Blow to Plan S open access project as ERC withdraws support

Plan S shift backed by European Commission will be ‘detrimental’ to researchers, says commission-created ERC

July 22, 2020
Rejection of deal
Source: iStock

An international plan by research funders to spur a shift towards open access publishing has been dealt a blow after one of the world’s most prestigious grant councils withdrew support.

The European Research Council, which has an annual budget of more than €2 billion (£1.8 billion), decided to ditch Plan S over rules that would stop academics publishing in journals not judged to be transitioning to open access.

From next year, researchers who win grants from Plan S backers, which include many European national research councils, plus charitable organisations such as the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will have to abide by new rules to make sure their results are disseminated openly.

Academics will still be allowed to publish in so-called hybrid journals – which feature a mixture of open and paywalled articles – but only if these publications are moving towards open access and not charging twice over for both subscription fees and article processing charges, known as “double dipping”.

But this restriction has now prompted the ERC to abandon its support for Plan S. “The scientific council considers that this will be detrimental, especially for early career researchers, researchers working in countries with fewer alternative funding opportunities or working in fields in which open access policies are more difficult to implement,” the ERC said in a statement on 21 July.

The ERC has withdrawn its support even though the European Commission – which established the council in 2007 – was instrumental in creating Plan S and remains a backer. But the ERC, led by a scientific council of eminent researchers, fiercely guards its independence.

In response, Coalition S, the group behind Plan S, said that “maintaining the current status quo on hybrid journals will exacerbate inequalities among European researchers, since only those that benefit from generous funding will be able to cover expensive publication fees”.

Earlier this month, it also created a “rights retention strategy”, which it says will allow academics to publish even in subscription journals and remain compliant with Plan S, so long as they make at least some version of the paper free to read immediately.

There has also been pushback against the ERC’s decision from organisations representing early career researchers, who say they have been spoken for without being consulted.

The European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers said it was “surprised” by the decision, had not been consulted, and stood by Plan S.

“We hope the scientific council will clarify how they reached this decision and how early career researchers were engaged in the process,” said the Young Academy of Europe, a network of young scientists. Toma Susi, the organisation’s vice-chair, said on Twitter that he was “appalled by this expected and frankly unwarranted vacillation”.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (6)

Glad someone is thinking clearly. Journals need to cover expenses and, in many of the "open access" ones, they need to turn a profit. Where would the money come from if no journal could charge subscription fees? From charging high fees for submission/publication. Great if you are in Europe and have a big grant, but impossible if you are working in a developing country with zero access to publication support and funding. So, yes, with Plan S poorer countries will be able to read everything rich countries publish. They would also loose the possibility of publishing if journals who charge subscriptions and have lower publication fees need to increase them to join the open access club. Want to decolonize academia? How about loosing the missionary attitude.
You ask where the money would come from if no journal could charge subscription fees. Well, where does the money for subscription fees come from? Get it from there. See? Not so hard actually is it?
A journal has hundreds or thousands of subscribers, each paying a little bit. It also has a smaller number of people submitting articles. Unless you think that only those publishing are subscribed to the journal. So, either all us subscribers each pay a little of the cost of running the journal, or the cost is split only amongst those publishing in it. Get it?
Once again, the academics with the least power (early career researchers) and the least money (from poorer countries) are used as an excuse to maintain a status quo that primarily benefits Elsevier shareholders and established, senior researchers. This is pure cowardice on behalf of the ERC and the fact that they haven’t consulted with the very individuals on whose behalf they claim to be acting suggests that they knew full well that early career researchers are overwhelmingly in favor of open access. This stinks.
I have to say I wasn't thinking of Elsevier in particular, but of those journals published by professional organizations, which make zero profits and charge just enough to maintain their costs. And, for what it is worth, I am one of those researchers with almost little to no access to funding.
new
Yes, Plan S will be a challenge for smaller publishers and learned societies, but the status quo, where an oligopoly of only five publishers control access to over 50% of all research published is no longer tolerable. The Covid pandemic, and the big publishers’ magnanimous attempts to curry favour by making Covid research freely accessible only underscore that they are essentially holding the knowledge of the world to ransom.

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