Credit: Rhodes University Library

Plan S — doing the right thing

By: Aled M. Edwards

What follows are my personal opinions about Plan S, a movement to make all published research articles freely and immediately accessible and reusable to all, and the push-back from some in the research community.

Some of my close colleagues encouraged me to write a measured piece about their concerns, but I decided to ignore their wise advice.

Researchers like me are in privileged positions. Tax payers and charities around the world fund us to think, to carry out experiments and to advance knowledge. They pay for the research and they pay for us to review the research.

And in return? The folks who pay for the research (Canadians like my parents, and even our Prime Minister) have to pay again to read the very research they support. Moreover, even if articles become accessible after some agreed embargo period — the Canadian government allows its research to be embargoed for 12 months — they are not currently licensed in ways which allows others (including machines) to legally reuse this content to help discover new knowledge. This is nuts.

The open publishing movement was launched to address this clear inequity. However, although the transition to open publishing has been steady, it’s also been glacial. Turns out most funders and scientists are impressively conservative — seems they are reticent to make any decision that might upset any of the interest groups: for-profit publishers, scientific societies, or researchers.

In this context, Plan S — which states that all research articles be accessible to all, for free, at time of publication and comprises ten supporting principles — is a dramatic move by the European Commission, and now other funders too. In essence, rather than continue to try negotiate a solution palatable to all stakeholders (which likely would never happen), they made the call to prioritize the rights of their citizens and then let the ecosystem adapt as it will.

The most productive response to Plan S is to endorse the plan wholeheartedly, simply because it is right, and then work positively with funders and institutions to adjust to the new publishing reality. And many funders and researchers are doing exactly that.

But there is push-back on multiple fronts.

As is their right, the for-profit publishers are making a case for the status quo. Although I disagree with their publishing model, their position is understandable.

But I cannot agree with researchers who push back on Plan S. Although they voice concerns that are reasonable and legitimate, all of them are addressed in the ten Plan S principles, and none are deal-breakers.

And as much as I want to believe that those concerned are thinking about others, it’s hard not to be cynical and believe that most are driven by self-interest (publication opportunities, promotion, support for learned societies, bearing costs of publishing in certain journals etc), and concern about how changes to the publication ecosystem will affect their own ability to compete in our insignificant academic bubble.

There is too much inequality in this world — it’s this kind of thinking that makes it so.

Aled Edwards is the CEO of the Structural Genomics Consortium. He is on Faculty at the University of Toronto, with adjunct positions at Oxford and McGill. He serves on the Advisory Board for Wellcome Open Research and is a member of Council for the National Research Council of Canada.