Thursday, June 06, 2019

Why did Riksbankens Jubileumsfond decide to leave cOAlition S?

Last September a group of (mainly) European funders (cOAlition S) launched a new open access initiative called Plan S. The goal was to make all publicly funded research open access by 2020. And to that end, a month later (November) a set of draft implementation guidelines for the plan were published.
Image Simeon87 CC BY-SA

Plan S proved controversial and, amongst other things, led to a petition of protest being launched.   

To help ease the way and encourage buy-in, therefore, cOAlition S opened the guidelines up for public consultation. This attracted more than 600 responses and saw the publication of revised guidelines last week (31st May).

The updated guidelines have been better received, even by publishers. Elsevier, for instance, has “welcomed” them, as have open access advocates.

Nevertheless, Plan S appears to still be struggling to sign up new funders. When it launched, there were 10 funders; today there are still only 19. Many believe this is too few to trigger the change to scholarly communication that cOAlition S members want. Importantly, the two largest producers of research papers in the world – China and the US – are notable by their absence from the coalition.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while cOAlition S is quick to tell the world when it signs up a new funder, it is silent when a funder leaves the coalition. It has not, for instance, publicly commented on the decision by the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, or RJ) to leave the coalition. RJs name just disappeared from the Plan S web page sometime during the week beginning 20th May.

How, when and why did RJ leave?

On 6th March RJ published an open letter addressed to cOAlition S in which it expressed some concerns about the initiative and said, “RJ remains in the Coalition S, but cannot support Plan S in its current form.”

It added that it believed Plan S needed to be “more flexible and discussed more openly with the research community.”

Leave or remain?

The next day (7th March) RJ posted a tweet saying that it could no longer support the timetable for Plan S and linked to a note on its web site. This note stressed RJ’s support for open science but repeated that it could not support the Plan S schedule. It added, however, that it had emphasised to cOAlition S that it wanted to remain in the group.

Yet three days before cOAlition S published its revised guidance (May 28th) RJ announced that it had left the coalition.

The announcement added: “After consultation with researchers and discussions within the Board, Jubileumsfond decided on March 6, 2019 to step away from Plan S. Our assessment is that the process is too fast to suit humanities and social sciences. This also means that we have left cOAlition S, but we continue to support their ambitions.”

Confusingly, although the May 28th announcement says that the decision to leave the coalition had been taken on March 6th, RJ’s letter of that date emphasised that RJ was remaining in the Coalition S. Its continuing commitment to the coalition was repeated in the note of 7th March.

In the hope of better understanding what had happened and why RJ appeared to be making contradictory statements I emailed the CEO of RJ, Marika Hedin. (Hedin took over as CEO on 1st February. The decision to sign up to Plan S had therefore been taken by the former CEO.)

I asked Hedin if perhaps the problem was that the former CEO had signed up to Plan S before RJ’s Board had had an opportunity to discuss and approve the decision. She replied, “No, I think that you have misunderstood the situation. Our CEO is authorised to make decisions like this, and in the early talks of Plan S, the aims seemed completely aligned with the already far-reaching Open Access policies that Riksbankens Jubileumsfond has had since 2010.”


Hedin added, “However, when Plan S was published in November it had evolved. There were thorough discussions and consultations about this in our Board during our former CEO, and during his last and my first board meeting in late February, it was jointly decided to step away from Plan S. We were all in complete agreement on this, he, I and our Board of Directors. He and I then wrote a letter jointly to the COAlition declaring this, which was published on our website March 6.”

Again, this does not seem entirely consonant with what was said in the March 6th letter. It is also not clear in what way Plan S had evolved such that it had now become unacceptable to RJ. The 10 Plan S Principles – which surely make clear to signatories what they are being asked to sign up to – had been published in September and presumably funders would have been asked to agree to the 10 principles before signing up. Either way, we might wonder why it took six months for RJ to become concerned over what it had signed up to, and eight months before it eventually left cOAlition S.

More puzzling perhaps, the May 28th announcement came just three days before cOAlition S published its updated guidelines. These might seem to have addressed RJ’s concerns. That is, the start date has been delayed, and greater flexibility has been provided for implementation. In other words, cOAlition S might seem to have heard and addressed the concerns of RJ. But RJ left anyway.

When I asked the interim coordinator of cOAlition S (and Head of Open Research at the Wellcome Trust) Robert Kiley whether Plan S had evolved over time he said “no changes were made to Plan S other than the changes we announced on Friday.” (I.e. in the updated guidelines published on 31st May).

So what went wrong? Was cOAlition S so keen to sign up funders that it failed to outline exactly what they were being asked to commit to? “I wasn’t involved in Plan S until after the Principles had been published (September 2018)”, Kiley told me, “so have no knowledge of what might have been discussed prior to their publication (or whether RJ were part of these discussions or not).”

Or was it rather that when Plan S came up for discussion at the RJ Board, members rejected the CEO’s decision to sign up?

Still confused, I invited Hedin to do a full Q&A. She replied, “Thank you, but I have no further comments. After making that decision our Board of Directors have also decided to not participate in the current debate but rather continue discussing this issue within our own organisation.”

She added, “Our relationship with cOAlition S is good and we support their efforts even though we have stepped out of the process of Plan S.

“At this point we do not plan to make a statement about RJ leaving the cOAlition,” Kiley told me. “I hope in time that RJ may reconsider their position and once again align themselves with Plan S.”

Openness and transparency

But does any of this matter? Is it important to anyone but RJ (and cOAlition S) that it decided to sign up to Plan S and then later changed its mind? Does it matter if the reason for leaving is not clear? Perhaps it doesn’t. The incident reminds us, however, that the Plan S project underlines the way in which the open access movement has morphed from a bottom-up to a top-down movement, and transparency has increasingly been sacrificed in the process.

Above all, open access was meant to be about openness, clarity and transparency. This is not what we see today. Rather opaqueness and opacity have become the norm. And this change appears to date from the point at which funders began to take up the cause and started introducing ever more oppressive OA mandates. Increasingly, decisions are taken behind closed doors and new rules are imposed on unwilling and hapless researchers.

And is there not a hint of hypocrisy here? Principle 5 of Plan S insists that publishers must be transparent about their pricing and processes, including their editorial policies, their decision-making, their acceptance rates and their review times. Researchers, meanwhile, face ever more bureaucratic scrutiny in order to ensure compliance and are threatened with sanctions if they fail to comply.

Should we not expect cOAlition S members to live by the same rules of responsibility and transparency that they seek to force on publishers and researchers?

Is it not therefore incumbent on RJ to explain in more detail what it thought it was signing up to, why it signed up if it did not understand the implications of doing so, and why it subsequently chose to leave, despite apparently having had its demands met – that is, both the timetable and the implementation of Plan S were adjusted to become more flexible?

Should we not also expect decisions about open access to be decided in a democratic and open manner? How, for instance, did signatory funders make their decisions about joining Plan S and how open to scrutiny is that decision-making process?

On 27th February I invited all members of cOAlition S to send me a link to, or copy of, the minutes of the meetings of the board (or similar) where it was agreed to join the coalition.

Only three funders responded and not one pointed me to any minutes. Of those who responed, two were private funders – the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation – and one a public funder, Formas.

In responding for Wellcome, Kiley said that the decision to sign up to Plan S had been taken by the Executive Leadership Team. This might seem to suggest that the Wellcome Board (which has ultimate responsibility for Wellcome’s activities) had not been consulted.

Formas replied that the decision to sign up to Plan S had been made by the Director General, with no mention of the Formas Scientific Council having been asked to give approval.

And the minutes of the Board meetings of the Research Council of Norway posted on the Web suggested that the funder did not discuss Plan S until three months after it had signed up. (The minutes of the meeting appear now to have been taken down).

Apart from the embarrassment of signing up to an initiative like Plan S only to have the decision later overturned by the Board, this kind of executive power grab is out of tune with the open, transparent and democratic principles that the OA movement was built on.

In its letter of March 6th RJ makes an important point: it says that by seeking to force Plan S on researchers without adequate consultation the modus operandi of Plan S, “has succeeded to turn researchers who have been in favour of Open Science and Robert Merton’s CUDOS principles against these positions. This is an unfortunate development.”

That perhaps is the key issue: forcing oppressive OA mandates on researchers may turn out to be counterproductive. Perhaps that is the real reason why RJ left cOAlition S: the failure to get researcher buy-in before announcing the initiative. But then why did RJ’s CEO sign up in the first place? Why did RJ not express concern until six months later? And why is it not willing to talk openly and publicly about what happened?

After all, if RJ’s concerns about the dangers of seeking to force open access on researchers are valid then the issue is of wider significance than Plan S alone. It is of relevance to the very future of open access and how it is (or is not) achieved.