Saturday, October 27, 2018

Plan S Architect stonewalls interview

This article is adapted from my newsletter:

October 12, 2018

Plan S Architect stonewalls interview

By David Wojick, Ph.D.

Synopsis: OA guru Richard Poynder asks Plan S boss Robert-Jan Smits some hard questions and doesn't get many answers.

Poynder interviews Smits here. Robert-Jan Smits is the Open Access Envoy of the European Commission and previous Director-General for Research and Innovation at the EU. He is one of the architects of, and a principal spokesperson for, Plan S,

The questions are often detailed and probing, while the answers tend to be political and therefore superficial, but viewed in that light they can still be illuminating. Moreover, Poynder's explanations of the various issues are very good and worth reading all by themselves. Below is a quick look at some of the key points, in order of occurrence in the interview, not in importance.

When asked about the tight Jan 1, 2020 start date, Smits says this -- "Plan S cannot and will not override contracts which are in place before 1/1/20 and of course, we are willing to respect short-term transitional arrangements and on-going discussions on such arrangements."

Given that Plan S will be implemented via research contracts issued by the funding agencies in Coalition S, if it actually begins with contracts issued after January 1, then the papers involved will not appear until some time after, a long time after in many cases.

Just who "we" is, that will negotiate short term arrangements, is a very interesting question. Is this Coalition S or the individual funding agencies? As we said last issue, everything actually happens at the agency level, but there seems to be no indication of this at this point in the process. There may be serious legal issues here.

When Poynder mentions that publisher resistance is likely, Smits says this -- "We expect publishers to come forward with offerings which comply with the principles outlined in Plan S."

As we have said from the beginning, when it comes to the major publishers this expectation may be completely unrealistic. They can do perfectly well without the Plan S papers. But they may well start some new OA journals, closely aligned with their most prestigious subscription journals, to take the Plan S money.

Smits ducks the academic freedom issue, which Poynder puts very well. Here is the full exchange:

"RP: Another concern that has been raised is that Plan S is contrary to long-standing principles of academic freedom. For instance, since Plan S says that hybrid OA is not compliant with its principles European researchers will be banned from publishing in a great many journals that they currently publish in and love. As Nature put it, “as written, Plan S would bar researchers from publishing in 85% of journals, including influential titles such as Nature and Science.” This concern about academic freedom might seem a genuine grievance in light of a 1997 UNESCO document that states, “higher-education teaching personnel should be free to publish the results of research and scholarship in books, journals and databases of their own choice”."

"R-J S: Strong mandates have been in place from many funders in different countries for many years so the principle of funder mandates in the research system is well-established. See what Peter Suber writes about this. It is for publishers to provide Plan S-compliant routes to publication in their journals so that researchers can choose where to publish when accepting funding from those who sign Plan S."

That funders have the power to dictate where papers can and cannot be published is not the issue. If authors have been free to publish where they choose, and that choice is now restricted, then this is clearly a loss of freedom. There is, however, the question whether it is a loss of "academic freedom," as that term may have a narrow technical meaning.

Smits also ducks the issue of the limited scope of the boycott mandated by Plan S, including the possible role of the US (which would fall under the Public Access Program):

"RP: (snip) I understand you also hope to get the US to buy into the Plan, which would seem to be an even greater challenge since the US has historically preferred green OA and it does not have the same centralised system as Europe. As Roger Schonfeld has put it, “[T]he higher education sector in most of North America is very different from Europe, in one key element: North America is as decentralized as Europe is, at a national level, centrally coordinated.” The challenge here surely is that Plan S can only achieve its objectives if the whole world signs up to it, or at least all those countries with large research budgets? Unless they do, for instance, Europe will find it is having to pay for gold OA plus continue to pay subscriptions in order to access the research produced in countries that do not sign up. Would you agree? How hopeful are you that you will manage to sign up a sufficient number of countries to make Plan S workable?"

"R-J S: Why do you keep on saying that Plan S is about Gold Open Access? Do read the 10 principles again and you will notice that the plan does not use Gold or Green terminology. The plan welcomes self-archiving and repositories. I am confident that Plan S is workable." (Emphasis added.)

The short emphasized statement is Smits' entire answer. The part about Plan S not mandating gold OA is something of a red herring. The major publisher's present terms for green OA do not comply with Plan S and it is hard to see the publishers changing that.

Poynder also raises the huge issue of the potentially adverse impact of Plan S on the global South:

"RP: On the other hand, if Plan S does succeed it will further marginalise and disadvantage those in the global South. If all the world’s subscription journals flipped to gold OA, for instance, where today researchers in the global South are not able to afford to access the world’s research, in future they would be unable to afford to publish their own research – which might seem a worse position to be in. Does Plan S have a solution to this problem? Will it provide money to enable those in the global South to publish their research? I am not aware that this issue is discussed in the various Plan S documents."

"R-J S: Getting rid of paywalls will help researchers in the global South to access publicly funded research without charge. This huge advantage cannot be denied. Furthermore, there are many routes to publishing research available to all countries including no-embargo open access." (Emphasis added.)

Smits' single sentence response (emphasized) in no way addresses Poynder's core question. It is virtually meaningless.

So all things considered this interview raises a lot of good questions but provides few good answers. This is not Smits fault, because these answers do not yet exist. They may never exist, because the problems Poynder points out may be irresolvable.

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