These days I wake up and strenuously attempt, and spectacularly fail, to avoid the news. Across the world it seems as if we are seeing an epidemic of nationalist fervor, authoritarian displays of governmental bravado, alongside their comfortable companions: the triumph of anti-intellectual thought, and the loss of logic. In quieter moments I sometimes see this spread of illogical fervor as a viral meme. Just as a virus behaves, be it physical or computer in origin, social media spreads the viral meme, infecting populations and feeding populist movements – albeit deriving from authoritarianism.
So what has this to do with academia and publishing? Well, as I muse on the relentless drive to open access (OA), especially looking at the rise of Plan S, I think it is worth asking if we are comfortable with what I see as an authoritarian sensibility to managing a researcher’s life.
There has been a plethora of excellent articles on Plan S, all beginning with the September 2018 announcement of the plan. Two of the best articles on the details of Plan S are naturally to be found here in The Scholarly Kitchen (“PlanS: Impact on Society Publishers”: Michael Clarke, September 5th, 2018) and (“Plan S: A Mandate for Gold OA with lots of Strings Attached” by Angela Cochran December 7th, 2018). What appears to be missing (although not completely) is a sense of what matters to researchers across academic disciplines. In this article, I try to disentangle authority, money, and motivation, providing a sense of balance that I would implore Plan S leaders and funders to take to heart.
At this point in the evolution of openness it is clear that folding workable open access models into the fabric of publishing is a worthwhile endeavor. What appears to have changed is that following a decade of advocates on all sides not listening to each other’s needs, there is no longer room for balance and rational discourse. What we see from Plan S leaders, and from the way they approach the notion of openness, is that their world view is good and necessary for all. Plan S, as we all know at this point, is based on a set of key principles: a manifesto that the creators expect will be followed by everyone in the research ecosystem, especially those funded by Plan S sponsors. The details of how this will be done are not ironed out at all, and in fact, when reading the “rules” you could be forgiven for scratching your head as logic does not appear to be much on display.
An example of this missing logic may be seen in the way Plan S defines what the author may, or may not do with making their article OA. It is certainly reasonable for a funder to ask an author to publish their resulting articles in an OA manner. But it becomes problematic when the funder proscribes the specific route to that endpoint that the author chooses, largely based on the business model of their chosen outlet. Most publishers offer hybrid journals and some have launched what are called “Mirror” journals, essentially spin-offs of an existing title that shares the same editorial board and decision-making process but that operates under a gold OA business model.
Plan S leaders see these models as inappropriate, largely due to financial concerns, and will not accept any articles published in these types of journals as compliant. The problem here for researchers is that they are being asked not just to make their article OA, but also to withdraw support for anything that may be connected to a subscription model – this is an authoritarian move, and restricts author choice. Indeed for “Mirror” journals, the only commonality with the parent journal is the editorial board – the intellectual leadership – which logically cannot and should not be confused with the business model in play.
The approach of Plan S is authoritarian, with little regard for what may be beneficial for researchers. In fact, this line of thinking puts me in mind of Machiavelli’s 500 year-old treatise on wielding power, The Prince:
I hold that it could be true that fortune is the arbiter of half of actions, but that she still leaves the other half, or close to it, to be governed by us. And she resembles one of those violent rivers which, when they become enraged, flood the plains, tear down trees and buildings, lift up the earth from one side and deposit it on the other… But this does not mean that men, when times are quiet, cannot take precautions with floodgates and embankments, so that, when the rivers swell up again, either they would move along through a canal, or their rush would not be so unchecked and harmful. The same happens with fortune, who displays her force where there is no prepared resource to resist her.
How do researchers feel about Plan S? It is not clear. In fact, in many communities — and this is certainly true in mathematics — you mention Plan S to a researcher, and they will have no clue what you are talking about. Researchers are broadly sympathetic to openness, be it in research or in access to their scholarship, but very few grasp how Plan S fits into the movement toward openness. And yet, it will profoundly change their lives by providing restrictions and rules governing what they may and may not do. Of course, one can say that this only applies to those who may be directly funded, and a funder has the right to tell their researchers how to act — but that is not what we would understand as academic freedom.
There have been some rumblings from researchers. A fascinating open letter launched initially from the European chemistry community in the Fall of 2018 entitled Reaction of Researchers to Plan S: Too Far, Too Risky, has now gained nearly 1600 signatures and brought in academics from a wide range of disciplines.
Perhaps it is time to ask how much leeway should a funding agency have to determine the expression of the resulting research. Researchers appear to be comfortable with Wellcome, or Gates putting strict restrictions on how an author can make public the results of their research. Would they feel the same if the funder was the Coca Cola corporation, or Facebook, or a the government of a repressive dictatorship, or indeed our own Government? How much power are researchers going to cede to those with money? Isn’t the whole reason we have the current peer review system an attempt to wrestle power away from funders and prevent them from restricting researchers?
In a world where we are gradually losing our ability to separate fact from fiction, let’s pause and strive for balance. There may be aspects of Plan S that are appealing. There may also be aspects of subscription models in publishing that are appealing. I certainly hope so, as how else will an academic society such as mine – The American Mathematical Society – survive to continue to provide services, prizes, education, support for up and coming researchers, and much more to the global mathematical community? We need a balanced discussion, and we need to include researchers across many disciplines — funded and not funded — to ask what fits their needs most effectively. This is not about advocacy and belief.