Plan S chief: universities, not open access push, hurting ECRs

Robert-Jan Smits attempts to allay concerns of junior academics considering moving country because of planned publishing shift

November 19, 2018
Lion on top of cage full of people
Source: Getty

The architect of Plan S has argued that universities are to blame for early career researchers’ concerns about Europe’s proposed shift towards open access publishing.

Since being unveiled in September, Plan S has been backed by funding agencies in 15 countries across Europe and, most recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It will in effect ban researchers funded by these organisations from publishing in closed-access subscription journals, obligating them to make their work freely and easily available via open-access platforms.

But there is a growing backlash to the proposals, particularly among early career researchers who face particular pressure to publish in high-impact journals in order to further their careers.

An open letter detailing researchers’ concerns about Plan S, which has been signed by more than 1,200 people, complains that the proposals would impinge on academic freedom by restricting their choice of where to publish.

Students in European universities were “already starting to wonder if it is wise to do a PhD in a [Plan S-affiliated] country, or rather move to another country to increase their chances of a successful career”, the letter says.

One signatory of the letter told THE that she was considering moving to Germany or Switzerland – which are yet to sign up to the initiative – or even further afield in order to continue her academic career.

Eva Meeus, a master’s student at the University of Amsterdam and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, said that she wanted to do a PhD in biochemistry “but it really concerns me that I won’t have the freedom to publish where I want if I stay here in the Netherlands”.

“While I support open access and believe it is a good thing, I think it could be delivered in a way which is less risky and destructive,” she said. “At the moment, I worry I will be ignored by international collaborators if my name is not published [in established journals] and excluded from projects because I cannot publish where they want to.”

But Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s open access envoy, disagreed that junior academics would be put at a disadvantage as a result of differences in global publishing cultures.

The real issue posing a threat to junior academics, he argued, was the “persistent culture” within institutions that encouraged evaluation of junior researchers based on where they have been published, not the quality of the actual publications.

“Universities that are supposed to extend the frontiers of knowledge can sometimes be so conservative and have difficulties moving forward new practices. I’ve come to the conclusion that...sometimes the funders have to intervene because the necessary culture change will not happen by itself,” Mr Smits said. “Plan S will encourage institutions to reconsider the way they measure researchers’ value.”

Mr Smits said that much of the criticism over Plan S was based on “misinterpretation” of its vision and he argued that it was “a mistake to think Plan S will spell the end of international collaborations”.

Mr Smits has already spoken to US officials in a bid to build broader support for Plan S, and was seeking to build support in Asia, too.

He is due to meet with representatives from the early career researcher community at the Young Academy of Europe meeting in Barcelona later this month.

“It is in our interests to include early career researchers in the development of Plan S and I look forward to the discussions taking place,” Mr Smits said.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

True this. What about league tables? The real issue is perhaps that research assessment has no 100% unbiased mechanism for measuring research quality at scale for league table and other reporting and employment purposes. It is not possible to read the work that 200 job applicants have written in order make a fair assessment on who to employ for that single postdoc position. So, metrics and some peer review it is. The established journals, whether OA or not have the dubious advantage of being a 'known' entity and 'brand' and in the minds of many experienced researchers these 'brands' are still (erroneously in some cases) equated with 'quality by default'. A culture shift is needed, and 'yes' absolutely, funders and policy makers must be part of the drive or else change will be too slow, but senior researchers will always be at an advantage there unless league tables, algorithmic transparency and assessment processes change too. Presently the advantage established colleagues have is not just in terms of being able to 'make the rules' of assessment. They are also able to comfortably accept these rules as a necessary evil, doing nothing to challenge them (although of course many do, for which I am grateful). Another advantage is monetary: experienced researchers are more likely to have access to institutional/ funder support for open access fees. Plan S, if implemented as is, should at least remedy the financial challenges ECRs face in paying for open access fees, but other obstacles will remain if there is no dramatic shift in the ways league tables and research assessment are configured. This in spite of the very logical OA rhetoric and even if, in their heart of hearts researchers support OA, ECRs are left to gamble with their futures, senior colleagues with secure posts much less so, relatively speaking, and not withstanding the irresponsible uses of metrics in performance assessment of experienced colleagues. By default established researchers with tenured posts have less to lose relatively speaking, and many can afford to be skeptical of open access, especially if the journals are new. The 'citations and non-OA worked for me' argument I've also heard more than once. It is therefore quite right to include ECRs in the development of an OA approach for the EU and beyond, as the 'it worked for me' argument can be balanced out. Could there perhaps instead, be a mandate for more senior researchers to publish in open access where possible and as appropriate to their field (i.e. monographs are not quite there yet) and some lea way for more junior colleagues? That might bring the message home to the more conservative 'elements' in our midst and may inspire some recalcitrant established/ experienced colleagues to engage with open access more fruitfully and positively, thereby leading the way for junior colleagues to follow. At the very least it might require established colleagues to research the possibility of open access more thoroughly, as I find that the level of understanding of what open access is actually 'about' does tend to vary somewhat between individuals. The links between research assessment, quality, citations, open access, equity and career development are badly understood by many who don't have a vested or altruistic interested in publishing in open access outlets. Where the 'cut-off' mark for ECR/MCR/ experienced colleagues should lie will be a matter of debate I imagine, but it might be worth a go.