OA 2020 - the transition towards open science

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We've recently seen some positive and impactful changes to the way in which the OA landscape can work, writes Steven Inchcoombe

In 2015 at the 12th Berlin Conference, the research community was set a challenge; to accelerate the transition of scholarly communication to universal open access (OA) by transforming today’s scholarly journals, currently locked behind paywalls, to open publication models.  This initiative from researchers, libraries, institutions and organisations became known as the OA2020 initiative.  

A lot has developed since 2015 in both the approach to OA, the drive and momentum behind it, and further initiatives from coalitions to advance the speed in which we, as an industry, move towards the - bigger goal of open research and open science. One such initiative is now the well known ‘Plan S launched in 2018, with the requirement that from 2021 scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants must be published in compliant OA journals or platforms. With the Plan S deadline now a few months away, there is a feeling that we are on the threshold of an accelerated transition to OA publishing, spurned on in part by the impact that COVID-19 has had on the research landscape and enterprise.  And whilst the direction of travel towards a fully OA environment is clear – the varied landscape that exists in OA publishing across academic disciplines, countries, the variation in author knowledge, the variation in researcher drive, the complexity of various stakeholder workflows and variation in policies – does not make for a linear or easy approach. 

Despite there being a clear genuine desire from many, but still not all, relevant parties to make lasting changes that will not only enable access to high quality verified content but will also transform the publishing landscape as we move forwards, there are still levels of complexity that make this move challenging, particularly with looming deadlines and still ongoing discussions with industry partners. What remains is what this future of OA publishing will really look like, and how, under these accelerated timelines we can all continue to move forwards sustainably and effectively - for all stakeholders and all workflows.

This is something that as a mixed model publisher, society publisher and fully OA publisher, we have been extensively exploring with all our stakeholders, testing ways to address these challenges and continuing to work collaboratively to find ways forwards.

Transformative deals

It is saying nothing new that for a number of academic disciplines, such as humanities and social sciences (HSS), the transition to OA is being hampered by a difference in how this research and the disciplines themselves are funded. This translates into a lack of available funds for article processing charges (APCs).  One way that has grown in traction and impact has been that of the transformative deals. WIth APC funding in such deals being centralised, they help to address this problem. The centralisation of funds allows any researcher from the participating institution regardless of their academic discipline to publish OA.

Building on data released as part of OA Week in 2017, new data released by Springer Nature in August 2020 showed that with a transformative agreement (TA) in place, author uptake can reach over 90 per cent. By supporting countries in making the research they have funded immediately and openly accessible to all, TAs are having a substantial impact on the pathway to OA. 

Addressing transition timelines

In a Plan S world, transformative journals are designed to enable all journals in a publisher’s portfolio to transition to full OA.  By setting clear targets for OA growth, transparently reporting on OA metrics and pricing, and increased advocacy of the benefits of OA to stimulate author demand, all journals should be able to get on the road to OA. This is as opposed to the current situation where some have got stuck (such as hybrid journals), can’t get started (such as highly selective journals), or become dependent on Green OA which, we believe is at best only a short term solution, and at worst counterproductive to the wider and more ambitious goal of open research. By continuing to allow for non-OA articles, such journals also provide a publishing outlet for authors whose countries or funding bodies are not yet in a position to fund OA.

Such journals, which proactively promote the benefits of OA to increase uptake while supporting any author who wishes to publish in the journal regardless of their funding situation, act as a necessary complement to TAs in the transition to OA.

We very much welcomed the adoption of this concept by cOAlition S and in April formally committed to transition all our owned journals to transformative journals. This involved agreeing to meet the challenging criteria set by cOAlition S to enable authors funded by Plan S members to continue to have the full choice of journals in which to publish when their new requirements come into effect in January 2021.  This ensures that smaller publishers for whom national deals are challenging and countries and funders for whom transformative deals are challenging are not disenfranchised, and that highly selective journals for which routes for inclusion in national agreements are still being explored and journals that contain other types of content as well as primary research, all are able to join the transition to OA.  

Addressing the funding gap

Enabling OA is challenging, not least because of the different budgets and funding pools involved.  For journals transitioning, the pooling of library funds is complex. For fully OA journals the sources of funding are diverse, and managing the funds and reporting can be burdensome on librarians and institutions. As we have seen during the pandemic, funders have become more diverse in funding support in response to global demand. As we continue to move forward there needs to be more commitment to best practice and collaborative working with funders, libraries and researchers to better understand and connect funding sources for a more efficient and sustainable future.

What has been clear over the past 10 months is that Covid-19 has demonstrated the way in which our sector - research community and research publishers - can react nimbly and quickly to a crisis.  We have seen an increase in the publication of preprints, expedited peer review and clinical trials, an increase in collaboration and data sharing, as well as funders allowing the diversion of funds to Covid-19 research. All of this together has demonstrated the incredibly responsive nature of our sector, under immense pressure, at a time when the use, re-use, access to and engagement with research has, and continues to be critical.  

Moving aside the devastating impact that the current pandemic has and continues to have on all aspects of life and economy, it has continued to make the very strong and positive case for ‘open’  supported by collaboration and continued engagement. A spotlight has been firmly placed on the value and importance of immediate access to research, data sharing and curation and good data management for boosting the reproducibility and reliability of research. A spotlight for all to see, across all workflows. Great momentum has been achieved to make work accessible, sustainably,  during this current time, and whilst there are still challenges to overcome, there is a clear momentum and value add placed on ‘being open’.  

The path forward is not linear and it is not without its challenges, yet ahead of 2021 we have seen some incredibly positive and impactful changes to the way in which the OA landscape can work, sustainably,  for all stakeholders. We are committed to, and hope that we continue to see this same commitment from all stakeholders - institutions, research funding bodies and publishers -  to continue this collaboration and making life easier for researchers and each other as we move towards the deadlines of 2021 and the ‘new normal’ – whatever that may look like for the wider research community.

Steven Inchcoombe is chief publishing and solutions officer at Springer Nature