Got an unpopular opinion about open access? Admit it at your own risk

Everyone appears to be behind open access, but scratch the surface and you’ll find that it’s something of a touchy subject in academia, says Rachael Pells 

February 4, 2019
Locked door

As Science Europe’s Plan S initiative makes its mark around the world, I’ve found myself chatting to Robert-Jan Smits, the plan’s chief architect, more than I have my own family members over the past few months. Even after every setback and harsh piece of criticism, he has a relentless, infectious enthusiasm and a positive outlook. He really believes that one day the academic publishing world will become one small open sharing circle of friends.

Smits’ enthusiasm appears to be catching. Plan S has sparked a sudden wave of excitement across the world – 22 global funding bodies have signed up, an indication that policymakers want to take back power from big publishers. 

In researching for a recent feature, I found it surprisingly difficult to find outwardly vocal open access refuseniks to speak to on the record. Almost everyone you ask in higher education will tell you that they agree with open access – in principle, anyway. 

The difficulties lie in the detail. Academics, like many people, do not like being told what to do. Under Plan S, researchers working with public money from funders that have signed up to the scheme’s policies will effectively be banned from publishing in dozens of top journals on the basis that they do not offer the option of free, immediate access to the papers that they publish.

Advocates say that the rules may be harsh but that they are necessary if funders and publishers are going to start taking open access principles seriously. After all, campaigners have been pushing OA for 30 years, but relatively little progress has been made in that time. Common estimates are that about 30 per cent of the world’s journals are open access, meaning that there’s a long way to go. That is, if you believe the goal is to reach 100 per cent.

It’s once you start asking individuals how they feel about these particular rules that their enthusiasm starts to wane. Early career researchers and even PhD candidates have told me that they will consider moving country if it means they can retain the freedom to publish where they want. 

That may seem a little extreme, but consider how important it still is for junior scientists to get their work published in a high-impact, traditional peer-reviewed journal. Those who have already made it to the top will readily denounce impact factor and the apparent prestige that Science, Nature and Cell hold – and universities are urged under the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) not to use these metrics to judge their employees. 

The reality has not yet caught up with the ideal. The fact remains that researchers who do not get published by the big titles may suffer in the eyes of older generations who have gone down the traditional route and now hold the keys to promotions and jobs.

The problem with the subject of open access is that it’s highly emotive. Many advocates have personal reasons for supporting it – they are living with an illness or have lost a family member to a disease they do not understand and wish to know more about. The clear argument here being that members of the public should have the right to knowledge, particularly when they have most likely paid for that research with their taxes.

Then there are researchers who, when pushed, will admit that actually, they don’t think their research does have public interest – they either simply don’t care about how many people read it, or they’re happy to keep it to themselves. They do exist, but they won’t often speak about it.

Why not? Perhaps because the open access debate can quickly derail. One academic who had contributed a thought-piece for us where she drew out her reservations for open access told me: “I had thought I’d been very fair and balanced in my argument,” but what followed was a “torrent of abuse” – coming from strangers on Twitter to the writer’s own colleagues who were shocked to find that she had deviated from the script. 

The writer, who didn’t want to be named for obvious reasons, said that it put her off speaking about open access from then on.

There are dozens of arguments against Plan S once you delve deeper. While some of those are almost certainly misinformed, they speak to the discontent felt by academics who are fearful of change or who simply do not want to feel controlled. 

Smits could manage to complete his open access empire in time for his departure from his current role in March. Australian research funders are under under pressure to join but big US funders, who may have pledged their “support”, are yet to fully sign up. Watch this open space.

Rachael Pells is a reporter for Times Higher Education.

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