'Those who hold the purse can change the system'

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Robert-Jan Smits gave an impassioned update – and defence – of Plan S at APE 2019 in Berlin

Smits, Special Envoy of the European Commission for Open Access and Innovation, European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC), European Commission, Brussels, opened his plenary presentation with a joke, asking the audience if there was anyone who had not heard of Plan S before. Unsurprisingly, his request was met with silence.

Summing up the latest developments on Plan S, Smits explained that there have already been a plethora of codes of conduct, principles and declarations, and 'a lot of talk since 2002', but that globally there is still have a long way to go until full and immediate OA is achieved.

On a global scale, 12.4 per cent of journals published in 2012 were open access; by 2016 that figure had only increased to 15.2 per cent (although the percentage of pure subscription journals had dropped from 49 per cent to 37 per cent.

Smits continued: 'This is why I was appointed by President Juncker, to come up with policy suggestions to change the situation once and for all. I am very privileged to be able to focus only on this particular subject.'

'I discovered quite quickly why the move to full open access has been so slow, and who holds the key to the solution. This is a group of players who have not really taken responsibility over the last 30 years: these are the funders; the ones who hold the purse. The one who holds the purse can change the system, of course.'

Plan S is based on the very simple principle, that if you get a grant from any member of Coalition S, you can only publish in a high-quality open access journals or platforms. Smits said it is a very simple principle, backed up by 10 straightforward points. The key is that authors should retain copyright alongside a CC-BY licence.

Smits continued: 'So where do we stand today? Before summer 2018 some 11 funding agencies agreed to Plan S; on 4 September we went public, and since then other charitable foundations such as the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation have come on board. I think many of us were surprised when, just before Christmas, China announced that it would also go open access and would support Plan S.

'Zambia is also on board as the first African country, and discussions are ongoing with India, USA, with Latin America, and others. This is the only way to flip the system globally – if Coalition S becomes big enough to put sufficient pressure on the current business models.'

He said that, on the day Plan S was made public in September, it received 70,000 tweets, and 120,000 tweets the next day. They were not just from Europe, he added, but from all around the world: 'I was really surprised how many people responded, and how much people knew about it. Of course, Elsevier reacted immediately by saying: 'If you want to get information for free, got to Wikipedia'. This was a reaction that remember quite well.

Smits said there was a lot of support from industry associations, but what really impressed him was the range of reactions from individual scientists around the world.

To be fair, he said, there has been some criticism on the detail, and many debates around the developments: 'I understand a lot of the criticism, for example that from small learned societies. A lot of these societies want to transfer to open access, but they don't know how, and they need help. They will get my help. The second group of critics I would categorise as fake news, and then there is third type, which I would describe as more demagogical. This type might claim that Plan S will damage academic freedom, of that it will put an end to global science co-operation, or that Plan S will lead to poor peer review and more predatory journals. These criticisms have been taken on board but I feel that they were meant to destabilise the debate and the system.

He admitted that the strength of Plan S is also its weakness; just 10 basic principles, so Coalition S decided to come up with more implementation guidance, which has been put out to public consultation: 'Let me be clear: we are not going to suddenly change these 10 principles, or change our objective, but we do want to provide clarity where we did not do so originally. We are quite clear that we want to shift to a new system of publishing.'

Smits spelled out the three ways to be compliant with Plan S:

  • Publish in high-quality open access journals/platforms;
  • Deposit in open access repositories without embargo; or
  • Publish in a hybrid journal that is subject to transformative agreement. The journal must be committed to a full OA transition within a period of four years.

He continued: 'We have also heard that there are issues in some fields of science where there is no suitable open access journal in which to publish. To this end we are undertaking gap analysis, Where this proves to be the case, we will provide incentives to set up suitable journals or platforms.

'On the subject of APCs, I am firmly advocating that there should be a cap on APCs; however we decided to adopt the Wellcome Trust approach and to say that APCs should be "reasonable". We are going to do an in-depth study into what should be considered as reasonable, but I am very much of the opinion that the charge should be based on the service provided by the publisher.'

Smits concluded: 'I had never expected Plan S to get so much attention and I think the fact that it is being debated around the world shows that people think there is change in the air, and that it is time for something new. That's why it is important that all of us – particularly the publishers – come clean: do you believe that the results of publicly-funded research should no longer be behind expensive paywalls? Secondly, do you think it's time for your businesses to move to new models based on open access? Answer these two questions with a clear 'yes' or 'no' and I think you will make everyone happy – particularly me.

'Thank you very much for your attention.'

A range of videos, showing the main presentations from APE 2019, are available at www.ape2019.eu/videorecordings