By now, I imagine that most, if not all, readers of the Scholarly Kitchen have heard about Plan S, a program of Science Europe, a consortium of public research funding organizations. Under this program, funded researchers will be required to make their work available immediately upon publication (that is, without embargo) on an open access (OA) basis, using the definition of OA found in the Berlin Declaration:
Open access contributions must satisfy two conditions: The author(s) and right holder(s) of such contributions grant(s) to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship (community standards, will continue to provide the mechanism for enforcement of proper attribution and responsible use of the published work, as they do now), as well as the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use.
A complete version of the work and all supplemental materials, including a copy of the permission as stated above, in an appropriate standard electronic format is deposited (and thus published) in at least one online repository using suitable technical standards (such as the Open Archive definitions) that is supported and maintained by an academic institution, scholarly society, government agency, or other well-established organization that seeks to enable open access, unrestricted distribution, inter operability, and long-term archiving.
Currently, fourteen European funders, including the Wellcome Trust, are members of Plan S, and in the U.S. the Gates Foundation has also agreed to adopt its terms.
A vigorous debate as to the pros and cons of this plan has been going on for a couple of months now, and I won’t try to summarize it here (those interested can find expressions of both support and concern—sometimes both simultaneously—here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, among other places). Instead, I would like to focus on the backlash we have seen in response to those who have raised concerns about Plan S, and especially in response to one particular expression of that concern: an open letter that was organized by Swedish biochemist Lynn Kamerlin. As of this writing, the letter has been signed by nearly 1,400 researchers, including two Nobel laureates. The issues addressed in this letter include:
- The prohibition on publishing in non-OA and hybrid journals will make more than 80% of journals off-limits to funded researchers.*
- Its “one-size-fits-all” approach fails to recognize different needs across disciplines.
- It undermines academic freedom, particularly as that concept is formally understood in the U.S., Sweden, and Germany.
- It will create serious complications for research published by teams consisting only partially of researchers funded by Plan S members.
The letter was made public earlier this month. Two predictable things then happened: first, the number of signatories more than doubled. Second, a Twitter mob formed and deployed immediately. And while some of its members limited themselves to addressing the actual content of the letter, others took the conversation in decidedly darker directions. One tweeter called for surveillance of the letter’s signatories: “We should start monitoring papers accepted in [N]ature, [S]cience, and other actual majors from the researchers attacking #Plan_S,” he said. (Kamerlin’s excellent response: she said “here you go” and provided a link to a website from which she links to all of her publications and research data sets — all of which are freely available online, and have always been, because Kamerlin has long been a strong supporter of OA.)
One commentator called for surveillance of those who signed the open letter about Plan S.
The theme of conspiracy emerged even more explicitly among other tweeters: “Do they have shares in the publishing companies?” asks one (the original in Spanish), while another wants to know “which vested interests” are behind the letter, and another accuses the letter writers of “collusion.” Still another tweeter charges Kamerlin with “doing precisely the dirt job Elsevier can’t do openly.”
Others suggested that any objection to Plan S must be an attempt to protect the signatories’ positions of privilege: “All of this just reeks of being afraid to loose [sic] perks and privilege… it all seems very shady to me”, says one tweeter (“all of this” apparently referring to “expressing any objection to Plan S”), while another wants to “see things like academic affiliation, status, grant funding, and other elements of privilege that might contribute into this” (“this,” again, being “harboring any objections to Plan S”). Given that roughly 20% of the letter’s signatories are young researchers in the earliest stages of their careers, one has to wonder how their “privilege” stacks up against that of the people attacking them online. One also might wonder whether “elements of privilege” would include, say, being Director-General of DG Research and Innovation at the European Commission, or being the President of Science Europe, or controlling $8.8 billion in research funding.
Or simply being a white male — a characteristic shared by virtually all of those who have been attacking Kamerlin online. In the case of some of the creepier and more personal attacks on Kamerlin herself, there’s more than a whiff of sexism in the air. “The lady in the picture see[m]s serene and unmoved. Is she a publisher?”, asks one tweeter, while another simply reproduces her picture and says “I hate this lady lol.”
Apart from the creepiness, the gendered condescension, the ad hominem attacks, the conspiracy theories, the calls for surveillance, and the insinuations of bad faith, the substantive content of these attacks on Kamerlin and the letter’s signatories has been depressingly consistent: if you object to Plan S, it can’t be because you have critically evaluated the pros and cons and come to an informed conclusion. It must be because you’re in the pay of Big Publishing, or because Plan S threatens your personal privilege, or because you’re secretly acting on behalf of — I’m not making this up — a conspiracy of editors. (You’ve heard of the International Editorial Conspiracy, haven’t you? No? Psssh. Wake up, sheeple.) Honest and principled disagreement? No, sorry — that would imply that intelligent and well-informed people could conceivably hold a range of opinions about the advisability of mandatory OA. That proposition is not acceptable. Instead, there must be something shady — nay, “very shady” — going on. And if you raise the suggestion that Plan S poses troubling implications for the academic freedom of funded authors, then you’re a hypocrite for bringing it up, and besides academic freedom doesn’t exist anyway.
The freedom to choose how to publish isn’t for everyone; it’s only for those who agree with Plan S.
Unfortunately, defending Plan S is a goal that apparently justifies any behavior, no matter how misleading, personally nasty, or even counterfactual it has to be. We’ve even seen instances of out-and-out gaslighting. In a recent exchange on the LIBLICENSE mailing list, noted OA advocate (and Berlin Declaration signatory) Jean-Claude Guédon asserted that “Plan S does not say anything about where people should publish.” This is a pretty surprising statement in light of the actual language of Plan S, which includes the provision that “after 1 January 2020 scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.” In other words, Plan S not only says “something” about where people should publish; it says where (and how) people must publish.
Ultimately, though, what is most concerning about Plan S is not the behavior of those hell-bent on defending it by any means necessary. That’s just par for the course. More important is the way in which researchers themselves — the people whose work and whose freedom to choose will be directly affected by its implementation — seem to have been excluded from the process of formulating it. This shouldn’t be surprising, I guess, given the disdain in which authors and researchers are apparently held by Plan S’s creators. After all, as Science Europe’s Robert-Jan Smits puts it: “Why do we need Plan S? Because researchers are irresponsible.”
There you have it. The freedom to choose how to publish isn’t for everyone; it’s only for those who are “responsible” — which is to say, those who agree with Plan S.
* It may turn out that Plan S’s prohibition on publication in hybrid journals is softer than what the current language of its Ten Principles indicates. Today or tomorrow there will be an announcement about the Plan S implementation, and in a private communication with one of its architects I’ve been told that this announcement will include clarifying language that indicates funded research may actually be funded in a hybrid journal — but that in that case, grant funds may not be used to pay the APC.