Australian funders urged to join Plan S open access drive

Research agencies tight-lipped about global initiative, but are talking behind the scenes

February 3, 2019
Tug of war
Source: Getty

Australian and New Zealand research funders are under growing pressure to join Plan S, the European-led push to require academics to make publicly funded research freely accessible at the point of publication.

The initiative is due to be implemented at the start of next year by the 13 European national research funders that have backed it so far, alongside the European Commission and three charitable funders, including the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

However, the project’s backers acknowledge that, to achieve the “big flip” towards open access, they need to build a global coalition, and efforts have been made to persuade North American, Asian and African funders to sign up.

Engagement with funders Down Under have been more limited so far, although David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England and leader of a task force on implementing Plan S, said that he had conducted “brief discussions” with Australian agencies and hoped to continue them in person as soon as he could schedule a visit.

Colin Steele, former librarian of the Australian National University, said that the country’s government should pay more attention to the global debate on open access, given that ministers “constantly emphasise the need for financial efficiencies in higher education”.

He said the country had played little part publicly in Plan S, which, “while not without some faults”, recognised that national funding bodies should take ownership of scholarly publishing rather than “giving it away to multinational publishers to own and lock behind subscription paywalls”.

If adopted in Australia, Plan S would significantly strengthen current open access rules. While the two main grant funding agencies require peer-reviewed papers to be made freely available within a year of publication – typically in institutional repositories – researchers who publish in journals that do not allow this are in effect exempt, obliged only to provide written explanations in their project reports.

But Plan S has faced significant criticism, with opponents saying that it will wreck the scholarly publishing industry, subvert academic freedom, hamstring early career researchers and cripple academic societies that support themselves through their journals.

Australia’s Education Department told Times Higher Education that the federal government had “no plan to implement a Plan S policy”. The Australian Research Council would not say whether it had considered joining the initiative or had any contact with its proponents.

However, the National Health and Medical Research Council said it would consult its principal advisory committees about current open access moves “including developments in regard to Plan S”.

The opposition said overseas open access developments would be considered as part of the major review of research planned if it wins this year’s election. “In principle, the more open access to publicly funded research, the better,” said shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek.

The Plan S coalition is consulting on its implementation strategy, with feedback due by 8 February. The Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) and the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group (AOASG) said that they were compiling a joint response.

CAUL president Margie Jantti said that, while she had concerns about unintended consequences, particularly around repository infrastructure costs, she was broadly in favour of the plan.

“If the consultation is authentic, and we can confidently see that they’re addressing some of the concerns we’ve raised, this is a really strategic and bold move,” she said.

AOASG director Virginia Barbour said Australian funders were “fully engaged” with the need to move towards open access. “They’re taking a cautious approach, watching what’s happening internationally,” she said.

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