Monday, September 24, 2018

Euro funders float radical rules

The following is adapted from the Sept 14 issue of my subscription newsletter: "Inside Public Access"

Euro funders float radical rules

Synopsis: Many European national funders of research are proposing to prohibit their funded researchers from publishing their results in subscription based journals. This is certainly a radical proposal, slated to go into effect very quickly.

Just when public access seemed to have stabilized the Europeans have dropped a bomb. It is called Plan S, a collaborative policy to be adopted by the funding agencies of almost a dozen countries. The countries range from Sweden to Slovenia, including France and the UK. At this point Germany and the EU are not in it, but that could change. Many prominent research funders are in Plan S, especially the British Councils.

There is some complexity and the exact rules have yet to be spelled out, but the basic idea is pretty simple. All articles flowing from agency funding must be published in fully open journals. All subscription journals are excluded, including open publishing in a hybrid.

These as yet unpublished rules are scheduled to go into effect in 2020, which is just over a year from now. As rule makings go this one is very rapid. There appears to have been no public consultation.

This prohibition is quite radical, excluding an estimated 85% of all major journals. This estimate may be high because it probably does not include most new wave, low Author Processing Charge (APC) journals, which may well benefit from Plan S. But basically publishing funded research results in most major journals is prohibited. This is truly radical.

Plan S is essentially a government mandated boycott of subscription journals. It is hard to imagine the research community being happy with these sweeping prohibitions, given that publishing in important subscription journals is a major measure of their accomplishments. Senior researchers have long standing relations with these journals, including being reviewers. Some are also on the editorial boards of subscription journals.

How this will play out remains to be seen. Does a journal want to use people who are prohibited from publishing in it? Are the Plan S researchers being forcibly removed from the mainstream communication world? Time will tell.

The idea seems to be that this boycott will force publishers to flip their journals to APC OA. Many of the news articles on Plan S say as much. However, at its present size, the Plan S movement may be too small to have this effect. Preliminary analysis suggests that funding from the Plan S agencies generates about 70,000 articles a year, half of which are British. This is a very small fraction of the 3 million or so articles published annually.

If most journals have rejection rates of 50% or more, with the majors being over 80%, then the absence of these Plan S articles will hardly be felt. In this case the most likely outcome is that the publishers will simply launch some parallel APC journals to take the  new Plan S money. Subscriptions are unlikely to go down, because the rest of the world's researchers are still sending in their articles.

That the Plan S researchers should be penalized while the subscription publishers benefit is certainly an unintended consequence, but it may well be the most likely at this point. However, if the EU and Germany join Plan S then this equation could change. If the US or China were to join as well, then Plan S might well work.

Regarding compliance, I have a hard time imagining the research community accepting this mandate. The first published response is a dense 14 page essay, titled "A Response to Plan-S from Academic Researchers: Unethical, Too Risky!" which hints at the depth of the issues. Telling scholars that they cannot publish in 85% of the existing journals, including most of the top ones, and those they already publish in, is a very big ask.

The compliance issue probably will not really arise until several years after the mandate goes into effect, but enforcement will be difficult and expensive. Noncompliance means daring to publish an article that flows from funding in a forbidden journal. It will not be easy for a Plan S funder to discover that this has happened. And punishing people for publishing great work in a leading journal must seem strange.

If there is too much resistance the obvious compromise is to allow publishing in hybrid journals. In fact it is hard to see why this is prohibited. The only reason I have seen is that hybrid OA is growing too slowly, but clearly including them in Plan S would speed their growth.

Plan S may work, or do nothing, or fail deeply. Much is to come!

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