INTERVIEW: Re-enforcing the power of open science

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Frederick Fenter. Image: Frontiers

Frederick Fenter, Chief Executive Editor of Frontiers, explains the recent formation of the Open Science Charter and its call for unrestricted access to scientific knowledge by 2030

Tell  us a bit about your background and qualifications… 
My background is in chemistry – I completed my undergraduate studies in the US and Switzerland, and then I did a PhD at Harvard. I joined Elsevier in 1996, managing the inorganic chemistry program in the Lausanne office, and I was there during the launch of Science Direct.  

However, in 2000, Elsevier closed its Lausanne office, prompting me to engage in local projects in Switzerland: I became a consultant for libraries, publishers, and university administrations, focusing on disseminating scientific content. I also played a role in the establishment of the EPFL press – the university press  affiliated with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, delving into the world of book publishing. 

An unexpected turn came already in 2006 when, as a book publisher, I approached the esteemed neuroscientist Henry Markram about a project on “augmenting cognition”. This collaboration led to discussions with him and his wife Kamila Markram about something completely different – their vision for a new approach to publishing. I worked as a consultant with Kamila and Henry for the launch of Frontiers in Neuroscience in 2007 and joined Frontiers fulltime in my current role in 2013.   

Having seen the publishing industry from all angles, Frontiers’ mission is aligned with my insight and conviction that open access is the most impactful channel for providing added value to scientific research.  My move to Frontiers reflected a commitment to this viewpoint and marked the next chapter in my engagement with the evolving landscape of scientific communication.  

What does your job at Frontiers involve? 

As Chief Executive Editor, I provide policy guidance and oversight to the editorial boards of over 200 journals – in particular with the 2,000 chief editors managing individual boards – and I coordinate closely with the smaller group of our college of Field Chief Editors. My role extends to outward-facing initiatives, such as society publishing, institutional partnerships and public affairs. I also lead our knowledge partnerships with the World Economic Forum, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). I run a number of strategic projects, including Frontiers for Young Minds, an outreach journal for kids and their families in five languages featuring the work of 30 Nobel Prize winners. Additionally, I organise the biennial Frontiers Forum event, hosting influential figures like Yuval Harari, Al Gore, Jane Goodall, and Ban-Ki Moon.  

Of particular note is our recent launch of Frontiers in Science, our flagship journal that addresses human and planetary well-being. It is an innovation in publishing, with main articles enriched by diverse supplementary content such as policy pieces, perspectives, and articles for children, with the aim of broadening the demographic reach. Recent publications, such one on zero emissions commitment, align with our external focus, translating scientific implications for a wider audience, entirely open to all to read. 
Tell us about the Frontiers Research Foundation and its aims – and about the recently-launched Open Science Charter… 

The not-for-profit Frontiers Research Foundation was established in 2006, by Henry and Kamila Markram, with the aim to support programs that accelerate scientific solutions for healthy lives on a healthy planet. The Foundation is where the Frontiers editorial program began, which has since become a Swiss corporation. 

The Open Science Charter emerged from the sense of urgency in addressing the climate crisis: only a small percentage of scientists have affordable access to journals, leaving two-thirds of scientific knowledge blocked behind paywalls. The charter urges unrestricted access to scientific knowledge by 2030, calling on publishers to commit to full openness by the end of the 2020s. It advocates for transparent pricing, aligning it with the quality of peer review and fostering trust in science by making processes transparent. The charter, launched during COP 28, specifically addresses the need for open science to address climate change, emphasising the need for universal open access to accelerate research and innovation. 

Why does an academic publisher such as Frontiers need to take the fight to governments, research institutions and funders, and the wider scientific community? 

The Open Science Charter isn't a fight but a partnership, emphasising urgency in collaborations with institutions and funders. It amplifies Frontiers' voice in policy, breaking the inertia of the publishing status quo. By reinforcing the transformative power of open science – especially in climate science – it aims to address this and other huge challenges. Frontiers collaborates with industry associations like ALPSP and STM, as well as with strategic partners such as the UNFCCC and the WEF, to integrate its perspectives into joint statements and policy positions; this approach ensures a clear and impactful expression of Frontiers' urgency and commitment to open science principles in a broader context. 

As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, the collaborative response to it, marked by open access initiatives like the Allen Institute's CORD-19 database, serves as a powerful model. Publishers recognised the urgency, swiftly sharing research to aid global efforts. Frontiers highlights this response and questions why a similar urgency isn't applied to the climate emergency – a crisis arguably more critical than the pandemic. While acknowledging progress towards universal open access, Frontiers contends that the industry is not moving swiftly enough. By setting 2030 as a target for complete openness, we aim to channel the transformative power of open science, learned from pandemic responses, into addressing urgent global challenges like climate change and public health issues. 

Stepping forward 10 or 15 years; what does the world of scholarly publishing look like? 

The Open Science Charter envisions a fully open context by 2030, emphasising transparent editorial services and immediate open access to published scientific articles. Looking ahead, this openness extends to the structured, open availability of research data, crucial for use by both people and machines.  

Artificial intelligence (AI) will have a profound impact in the coming decade, and it’s important that publishers actively contribute to making their knowledge bases openly available. The transformative power of AI promises insights, connections, and a level of return on research investment that necessitates an open knowledge landscape. This strategic shift is not just a technological advancement but a pivotal battleground in the years to come, ensuring that intellectual property rights do not hinder the broader accessibility and application of knowledge in the age of AI. 
You sound broadly optimistic about AI – does it pose any threats at all?  

AI, amid potential threats, offers transformative possibilities across science. It enables the analysis of vast datasets, revealing intricate links between factors like water management, temperatures, and biodiversity movement, for example. In material science, AI can navigate the complexity of atomic arrangements, suggesting undiscovered properties for different compounds.  

Properly implemented, AI promises to accelerate scientific progress significantly, provided that knowledge is organised and openly accessible. In publishing, AI already revolutionises editorial processes, conducting quality checks and transforming peer review. In a decade, it will become a principal partner in editorial assessment, enhancing the evaluation of articles. Within projects like Frontiers for Young Minds, AI could make complex scientific concepts accessible, allowing individuals to seek explanations tailored to their level of understanding. As AI evolves, its role in generating, evaluating, and disseminating scientific knowledge is poised to substantially improve these processes, making science more accessible and understandable for diverse audiences. 

Finally, what do you get up to in your spare time? 

Outside of work, I play saxophone in a big band and in a small jazz ensemble, performing six to seven concerts annually in jazz venues around Switzerland. I devote around 10 hours a week to music – it's my primary commitment outside of work, even if finding those hours can be a source of tension at home! Music offers an important space for creativity, contributing to a balanced and fulfilling life beyond the workspace.