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.
Plan S signatories currently include 13 European funders and two charitable foundations, who 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?
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.
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.