When in 1915 the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was formed, and published its , it was responding to a .
Today the historical situation researchers find themselves in is different and academic freedom faces . 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, .
The 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 – 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 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 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 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 , 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 , 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 for one’s research results. One also remarks that the language used in some definitions can be very strong, qualifying such freedoms as “ ”, “ ” or “ ”.
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, 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 “”, 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 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 “” 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 alludes to this prestige economy, by speaking of a “misdirected reward system” and by endorsing the , 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 ) 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 “”; 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 , and ).
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 , full-OA scholarly publication system.
The author thanks Marie-Josée Legault and Richard Poynder for their helpful comments.
was until recently science professor at , 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.