Chinese endorsement of Europe’s Plan S open-access initiative represents a major and unexpected blow to publishers that have criticised the scheme, according to its backers.
China’s National Science Library, its National Science and Technology Library and the Natural Science Foundation of China all made a pledge of support for the initiative during an academic conference in Berlin earlier this month. Under Plan S, European funders will require their scientists to make their papers freely and immediately available from 2020 onwards.
While it was unclear whether China would simply adopt Plan S or draw up its own open-access policies, the move is significant because it challenges the image of Plan S as being purely a regional initiative.
Chinese universities attach huge significance to publication in prestigious subscription journals – offering scientists awards of up to $165,000 (£131,000) for papers in Nature and Science, according to one report – so the country had been regarded as constituting a major bulwark against making open access a global movement.
However, position papers published by the three Chinese bodies say that they support the vision of Plan S “to transform, as soon as possible, research papers from publicly funded projects into immediate open access after publication”. The organisations say that they “support a wide range of flexible and inclusive measures to achieve this goal”.
Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s open-access envoy, told Times Higher Education that he “did not expect [China’s support] would come so quickly”.
“The announcement…also came as an enormous surprise for the big publishers, who had always said that Plan S would remain a ‘regional’ initiative, doomed to fail notably because their new growth market China would never support it,” he said.
“Like many others, I was under the impression that China was addicted to the subscription model and that it would take a lot of time before they would go open access…It’s therefore an enormous boost for the open-access movement and for Plan S.”
A key argument advanced by opponents of Plan S is that it would limit academic collaboration and opportunities for scholars if major parts of the world, such as China, did not sign up to it. This was a key plank of an open letter published last month and signed by more than 1,500 people.
Meanwhile, major publishers including Springer Nature, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Elsevier have stuck by statements warning against the removal of choice for researchers and arguing that Plan S will not support high-quality peer review.
But Lenny Teytelman, co-founder and chief executive of the Protocols open-access repository, said that publishers “are in severe panic mode, doing everything they can to push back”, including “flexing their enormous muscles to spread misinformation about…Plan S”.
“That ‘Europe will suffer as the US and China continue to publish in the established subscription journals’ was a key part of the [opposition] to Plan S,” he said, adding that he was therefore “surprised and excited” to learn of China’s support.
“Chinese funding agencies [have] not yet join[ed] Plan S as members, so the details will be important,” Dr Teytelman noted.
Nevertheless, Mr Smits said that the statements of support indicated that “the tipping point may be nearby”. There were currently 20 funders offering support for Plan S, including China and Zambia, the first African country, he confirmed.
“I am currently in touch with four other main [international] funders, and I am convinced that at least two of them will sign up to Plan S in the next weeks,” he said.