A landmark policy backed by 13 countries in Europe to make publicly funded research available through open-access platforms could one day be expanded to every continent, according to its founder.
Plan S, a project initially signed by a coalition of 11 funding agencies, was unveiled by Science Europe just one month ago. Since then, two more funding bodies, from Sweden and Finland, have joined. Enthusiasm for the scheme, however, extends well beyond Europe.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s senior adviser on open access and the architect of Plan S, said that he had already embarked on discussions with White House representatives in the US, where invitations to discuss the policy had come in “one after another”.
Furthermore, Mr Smits said that colleagues from Science Europe had earlier this month engaged in “exploratory talks” with sector leaders in Japan, where the concept had been met with “real interest”. “Next I want to start conversations with India, with South Africa [and with] China,” he added. “It has really taken a global dimension, and the only issue that is my biggest enemy at the moment is time.”
Under Plan S, scientists who accept new funding contracts from participating public bodies must make any resulting research available to read and download freely and immediately upon publication in open-access platforms.
Campaigners have hailed Plan S as a victory for open access, but many publishers reacted badly to its announcement. There have also been concerns expressed about what the policy might mean for academic freedom and choice of where to publish.
Mr Smits has met with US academics from the likes of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California to discuss Plan S. In those conversations, he said, he had been “impressed by the eagerness and depth of knowledge” shown. “[Others] were a bit more sceptical, notably some of the learned societies,” he continued, adding that meetings with those still running subscription-based journals had been “the most challenging”.
Addressing the plan’s sceptics, Mr Smits said that he had urged publishers to “join the transition and be part of it – don’t try to slow it down”. While some observers had advised leaving subscription-based journals out of the equation altogether for fear that they would try to “derail the train”, Mr Smits said that he wanted the process to be all-inclusive.
Earlier this year, Elsevier reported a profit of more than £900 million for 2017, but financial experts pinpointed its subscription-based business model as a “principal risk” to the company’s future growth. Nonetheless, Mr Smits said that the shift towards open access presented an opportunity for publishers.
“I know these big publishers fear for their income, but still, I want to talk to them. I also tell them that the first person who makes the move has an advantage over the others,” he added, “and [so far] the discussions with them are constructive.”
Lynn Kamerlin, professor of biochemistry at Uppsala University in Sweden, said that a number of challenges remained in terms of academic freedom should such a policy be implemented globally.
“While I myself am clearly an open-access and open-science advocate, I…fail to see how draconian mandates without proper alternatives in place first would actually be welcomed by the larger body of researchers, beyond a smaller number of advocates,” she said.
“In addition, if North America does not take up Plan S, this has a big risk of fracturing the international research community into scholarship of regions, which I consider very dangerous.”
Others have pointed out that many international funding agencies already have requirements about making papers openly and freely available. But Mr Smits said that there was still “much further to go” in making open-access policies globally cohesive.
“Plan S is not a manual from which you can take out one aspect and not the others – it’s an integrated set of principles,” he said. “But we will be flexible in how we implement it because the goal is what is important and not so much the road to how we get there.”
Randy Schekman, editor of the open-access journal eLife, said that he was “enthusiastic” about Plan S “and would certainly encourage funding agencies in the US to adopt this policy”.
“One of the big differences about the Plan S principles is that hybrid journals will no longer be compliant,” he noted. “Of course, [some] journals…will object, but if more funding agencies come on board with this policy, the journals will simply have to adjust.”
Over the next few weeks, policymakers will aim to offer outlines of how the project will work in practice. A Plan S implementation task force has been set up, with a target to deliver the policy details by the end of the year.
Mr Smits said that he would be taking into account international demand, and noted that his US meetings had helped to iron out a number of points that required “better communication”, such as a misconception that Plan S favours particular models of open-access over others.
“Notably, the big publishers say, ‘We can only flip our process if this is a global project.’ And so I have always said, ‘If we wait until we have the whole world behind Plan S, we’ll never get it done,’” Mr Smits said. “Let’s concentrate on Europe first. Now we reach out to the rest of the world to join the coalition.”