Academics must become more engaged in the open access struggle

Wide support for cOAlition S’ rights retention strategy would allow negotiators to take a harder line with publishers, says Alice Gibson 

五月 30, 2021
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The University of California’s recent negotiations with Elsevier achieved a better deal for researchers than was initially given to them when they walked away in 2018.

After a two-year standoff, during which academics at the multi-campus system had no direct access to paywalled Elsevier content, the publisher largely bowed to California’s demand to cut overall costs while allowing California authors to publish open access.

This landmark deal, announced in March, was achieved at least in part because California academics were actively engaged with the negotiations and equipped to make their priorities known to the negotiators. They were also willing to ensure the shutting down of access to Elsevier journals in order to get what they wanted.

Improving understanding of publishing negotiations will similarly be crucial in the UK and the Republic of Ireland as Jisc sets out to secure on their behalf a similarly transformative deal with Elsevier that will meet the requirements of the Plan S open access initiative.

Publishers’ resistance to fully embracing Plan S was illustrated during a recent meeting between research librarians from the UK and the Republic of Ireland and Springer Nature UK. There, the publisher set out a justification of the €9,500 charge to publish gold open access in Nature, citing the journal’s large in-house team, its commissioning of illustrative graphics and its ability to amplify the reach of research. In doing so, the publisher was responding to the fifth principle of Plan S, which states that open access fees “must be commensurate with the publication services delivered and the structure of such fees must be transparent.”

Yet, however justified such fees may or may not be (and I remain unconvinced), it should not be the case that those who want to comply with Plan S’ demand for immediate open access must pay to do so. Springer Nature recently became the latest publisher to state that it will only support compliance through this gold route – self-archiving with immediate accessibility will not be tolerated.

In other words, they reject Plan S’ “Rights Retention Strategy” (RRS). This involves the inclusion of wording in a submitted manuscript asserting that the author has applied an open copyright licence, known as CC-BY, to the accepted version of their work. This ensures that it can be made available immediately on publication in a repository, instead of being kept under an embargo.

Following questions from the librarians about whether Springer Nature will reject papers that incorporated such language, the publisher later clarified that while it never rejects papers for reasons other than editorial merit, if authors declined to pay its APC (for which Springer offers various kinds of help) they must sign a licence imposing an embargo on sharing their manuscript.

While the funders behind Plan S, known as cOAlition S, have encouraged institutions to incorporate strategies such as the RRS into their policies, many have lacked the determination to counteract the pressure from publishers – which, for example, led to abandonment of Plan S’ original intention to impose a price cap on APCs. That is because they believe their academics would react badly to being told they can no longer receive sufficient funds from them to publish open access in high-profile journals such as Nature – even if, as funders, they have signed up to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (Dora), which states that research should be assessed on its merits rather than on the prestige of journals it is published in.

This outcome of cOAlition S’ concession on journal price caps – Nature’s non-negotiable €9,500 as the price of open access – underlines the need to equip ourselves to defend publication rights from early on in negotiations with publishers.

Even if only a few funders and institutions have the sufficient funding and power to instigate change, everyone must be behind that change, so that, as in California, threats of walking away from publishing deals do not ring hollow. Universities should do everything they can to raise internal awareness of what is at stake – as well as to rally support for initiatives such as European research libraries’ “#ZeroEmbargo” initiative, which is pushing for a Pan-European model law enshrining zero-embargo periods for lawful self-archiving in open repositories.

Academics themselves can follow the lead of Stephen Eglen, a researcher in computational neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, who has highlighted the benefits of the RRS to peers in his Primer on the Rights Retention Strategy and used his profile to advocate for it on Twitter. They can also join or establish peer networks, engage with campaigns and help cOAlition S document publisher practices in response to its RRS statement.

And we librarians can commit to creating environments where researchers can learn about the history of open access, talk openly about their concerns pertaining to losing control of their work, and explore the suitability of different Creative Commons licences to different disciplines.

The ins and outs of publishing deals are very complex, so it is understandable if busy academics lack the time to fully get their heads around what is at stake – and the implications for their careers and research practices – early in negotiations. But, as California showed, the result can be that research that was previous locked behind paywalls and embargoes suddenly becomes open to everyone. The alternative is for academics to become aware of the issues too late: when they have no choice but to dig deep in their research funds (or their own pockets) to comply with their funders’ perfectly reasonable open access mandates.

As the pandemic eats into national research budgets and institutional funds, making subscription fees and APCs even harder for scholars to afford, it will only become more important than ever that Plan S compliance does not depend on ability to pay.

Alice Gibson is a research support librarian at the Royal Veterinary College. She has recently completed her PhD in Philosophy at Kingston University. Her research examines the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) through the lens of the climate crisis.



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Reader's comments (1)

One major problem with Plan S is that it does not consider the effect on people from poorer countries who wish to have their work published. I also feel it underestimates the work put in by high quality publishers to ensure the quality of the papers published.