and promote the initiative. One of the first to sign up was UK Research England and Innovation (UKRI) – an organisation formed earlier this year to bring together in one unified body the seven UK research councils, as well as Innovate UK and the research and knowledge exchange functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

Plan S has sparked a heated debate within the research community, and it has faced considerable pushback, including the publication of an open letter expressing concern about its likely impact. To date, the letter has attracted over 1,500 signatures. 

What is especially controversial about Plan S (aside from the short timeframe before implementation) is its decision to ban hybrid OA. Also contentious is its demand that all research papers funded by cOAlition S members must be published under the most liberal Creative Commons licence (CC BY or equivalent).

While cOAlition S subsequently announced that hybrid OA will get a three-year stay of execution, Nature calculates that banning hybrid OA means that European researchers will be unable to publish in 85% of the journals they currently submit too. Rather they will need to publish in “pure” gold OA journals, which in most cases will require paying article-processing charges (APCs). In addition, the ban has raised concerns about academic freedom.

And although cOAlition S insists that green OA (self-archiving) will remain an option for researchers, the strict compliance rules it has set (and the technical requirements demanded of repositories) would seem to mean that in most cases green OA will be practically impossible.

Plan S is the most ambitious OA initiative yet mooted by any public research funder and has caused hand-wringing even amongst OA advocates. While some have welcomed the initiative, others are critical. Yet others appear decidedly conflicted about it.

To date, much of the public debate has focussed on the implications for scientists. Yet the impact on Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) scholars looks likely to be more profound.

The implications for HSS journals and learned societies are of particular concern, and there are real fears that the rules that will be applied to journals (including compulsory CC BY) will be extended to books too – a move that is felt would be entirely inappropriate. cOAlition S has yet to issue guidance on this but has said that it plans to do so. To add to the concern, earlier this year it was announced that to be eligible for the 2027 REF long-form scholarly works and monographs will have to be published OA. Monographs are key vehicles for HSS scholars to communicate their research.

What is particularly frustrating for UK-based HSS scholars is that Plan S looks set to rip up the settlement that was reached in the wake of the 2012 Finch Report. Wounds that had begun to heal will be re-opened.

As Peter Mandler, Professor of Modern Cultural History at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, puts it in the interview below, “[I]t’s as if we haven’t had the five years of post-Finch arguments! We’re just going to have to have them all over again.”

For a sense of the challenge Plan S poses for HSS scholars please read on.

The interview begins …

RP: Can we start by establishing where you sit in the open access debate? In 2013 Cambridge Professor of Ancient History Robin Osborne said: “There can be no such thing as free access to academic research. Academic research is not something to which free access is possible. Academic research is a process – a process which universities teach (at a fee) … For those who wish to have access, there is an admission cost: they must invest in the education prerequisite to enable them to understand the language used.” Did Osborne have a point in your view? Or do you believe that open access is both a good thing, and an achievable goal?

PM: I have always believed that open access is a good thing, and achievable if properly planned and invested in, though probably never universally in the humanities.

One of my first contributions to the Royal Historical Society, as its Honorary Secretary in the late 1990s, was to propose that we put our Bibliography of British and Irish History – our biggest scholarly asset, compiled over 80 years by dedicated historians and bibliographers – free and online. It took a grant from the nascent AHRC but it was a major achievement.

Then the AHRC discovered that keeping it online and updated would require a recurrent grant – not a large one, but a long-term investment – and it backed away, in the end recommending that we sell to a commercial publisher. We did, because we had to, and it is now available at a reasonable subscription.

Shortly after this the AHRC became an enthusiast for open access publishing, though still without any ideas about how to pay for it.

That early lesson taught me that the policymakers find it easier to make policy than to find the funds to back it up – and that open access policies weren’t being designed with the specific needs of the humanities in mind.

RP: Osborne also said there is “no clear dividing line between projects funded by research councils and an academic’s daily activities of thinking and teach.” He added that to attribute any particular publication to a particular funding body “is simply impossible.” Would you agree with that point of view? If so, is the OA movement’s mantra that publicly funded research should be freely available to the public built on weak foundations?

PM: The argument has since moved on. Government argues that it funds all academics through the REF. To an extent that’s true. The problem is again that it doesn’t fund everything we do (nor indeed all of us), so it can’t reasonably claim ownership of everything we do.

That said, I do think academic research ought to be made as widely and freely available as possible.

RP: Can you say something about your publishing activity: what and how often you publish? What publishers you generally publish with etc.? And do you currently incur any publication charges when publishing?

PM: Like most historians I write books and articles, and they are published mostly by university presses which don’t make massive profits off their humanities publishing operations, while providing a valuable service.

I have tried to steer clear of publication charges, as I don’t think they are fair to un- or under-funded academics. However, some of my current research is funded by the ESRC and they require me to publish only in journals which meet their embargo stipulations or to publish Gold OA with limited funds and to publish CC BY, all of which I object to on principle.

RP: Can you say something about your other activities around scholarly publishing (beyond publishing your own work)? I assume you are on the editorial board of one or more journals? You are a Fellow of the British Academy and the BA has a publishing programme – are you involved in the management of that programme in any way? You were also President of the Royal Historical Society between 2012-2016, and I believe it was during your tenure that the RHS launched a new OA monograph series called New Historical Perspectives, which levies no Book Publication Charges on authors. Were you involved in the development of that series? Also, are you associated with other publishers in ways other than as an author?

PM: As I mentioned above, I have been an advocate of open access since my early involvement in the Royal Historical Society in the 1990s, and I was proud that we moved our monograph operations to free OA during my presidency.

However, again this experience has given me a lively awareness of the real costs of humanities publishing and how much we need to invest in order to maintain academic freedom and quality under OA conditions.

The RHS has benefited from generous grants from other learned bodies and from its collaboration with the Institute of Historical Research which has enabled us to make this investment. Not many learned societies have the resources to follow suit.

Otherwise like most academics I sit on editorial boards – again, mostly journals published by university presses which I think offer good value for money.


RP: I think it fair to say that mandatory open access became a significant thing in the UK with the publication of the 2012 Finch Report, which recommended “moving to deliver open access through a ‘gold’ model, where article processing-charges are paid upfront to cover the cost of publication”. This led to a an often-heated discussion over the RCUK and HEFCE OA policies introduced in the wake of the Finch Report and, as a result, a greater emphasis was eventually placed on green OA.

As part of that discussion, UK politicians held several Select Committee inquiries (here and here), and you too took part in the debate: as President of the Royal Historical Society you warned of “looming dangers to peer review, academic freedom, the activities and charitable functions of learned societies, and the international standing (and in some cases the continued existence) of Britain’s scholarly journals”.

One thing you were particularly concerned about was the push to mandate researchers to attach the most liberal Creative Commons licence (CC BY) to all their works. As I understand it, you felt this to be particularly inappropriate for historians and others HSS scholars. In response, you faced pushback from OA advocates, who argued that historians’ concerns were misplaced. For instance, they said, CC BY does not allow or encourage plagiarism in the way I think you feared. They also argued that including third party content in an OA publication (for example images or graphics) is not necessarily any more challenging than when using a traditional licence. All that the publisher needs to do, they said, is to attach a separate copyright notice to any third-party content included in a CC BY licensed work.

Would that be an accurate description of events? Did you accept any of the arguments made by OA advocates? Have your thoughts about the use of Creative Commons licences changed at all since then? If not, why? Are OA advocates wrong on these issues?

PM: I do think this remains an important issue, as ‘reuse’ under CC BY authorises practices that we call plagiarism in academic life. I know advocates of CC BY dislike the use of this word, but it is a good word to describe the practice of copying and altering words without specifying how they are altered.

CC BY requires only that if you reuse you must ‘attribute’ the work to the original author and say that you have altered it, but you don’t have to say how you have altered it, and this is often very difficult or impossible to determine (e.g. in translations, or in slight but significant unflagged alterations). Thus your reuse takes on the authority of my words but can bend them to your own very distinctive uses and the reader can’t easily tell which is which.

CC BY was designed to enable artistic experiments and sophisticated data techniques, with the permission of the author. It was not designed to enable the copying and manipulation of persuasive or argumentative prose, without the permission of the authors, which is what funder mandates for CC BY in the humanities now require. (My only recourse if I think you are misusing my words is to force you to remove the attribution, so that now my words are being used without even being identified as mine!).

I am very happy to sign ND licences which permit endless copying of my words without altering them, in order to permit open access, which is what the movement is supposed to be about.

I should point out that I put these arguments after Finch to Creative Commons, which granted that it had not anticipated these kinds of applications of CC BY, but also said it was not willing to devise a different licence that would require (e.g.) mark-up to show what changes had been made. Fine. So let’s not use CC BY.

RP: In the event, in response to the concerns raised by the research community (and politicians) both UK funder policies were adapted, and I formed the impression that a kind of post-Finch settlement emerged that most people felt able to sign up to. Is that your view too?

PM: Well, we reached a set of messy compromises that reflected the messiness of the process as well as (more justifiably) the messiness of real life.

There is still what I think to be an unreasonable mandate for Gold OA and CC BY for research-council funded research (like my ESRC grant).

The REF mandate for all other academic research came later and reflected a deeper engagement with humanities scholars. Thus it better reflects our different patterns of publication. It allows more liberal Green OA practices and exemptions where academics want or need to publish in journals that don’t have OA policies or can’t publish in OA forms (e.g. where our data is owned by third parties, as so often – unlike scientists – we don’t generate or even own our data).

It is very complicated and has made many academics – not only in the humanities – throw up their hands in despair. I wouldn’t have started from here. I would have started by including, I don’t know, one humanities academic on the Finch Committee?

Plan S

RP: The OA divide (if I may call it that) has opened up again in both the UK and Europe this year with the announcement of Plan S, which would require that, “from 2020, scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants must be published in compliant Open Access journals or platforms.” While it talks of “scientific publications”, it is clear that cOAlition S has HSS works in its sights too. If successfully introduced this would surely be the most bold (aggressive even) OA policy introduced by any public funder in the world. It certainly seems to be intent on ripping up any Finch settlement. What are your views on Plan S, what parts do you feel are acceptable, and what parts do you have concerns about?

PM: Our funders have signed up to Plan S once again without consulting, so far as I can tell, anyone from the humanities.

They say it is compatible with the Finch settlement because it adopts three routes to OA – 1) Gold OA (not suitable for most humanities scholars who lack funding for this purpose), 2) Green OA, but also 3) no publication in ‘hybrid’ journals unless they move to Gold OA.

This looks like it preserves the research council model (route 1) and the REF model (route 2), but since route 3 is designed to drive out of business the very journals that permit route 2 it turns out that there is really only 1 route intended in the long run, 100% Gold OA, and that’s the one which humanities scholars can’t afford.

It also categorically prescribes CC BY (while the REF model accommodates NC and ND) – it’s as if we haven’t had the five years of post-Finch arguments! We’re just going to have to have them all over again. Again, I wouldn’t have started from here.

RP: Unsurprisingly, perhaps, objections to Plan S emerged almost immediately, not least in the shape of an open letter in which over 1,500 researchers have expressed concerns about the implications of the initiative.

In response, the Plan S architects appear to have rowed back a little (as Nature puts it). So, for instance, when the guidance on implementation document was published on 27th November a transition period had been introduced to allow hybrid OA to continue for three further years (so long as it is under a “transformative agreement”). The initial proposal had envisaged a blanket ban of hybrid from 2020, which had been a particular concern for HSS.

In its response to Plan S the British Academy wrote: “In HSS, nearly all reputable journals are hybrid, in that they publish articles not supported by funders, for which libraries or private individuals pay subscriptions, at the same time as making possible the publication of Gold OA articles. We cannot accept that attempting to abolish them all would contribute positively to the successful dissemination of scientific research. Nor do we believe that preventing researchers from publishing in the journals which they believe to be the most appropriate is an ethically sustainable position.” I assume you would agree with the BA over this, and presumably a three-year stay of execution will not satisfy you? How serious a threat do you think there remains here?

PM: The long-term effect of Plan S, if implemented, will be to bifurcate journals into Gold OA journals available to funded academics (most scientists) and subscription journals available to unfunded academics (most humanists).

Unfunded scientists and funded humanists will get caught in the middle – probably a lot of social scientists too. Most humanities journals didn’t want to become hybrid journals but were forced into this by funder policies that obliged their clients to pay APCs.

Under Plan S they will have to choose, and because most of their contributors are unfunded, they will have to choose to reject funded scholars with their APCs.

That would be bad enough – a bizarre system of apartheid. If the funders go further and try to extend Plan S to all scholars, e.g. through the REF, then that will instantly put out of bounds most of the leading journals in my discipline. Many of them are American, whose principal constituencies are under no funder mandates, and they will just shrug their shoulders and say bye-bye to European scholars. It will be the European scholars’ loss – in terms of academic quality and academic freedom. And where will European scholars without funding – most of us – get the funds to publish at all?

RP: Can I just clarify this: As I understand it, cOAlition S funders are intent on eradicating subscription journals. Even if they were not, the compliance requirements they have set for green OA (immediate deposit with CC BY in repositories that have to meet technical specifications that very few if any repositories are currently able to meet) would seem to put the future of subscription journals at serious risk -- especially, as you say, if Plan S is extended to all scholars not just those that are funded. On the other hand, if Plan S does not propagate widely (although it seems that China may be sympathetic to the initiative), then subscription journals will persist, but they will be out of bounds to European researchers, who could even discover that they are not able to publish in journals at all. Is that how you see it?

PM: It’s hard to say. I think probably they are trying to eliminate subscription journals altogether. But they don’t say so explicitly, so I am trying to puzzle out the range of short- and long-term outcomes envisaged or likely.

Funded academics are certainly effectively excluded from subscription journals for the reasons you suggest (even if they wanted to, they can't comply with the Green OA route 2). But this leaves most of us in humanities who most of the time are not funded by research councils. Only if they intend to extend this plan to us does the scenario I sketch out in the final paragraph come into play.


RP: While it has rowed back on hybrid OA, the guidance document seems to have embedded mandatory CC BY more firmly in Plan S. It has yet to be confirmed exactly how monographs will be impacted by this, but in any case it had previously been announced that to be eligible for the 2027 REF long-form scholarly works and monographs will have to be published OA. Again, there has yet to be a decision made about licensing, but I assume you hope there will not be an insistence that books are published CC BY? Can you share your thoughts on what you feel the future holds for HSS scholars in this regard?

PM: Very simply I hope that any OA monographs mandate and Plan S will just say we accept NC-ND as the current REF mandate does.

But OA monographs raise many other problems that we haven’t yet discussed. They cost a lot more to edit and produce – even in online only form – than articles. Who is going to pay?

I was on the advisory body to Geoff Crossick when he wrote his report on OA monographs, and we all concluded that there was not yet a viable funding model that could make monographs universally open-access. I haven’t noticed any substantial advance on that position (indeed, some substantial retreats – e.g. the snaffling up of Knowledge Unlatched by corporate interests). What makes UKRI think we are suddenly ready to proceed?

RP: More broadly, and based on where we are today, what impact do you think Plan S and the increasingly demanding REF requirements for OA are likely to have on history journals, and indeed on learned societies? Is the threat you see now greater than it was in 2013, or is there less of a threat?

PM: A bit of both. On the one hand, we do have some useful experiences and experiments. I think some journal publishers have realised that the REF compromise – which distinguishes between the open-access manuscript and a paid-for Version of Record – won’t make their current models unviable, even without embargoes. That’s a plus.

There are a few more high-quality OA outlets now (like the Royal Historical Society monograph series!). That’s a plus.

But are we any nearer to a system where all humanities scholars have equal access to open access regardless of their funding and institutional standing? No. And the funders seem just as if not more willing to proceed regardless.

Academic freedom

RP: What are your current thoughts on the likely impact of mandatory OA policies like Plan S on academic freedom?

PM: I do think academics ought to be able to publish wherever they like. I don’t mind a Green OA mandate that doesn’t interfere with that right, because I think the public ought to have as much access as possible to publicly-funded research, so long as it doesn’t jeopardise academic quality and freedom.

But most worrying of all is the way in which (in the UK) OA mandates form part of a broader trend towards closer government control of academic research. The Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 explicitly rewrote the Haldane Principle so as to empower it in this way against the arm’s-length conventions of the previous century.

It also put both the research councils and the once more arm’s-length apparatus of the funding councils under a single body whose members sit at the pleasure of the government. We have to see all new mandates in this context.

RP: The BA document I referred to questions the cOAlition S claim that there is no valid reason to maintain any kind of subscription-based business model for scholarly journals in the digital world. What are your views on this?

PM: The OA movement originated in well-founded righteous indignation against corporate publishers monopolising academic research and charging us sky-high rates to read our own work. (They then often boasted about the premium profits they made on their academic publishing units – see Informa reports to shareholders from a few years back – they seem to have toned that down since!)  

But it has now extended its reach to charitable and academic publishers who charge a reasonable price for substantial infrastructural and editorial services. Even in the digital world these essential services are not free. Look at the William & Mary Quarterly that provides a superb service to authors and readers at a low price. What good end would be served by trying to drive them out of business?

RP: Do you have any views on preprint servers and their role in scholarly communication as we move towards an open access future? Do preprint servers have much use or interest for historians?

PM: Circulating your work before publication has been a standard operating procedure for historians for decades. We give lectures and seminars and circulate our drafts to interested parties. At the point where we are ready to publish, we ask journals (i.e. our peers) to invest a lot of time and effort to get our drafts up to the required level – through peer review, editorial advice, copy-editing, proofreading. This is an essential community service to early-career scholars in particular and deserves to be cherished (and its modest costs paid for).

Any wider circulation of drafts seems to be an unmitigated good; at the point where journals start to make their contribution, circulation should be constrained only to the degree necessary to protect that contribution. The Green OA compromise for the REF was designed to try to find that point – i.e. between the accepted manuscript and the version of record.


RP: I sometimes think that the end point of the increasingly onerous OA mandates we are seeing being imposed on researchers, and their increasing discomfit with them, could eventually see universities and/or funders start to insist on acquiring all faculty copyright (which I believe the law already allows universities, as employers, to do). I recall that in 2002 there was a row over copyright in Cambridge when the University sought to acquire faculty IP. Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering at the Computer Laboratory in Cambridge was heavily involved in a successful campaign to stop what he called the “expropriation” of faculty copyright.

Might we see a re-run of this in response to the increasingly demanding OA mandates? After all, even if universities and funders are not (currently) insisting on acquiring faculty copyright for themselves, by insisting on the use of CC BY they are telling researchers that they have to give away all the rights in their works bar the right of attribution are they not?

PM: The wider UK context is an ever tighter managerial control over academic work, which leads to all sorts of power-grabs, not confined to IP. Academics are rightly worried about this.

The Scholarly Communication Licence which was the flavour of the month in managerial circles earlier this year was one good example. It said, let’s ignore the compromise that was struck on REF, and try to circumvent it by requiring our academics to sign over their IP (leaving formal copyright but not much else in their academics’ hands).

I don’t imagine such power-grabs will diminish in likelihood unless there is some major political or cultural upheaval in British higher education in coming years.

RP: For historians and others in HSS there is presumably also the issue of trade books. Do you have concerns that OA policies could kill off the trade book, a possibility mooted by fellow Cambridge historian Helen McCarthy earlier this year. Your Wikipedia page indicates that you support popular, public history over the narrow, specialist study of the discipline. If researchers stopped producing trade books as a result of OA policies might we see public access to scholarly thinking reduced rather than increased?

PM: If the funding councils do as they say, and seek to extend the REF OA mandate to monographs next time around, I imagine they will introduce a raft of exemptions such as were negotiated for the current REF OA mandate for journal articles.

There will have to be in this case so many exemptions that you really wonder why they think the struggle is worth the candle. (I am horrified to see you quoting ‘my Wikipedia page’ as a reliable source. What does that statement even mean?)

RP: I have been hearing rumours of a legal challenge to Plan S. Do you think that might happen? Would you welcome a legal challenge?

PM: I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know enough to have an opinion. I understand that the legal challenges mooted so far mostly come from academics in German-speaking lands where there are more constitutional protections for academic freedom.

I believe that the law academics at Aberdeen mounted a challenge recently to managerial attempts to expropriate their IP and one might expect such challenges to mount if there are more skirmishes over who owns IP.

But I wouldn’t want to reduce this to a narrow legal question. It is also a moral, political and cultural question – how much control should government and management have over academic work? 

RP: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The OA Interviews: Frances Pinter

In 2012 serial entrepreneur Frances Pinter founded a new company called Knowledge Unlatched (KU). The goal, she explained in 2013, was to “change the way we fund the publishing of quality content” for book-length publications, and in a way that would allow them to be made open access. 

With that end in mind, Pinter launched a pilot project in which research libraries were invited to pool money to fund the “fixed costs” of publishing monographs. By doing so, Pinter reasoned, PDF and HTML versions of these “unlatched” books could be made freely available on the Web, but print and other premium versions would continue to be sold in the traditional manner. And those libraries that contributed to the pool would earn the right to buy the premium versions at a discounted price.

In a spirit of civic-mindedness Pinter created Knowledge Unlatched as a UK non-profit Community Interest Company (CIC). And with Pinter’s formidable reputation as a publisher, KU quickly acquired mindshare and influence, and went on to play an important role in the thinking about the scope and opportunities for OA monographs, as well as in policy development – both in the UK and globally.

Above all, says Pinter below, KU went on to provide proof of concept for a new way of funding OA monographs, and perhaps of funding OA more generally.


Initial funding for KU came from (amongst others) the British Library Trust, Open Society Foundations, HEFCE, as well as a number of Australian libraries.

When that funding ended, however, as a non-profit CIC, KU struggled to raise further funds or capital. And with few assets to offer as collateral, commercial loans were equally hard to come by. Consequently, it was not immediately clear how KU could become financially sustainable, or even whether it could. Faced with this truth, says Pinter, she was minded to call it day.

Supporters, however, were urging her to continue and so Pinter drew down a six-figure sum from her pension savings and, with some additional funding from Australia’s Curtin University, she proceeded to a second pilot round. This saw increased support from publishers and a larger number of books offered for unlatching. But while this was encouraging, the sustainability issue had not gone away.

At this point, Pinter was approached by former De Gruyter CEO Sven Fund and invited to sell some of KU’s assets. She agreed, and Fund acquired the bulk of KU.

As a result, KU was transformed from a UK non-profit CIC to a for-profit GmbH based in Berlin, and KU is now owned by another Sven Fund for-profit company called fullstopp.

After acquiring KU, Sven Fund moved quickly to develop and launch a raft of new products and initiatives, including a journal collection, KU Partners, KU Select and KU Open Funding. The latter is a platform designed to act as a broker between research institutions, publishers, and authors who want to make their monographs OA.


However, KU’s change of status and its more aggressive stance in the marketplace has attracted criticism from the research community. This came to a head last month when former KU employee Marcel Knöchelmann published a post on the LSE Impact Blog in which he complained that KU had undergone a process of silent commercialisation. He also suggested that the decision by UK funder Research England to contract KU parent fullstopp to undertake a survey of the OA monograph landscape raised conflict of interest issues.

The problem, he said, is that “The parent company of the commercial entity which stands to profit from a future of open access book publishing is advising on what the future of open access book publishing in the UK should be”.

In a separate post two days later the Director of Open Book Publishers Rupert Gatti complained that KU was insisting that those publishers who use the KU Open Funding platform must sign an exclusive contract.

As a result, said Gatti, OBP would not be participating in KU Open Funding. “These types of exclusivity contracts can be used by digital ‘platforms’ as a strategy to monopolise and dominate an industry.”

Other OA monograph publishers have indicated that they too plan to boycott the KU Open Funding platform, including members of the ScholarLed consortium of academic-led, not-for-profit, open access book publishers.  

In response, KU has agreed to cease insisting on exclusive contracts and Research England and fullstopp have said that both the survey questions and (some of ) the responses fullstopp receives to that survey will be made publicly available (more from Research England here).

Nevertheless, it is not clear that critics are yet convinced that KU’s business model is the right one. Nor have they come to terms with its new for-profit status. “I feel crowdfunding from libraries to unlock back- and front-list titles merely funnels more money to conventional academic publishers, who don’t have to change their broken business models at all,” Eileen Joy of non-profit punctum books told me on Twitter. “In other words, it’s not a transformative approach to OA and it keeps broken systems in place.”

She added, “We don’t want to see too many for-profit ‘middlemen’ between publishers and librarians. We want to build partnerships with libraries (and have already done that; e.g. punctum just inaugurated a two-year pilot partnership with UCSB Library at UC Santa Barbara).”

Eileen Joy concludes: “We are also troubled by the transfer of KU from a non-profit directed by Frances Pinter to a for-profit directed by Sven Fund in Berlin. Does anyone know anything about the details of that transaction / hand-over? Did Sven Fund buy KU from Pinter and for how much? What is her role now? Isn’t Fund a venture capitalist? Does he really have a commitment to the long-term health of a more equitable ecosystem for OA and scholarly communications or is KU a business venture for him?”

Hopefully, the interview below with Pinter (and what I have said above) will go some way to answering these questions.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The OA Interviews: Arul George Scaria

One common criticism of the open access and open science movements is that they tend to take a standardised view of science and scholarship, and so propose one-size-fits-all approaches when advocating for ways of making research and the research process more open and transparent. This often poses significant challenges for, for instance, researchers in non-STEM disciplines. It is also often deeply problematic for those based in the global South. 

This is one of the reasons why open access has become a source of considerable conflict and divisiveness, particularly as more and more researchers find themselves subjected to increasingly demanding and standardised OA mandates.

For instance, while many scientists (but by no means all) may be willing to make their work available with a CC BY licence attached, those working in arts, humanities and social science (AHSS) subjects often object strongly when told they must do so – usually for good reasons.

Likewise, the increasing move to pay-to-publish gold OA poses serious problems for those without access to the necessary funds to pay the associated publishing costs. With growing calls for a global flip of all subscription journals to a pay-to-publish model, this is now a very real issue. 

Again, it is those working in AHSS and the global South who are particularly challenged by this development. In addition, it presents those journals published by learned societies with an existential threat.

Global process

It is also important to bear in mind that scholarly communication is a global process and endeavour. As such, changes introduced in the global North tend to have implications for those in the South as well, often with harmful consequences.

This is the possible outcome, for instance, of the current European initiative dubbed Plan S. If it triggered a global flip to pay-to-publish (which currently seems very possible) Plan S would disenfranchise researchers based in the global South in a more fundamental way than the current subscription system does.

(For a more detailed exposition of the concerns researchers have over Plan S see this open letter, which has attracted the signature of over 1,300 researchers so far).

It is important, therefore, that advocates for greater openness do not assume the world of science and scholarship to be uniform when advocating for change, and that those implementing open policies consider carefully disciplinary differences, local needs, local conditions and local practices before seeking to force change on the research community.

In short, governments and funders need to understand both the global forces at play and local conditions prior to introducing new open policies and initiatives.

It is therefore to be welcomed that the Centre for Innovation, Intellectual Property and Competition (CIIPC) in New Delhi has conducted a landscape survey of the current situation in India as concerns open science (although due to feasibility concerns, the sample was restricted to a limited number of disciplines and institutions: Economics, Law, Mechanical Engineering, Medicine, and Physics were).

The study’s principal investigator was Arul George Scaria, Assistant Professor of Law and Co-Director at CIIPC, and he is currently working on a report based on the survey (available in draft form here).

In the interview with me below Arul George Scaria explains what the survey discovered and what recommendations the report will make as a result. He also answers some additional questions I put to him.

Here are a few quotes from the interview, but please read the full interview to get the complete picture. Those interested in the matter will clearly want to read the report too:

-        “The overall scenario with regard to open science practices in India is not that promising and we need to take a lot more steps to make science open.”

-        “Some of the most experienced scientists and policymakers in India maintain strongly that there is no crisis in science in India, despite clear evidence of the magnitude of the problem. Some of them might be taking that position because they think that accepting the existence of the crisis is harmful to the image of science in India.”

-        “It may not be advisable or possible to transplant the approaches being adopted for open science in the global North to a country like India, where access conditions and socio-economic situations are vastly different.”

-        “In the context of global South, it is also important to focus on creating offline resources and some of the specific suggestions put forward in the report include more focus on print media, community radio stations, and creation of shared physical infrastructures.”

-        “We need to ensure that initiatives like Plan S do not incentivise a complete shift to the pay-to-publish gold open access model. This would certainly be detrimental to researchers in the global South, as it would mean that most would be unable to share their research due to the exorbitant charges imposed by publishers.”

-        “Predatory publishing is an important challenge that needs to be addressed in India.”

-        “What we are witnessing today is the capture of shared community resources by a handful of cash-rich conglomerates who want to monopolise every aspect of science communication. We as a community need to fight back against the monopolisation of our resources. As most researchers still appear to be unaware of the long-term consequences of such monopolisation, extensive campaigns are needed in order to create awareness among researchers.”

Monday, November 12, 2018

Plan S and Researchers’ Rights: (Re)Framing Academic Freedom

When in 1915 the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was formed, and published its Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, it was responding to a specific historical situation.

Today the historical situation researchers find themselves in is different and academic freedom faces new challenges. What complicates the picture is that there is considerable disagreement over what exactly academic freedom is, and what aspects of academic life it covers.

This lack of consensus has become all too apparent in the current discussions about Plan S. Indeed, some of those who support Plan S maintain that academic freedom is no longer relevant, or has ceased to exist in any meaningful way.

The key principle of Plan S – which a growing number of funders are signing up to – is 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.”

Most (if not all) researchers would surely agree that this is a laudable goal. But for some (we don’t know how many) the way in which it is currently envisaged that Plan S will be implemented raises a red flag with regard to academic freedom. It does not help that those who devised the initiative dismiss these concerns out of hand. The main architect of Plan S –  Robert-Jan Smits – has even bemoaned the fact that people are citing academic freedom in the context of Plan S, “because it stifles a lot of debate.”

Be that as it may, it is clear that some researchers believe Plan S does have implications for academic freedom. And a growing number of them (currently approaching 1,000) are signing a petition that asserts, amongst other things, that Plan S “is a serious violation of academic freedom”.

Given the apparent disenchantment with Plan S amongst at least some in the research community, and given that researchers find themselves increasingly subjected to ever more demanding OA policies like it (in which new duties, new restrictions and limitations, and new responsibilities are imposed on them), it is surely time to look again at what academic freedom does and does not mean, and what it should and should not mean in today’s context, and try to redefine and/or refine it for today’s historical situation; or at least to, as Marc Couture puts it in his guest post below, seek to “reframe” it?

What seems clear to me is that there is a pressing need for a debate about the relevance, role and responsibilities of academic freedom in the context of the growing list of open access policies, with a view to arriving at some kind of consensus.

What also seems clear to me is that this discussion ought to take place amongst researchers before funders seek to impose radical initiatives like Plan S on them. After all, if academic freedom means anything, it surely means that it is researchers and their institutions who should be in the driving seat over this, not funders.

But why not read what Marc Couture has to say below and think about the questions he asks before reaching your own conclusion on these matters. It may well be that Marc’s views on whether and how Plan S has implications for academic freedom are different to mine. But I am not a member of the research community, so my views are not what counts here. What I think does count is what the majority of researchers think. And without a meaningful debate, we will never know that.

Plan S and Researchers’ Rights: (Re)Framing Academic Freedom

By Marc Couture
The announcement of Plan S has generated many much needed (and much heated) discussions. I’m pleased to observe that these don’t concern the relevance of open access, whose wide-ranging benefits now seem to be almost universally acknowledged, but only potentially negative side-effects of the massive, if not global, shift to open access that the plan hopes to bring about.

Though many aspects of the plan are somewhat unclear, and most details of its implementation are still being drafted, what we do know already raises various worries. One is a possible conflict with academic freedom.

Two requirements of the plan are specifically targeted: (1) publication only in compliant journals (full OA, no hybrid) and (2) dissemination under a licence compliant with the Berlin OA definition, which would require authors to accept ceding generous usage rights in their works to others.

I must say first that I firmly believe that academic freedom is important; it is at the very heart of higher education. Drawing from the numerous available definitions, I would formulate its basic, most general definition as follows:

Academic freedom (AF) is the right, for individual academics as well as their institutions, to decide by themselves the subjects and ideas they wish to investigate, disseminate or teach upon without fear of reprisal or censorship, with the ultimate purpose of benefitting both scholarship and the common good.

Some definitions of AF include further rights, for instance the right – individually or as a community – to decide not only what is investigated, disseminated or taught, but how it is done.

Others add more specific freedoms, the most relevant in relation to Plan S being the freedom to choose the publication venue for one’s research results. One also remarks that the language used in some definitions can be very strong, qualifying such freedoms as “full”, “complete” or “without constraints”.

A quid pro quo

It must be pointed out that AF is neither an absolute, divine-like right, nor a “blank check” granted to researchers. It’s rather a privilege, bestowed to academia by society. Moreover, a quid pro quo is at work here.

On the one hand, society acknowledges that scholarship is the most powerful and trustworthy way to explain the world and solve its problems, as long as it is protected from ideological, political and economic vested interests.

On the other hand, scholars, both individually and collectively, must act in a responsible way, by living up to the values underpinning scholarship (rationality, critical thinking, honesty and respect in debates) and the common good (equity, inclusivity, human dignity).

So far, the discussions on actual or potential conflicts between Plan S and AF have involved specific freedoms found in one or another definition, with participants arguing that:

(1) This or that requirement of Plan S does (or doesn’t) concern, or conflict with, AF

(2) This or that measure proposed in Plan S may concern or conflict with AF, but other things as problematic, if not more, have been going on for years in academia without anybody complaining

(3) (Generally, in response to #1 or #2) this or that definition of AF is unclear, outdated or irrelevant, and must be dismissed, or interpreted in this or that way

My stance is that while more freedom is a priori preferable in the academy, the exercise of rights included in AF, especially the more specific ones found in its various definitions, may or may not contribute, in a given situation or context, to AF’s ultimate purpose of benefitting scholarship and/or the common good. In fact, it could even do the exact opposite, or entail both benefits and harms.

Thus, when a measure or a policy seems to conflict with those rights, one should not simply brandish AF as a “trump card” as an argument to counter it, but see this conflict as a warning, inviting one to examine to what extent the exercise of AF, in the situation at hand, effectively benefits – or hinders – scholarship and the common good.

Let me illustrate this approach by looking at the two issues I mentioned in relation to Plan S where the topic of AF has been brought forth.

(1) Constraints on publishing venues

Plan S puts severe constraints on the venues where research results may be published. This will reduce the choices available to researchers. However, to what extent it will do so is currently hard to assess, as it depends on publishers’ response to Plan S.

Here, any conflict with AF would be of utmost concern, since the right to disseminate one’s results is viewed as part of the basic definition of AF. One such conflict I could foresee in this context is if, when Plan S is finally implemented, researchers choosing marginal or unpopular, yet legitimate, topics or methods found they were unable to publish their results in peer-reviewed scholarly journals altogether, because not one, or too few of those complying with Plan S would consider, let alone accept, their papers.

However, I haven’t seen any mention of such a dire scenario in the discussions about Plan S; considering the ever-increasing number of OA journals in all fields, this is understandable. Rather, the major complaint is that Plan S will impede researchers from publishing in very specific journals, meaning highly selective, high impact ones.

This is viewed as conflicting with AF, on the grounds that definitions of AF either imply researchers must be the only ones to have a say in the way research is done (this may or may not include publication), or with reference to more specific freedoms, like “full freedom in publication” or the right to choose the publishing venue.

It is thus not surprising that critics have invoked specific rights associated to AF to oppose measures that could either (1) hurt leading, generally (for the time being) non-compliant journals or (2) impede researchers from publishing in them.

However, researchers wouldn’t lose the possibility of disseminating their results. Most papers submitted to these highly selective journals are rejected not for being faulty, but because they are deemed unimportant, not original enough, or unfit for the venue.

Nevertheless, most of them are subsequently published in other journals, often journals that focus less on criteria like relevance and potential impact and more on the general quality of the paper and the soundness of reasoning and analysis.

What those researchers who succeed in having their papers published in prestigious journals really fear is losing the ability to benefit, career-wise, from the so-called “prestige economy”, where journals are evaluated and ranked according to qualitative (perceived prestige) and, increasingly, quantitative criteria (rejection rates, impact factors), and where individual researchers are judged by their peers in large part on the number of papers and the journals in which the papers appeared.

But there are strong reasons to believe, and mounting evidence to that effect, that this prestige-based evaluation system, as deeply ingrained in academia as it may be, is deeply flawed on many accounts.

In addition, the “publishing oligopoly” of large publishers has skillfully used it to increase its stranglehold on scholarly publication and to justify its skyrocketing costs.

One can even argue that the current system conflicts with the freedom of choice in research included in AF’s basic definition. After all, giving prominence to the number of papers and restricting journals that really “count” towards evaluation to leading, high impact ones may in practice make researchers, if they hope to remain in academia, avoid research topics or methods that take too much time to produce results, or that won’t be considered by these highly selective journals.

Here we face a peculiar situation where, in the very name of AF, the research community hesitates to let go of, or significantly reform, a system that is far from optimal and that, quite paradoxically, may well limit the AF of individual researchers.

The Preamble of Plan S alludes to this prestige economy, by speaking of a “misdirected reward system” and by endorsing the DORA Declaration, which proposes that researchers are judged upon the quality and impact of their research, both multi-faceted notions not reducible to numbers and journal names. And while its principles don’t refer explicitly to this system, Plan S has certainly the potential to disturb, or even disrupt it, again to an extent difficult to assess.

Thus, one has to put into balance two consequences of the drastic change Plan S hopes to achieve.

On the one side, there could be drawbacks for some researchers, though one can think that under a new evaluation paradigm, many if not most of them would still see their valuable work recognized.

The importance of high-impact journals, possibly imperilled by Plan S, for assessing the quality of scholarship has also been highlighted, although studies (like this one) draw a more nuanced picture of the efficiency of the gatekeeping they provide.

On the other side, there are potential benefits to scholarship, in terms of efficiency (e.g., the overall burden of peer-review being reduced, publication delays shortened), and to society (e.g. fewer public funds diverted towards publishers’ revenues and profits, universal access to research results).

(2) The requirement to publish with a liberal licence

Plan S also requires that the main research results are disseminated under a licence with minimal restrictions (CC BY or similar). Since deciding the way in which one’s works are used may be part of “full freedom in publication”, this requirement may also be viewed as conflicting with AF.

True, some researchers don’t like to see their works used by others to “make money”; many are also reluctant to let others adapt them, fearing that this may endanger both the quality of scholarship and the author’s own reputation.

Again, we might wonder to what extent allowing researchers to decide how their works are used (this includes, ironically, letting publishers become the ones to decide) is beneficial to scholarship and society.

What contributes more to AF’s ultimate purpose: protecting works against uses researchers dislike or fear, or allowing those works to be easily used and adapted?

There are numerous studies and discussions on this topic, covering issues like fear vs actual risk, the fuzziness of the various usage restrictions, and their effects on potential users, that could feed the discussion (see for instance here, here and here).

In short, what I propose here is to reframe the role that academic freedom plays in discussions about the proposals put forth in Plan S, by assessing both their potential consequences on scholarship and the common good as well as the nature of their actual or potential conflict with AF, keeping in mind that the raison d’être of AF is, after all, to benefit scholarship and the common good.

While this leaves much room for interpretation and discussion, notably how we define quality in scholarship and what constitutes the common good, I believe it would help answer questions like: Is Plan S a sound, or reasonable proposal? How can it be improved and implemented in order to reach its stated goal, that is flipping to OA a sizable part of scholarly communication, while bringing benefits to both scholarship and society?

These are crucial issues, and I see a real danger that a strict, almost dogmatic stance on AF could cause Plan S to fall short of its potential to pave the way towards a less costly, yet more fair, full-OA scholarly publication system.

The author thanks Marie-Josée Legault and Richard Poynder for their helpful comments.


Marc Couture was until recently science professor at TELUQ, University of Quebec distance education arm. He views himself as a generalist, having over his 30-year career had his areas of interest and activity evolve from physics (his PhD was in optics and lasers) to the application of IT in science education, to intellectual property in academia and, above all, open access, for which he remains a dedicated and shameless advocate.