The ERC and Plan S: an open letter

Dear Members of the ERC Scientific Council,

I was dismayed to read your press release of 20th July announcing that you are withdrawing your support from cOAlition S and Plan S. I was even more dismayed to see that you rationalized this based on the needs of “young researchers who represent the future of European science and innovation”, arguing that the unavailability of APC funding for hybrid journals under Plan S is detrimental to early career researchers. As a young researcher and ERC Starting Grant awardee myself, I would like to take this opportunity to state categorically that I do not recognize this argument as valid.

The harm that hybrid journals cause to the ecosystem of scholarly publishing is well known. In particular, through “double dipping” — charging subscription fees at the same time as full APCs for Open Access articles — publishers of such journals are able to appropriate a far greater quantity of public funds than would otherwise be possible. Pinfield et al. (2015) demonstrate empirically, in a UK context, that double dipping is not merely a theoretical issue, but a genuine problem; they also show that hybrid journals charge on average vastly higher APCs than fully Gold Open Access journals, strongly suggesting that funding Open Access publication in hybrid journals represents bad value for money.

This much is well known, and cannot have escaped your attention. Nor can the fact that “commercial publishers producing mostly hybrid journals have captured a large proportion of the APC market” (Pinfield et al. 2015: 1764), including such dubious giants as Elsevier, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, and Springer. It has recently been calculated that Elsevier’s 2019 profits alone could fund 50,000 years of UK Research Council PhD studentships. Allowing ERC money to flow directly into the pockets of such organizations when it could be directly funding young researchers’ careers instead seems to me to run precisely counter to your stated aims.

Young researchers are also, on the whole, extremely supportive of open access — demonstrably more so than older generations. In the Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey 2018, well over 70% of researchers aged 22–34 agreed with the statement “I would be happy to see the traditional subscription-based publication model replaced entirely by an open-access publication system in which all scholarly research outputs would be freely available to the public”. This proportion declines with the age of the researcher, and is increasing over time (overall 64% in 2018 vs. 57% in 2015). Needless to say, the open-access publication system envisaged in the statement leaves no room for hybrid journals, except as part of a transformative arrangement, as envisaged by Plan S. These figures raise the question of whether any young researchers were actually consulted as part of the ERC Scientific Council’s decision-making process. Since the makeup of the council itself is understandably skewed towards established, senior researchers, when claiming to speak on behalf of early career researchers some consultation at least is warranted.

All in all, the ERC’s withdrawal from Plan S seems to me to be a retrograde step for a) open access in general, b) reform of the scholarly publication ecosystem to make it more equitable, and c) young researchers in particular. Organizations such as Eurodoc, the Young Academy of Europe, and the Marie Curie Alumni Association, all of which actually represent young researchers, have expressed their surprise at this sudden turn of events, and I would like to add my voice to theirs. I can only hope that you will see reason and that this U-turn will be U-turned once again.

Yours faithfully,

George Walkden
Professor of English Linguistics and General Linguistics
University of Konstanz
ERC Starting Grant STARFISH (851423)

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Linguist and academic at large.

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George Walkden

George Walkden

Linguist and academic at large.

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