28 September 2018

'Acceleration for freely accessible scientific publications'

Open access buttons

Free (online and irrevocable) access to scientific publications for everyone, otherwise known as: open access (OA). Discussions about this have already been going on for years, but there appears to be a gain in momentum now. As of 1 January 2020, all publicly-funded scientific articles need to be published in open-access formats.

In a recent plan (Plan S) of the EU and a group of international research financiers, including NWO ('The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research') , the conditions are made much stricter. What does this plan mean for universities, individual academics and publishers? 



Anton Pijpers, President of the Executive Board AND negotiator for big publishing companies on behalf on the VSNU*, is this plan good news for Utrecht University? 
“Yes, because research funded with public resources must also be available to the public. A big portion of the money used for the purchase of scientific literature comes from the taxpayer and people are becoming aware that it needs to be used responsibly.

Open-access publication also provides a broader impact because articles become easier to find and easier to search, and are cited quicker. As Utrecht University, we want to be ahead of the curve in this field because we are convinced that academic research can better contribute to solutions for complex issues if knowledge is shared as widely and quickly as possible.

On top of that, the current standard scientific communication model is simply no longer viable: researchers doing the most work, publishers selling very expensive journals and libraries - whose budgets are already at risk of being cut - having to buy those journals.”

What does UU do to actually stay ahead?    
Anton: “We are going to start an Open Science Programme. It will be guided by the Open Science Platform, which will consist of members from across the entire research community. Platform President Frank Miedema (Dean of the Faculty of Medicine) and Programme Manager Anja Smit (Director of the University Library (UB)) are going to look at the design of the programme and the course toward 2020. All deans support the plan.”

Jeroen Sondervan, open-access specialist at the University Library and an editor for the national website openaccess.nl, do you think we are going to achieve one hundred percent open access in 2020? 
“That is very ambitious. It is expected that in 2017 (exact figures pending), roughly 50-52 percent of all articles published in the Netherlands were freely accessible. That would mean that we'll have to bridge the other half in agreements with publishers in little more than a year. That's a tricky job. With Plan S, the EU and the research financiers hope to get publishers to make a quicker transition to an open-access publishing model. Hopefully, this pressure from research financiers will provide the force we need to get all universities to one hundred percent in the upcoming years after all.”

Will prominent journals such as Science and Nature now also be forced to transition to open access? 
 “No, they won’t. It's a global market and this open-access discussion is currently primarily taking place in Europe. Science and Nature Research do already have full open-access journals (such as Science Advances and Nature Communications). But for other journals in their portfolios, expectations are that they are going to maintain their subscriptions for the flagship journals and the hybrid model**. In order to really change the above-mentioned transition, a broader coalition that supports Plan S is needed.”

So research that is financed by one of the parties that participate in Plan S can no longer be published in Science or Nature in the future?
“These financiers will indeed not support publication costs of hybrid journals. More than that, they won't accept the hybrid journals as publication routes at all. But many things regarding the execution of this are still unclear. But this will force researchers to travel different paths and possibly choose different journals.”

Frank, do researchers appreciate this in general? 
“Many researchers won't like the sound of this, but we should ask ourselves as an academic community why these journals are the way they are. We largely maintain this system ourselves by placing too much emphasis on matters such as Journal Impact Factors and similar metrics, which are all too often provided by commercial parties or a publishing company that also runs the journal.

Publishing companies use this to make prestigious journals even more prestigious and then ask a lot of money for it. This is shown by research: the higher the Impact Factors, the higher the publication costs. There are voices calling for the consideration of other factors in order to measure (academic and social) impacts.”

Are there also colleagues who currently do not support (full) open access? If so, what are their objections?
: “Many are worried about how we are going to determine the quality of research if we no longer primarily consider the impact factors of journals. Even though we know that researchers are not supposed to be judged on that, many disciplines still use it in commissions that review researchers and/or project proposals. We'll have to do real peer review again, evaluations of content. That will take more time, but will do more justice to the researchers. There actually are many places where solid evaluation of content is taking place, but that is under pressure because of the high number of requests.”

Jeroen, where can employees go if they have questions or need help or support in the field of open access?
“The University Library has already been working intensively on open access for fifteen years. For instance, we help researchers with setting up open-access journals or with the funding of publication costs. By now, there is also a team of experts on open access for publications, open research data and copyright, among other things. This group is closely involved in various local and national initiatives on open access and is standing by to help researchers with their questions. Please check out the UB website and/or contact us on library@uu.nl.”

*Association of Universities in the Netherlands

** These are journals that maintain a subscription model, but offer authors the option to buy the ‘freedom’ of the articles.