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.

convertible with top down
Is “Top Down” the best way for research communication to ride?

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.


Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.


28 Thoughts on "Plan S: What About Researchers?"

> How do researchers feel about Plan S? It is not clear. (…) A fascinating open letter (…) 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.

It would be fair to also mention that an open letter entitled “Open Letter in Support of Funder Open Publishing Mandates” has gained nearly 1900 signatures and also brought in academics from a wide range of disciplines. As opposed to the quoted letter, though, this one is actually in support of funder mandates like Plan S.

Not all researchers are alike, although some of them get a bigger voice than others, making us believe that they represent everyone.
Can the Kitchen please dedicate at least one post in a quarter to the needs and concerns of the Humanities and Social Sciences?

Agreed. I have yet to hear any coherent response to the question of how unfunded research is meant to be published in a world where the author-pay model becomes dominant. Part of the joy of tenure — and its rationale — is the ability to pursue research that is not recognized through funding mechanisms, but is nonetheless valuable to the field. Some of my most-cited articles were unfunded.

Important question. The answer is also absolutely clear: neither the subscription model, nor the APC model are fair to researchers and research. The answer is that scientific communication should be gratis for both authors and readers. Publishing is a small fraction of of the cost of research. Funding agencies could band together to support open platforms. The issue then is not money, but governance, international governance of research with no interference from market forces.

“The answer is that scientific communication should be gratis for both authors and readers.”
So do you also support making *all* forms of scicomm gratis? Think of Science TV channels, magazines, and popular science books?
I am asking this based on the definition of SciComm popularly used by Wikipedia as: ‘
Science communication is the public communication of science-related topics to non-experts.’

The entire debate here is rather towards “Scholarly” Communications (targets experts), rather than “Scientific” Communication (targets non-experts). So what you are asking may be essentially the former.

The distinction you make between “scholarly” and “scientific” is unusual, More familiar is the notion of “scientific” communication as a subset of “scholarly” communication.

But let us stay with your distinction for the moment. I fully recognize the importance of communication beyond the expert group. For purely tactical (and not principled) reasons, I would suggest slicing the issue in two phases, if only to make each more amenable to change. Let us first deal with peer-reviewed communication (whatver the form of peer review may be); then, let us see how we move beyond this. But already making peer-reviewed literature open would help a lot of non-experts.

Very interesting and provocative letter. You raise a question which is just how much liberty is one willing to cede to those with money? At what point will a funder say: You are a good researcher but have you considered going in this direction which I favor rather than that which you choose to pursue and which I don’t favor.
When one has lots and lots of money consideration as to what is for the public good is ignored. I wonder how the Gates Foundation would feel if the governments of the world mandated that microsoft has to be free because it is the result of research funded by some governmental grants.

Most funding agencies allocate money on the basis of pre-established research programmes. Sometimes, this is called “finalized science”. Nothing unusual in this, and nothing scandalous either, especially when this is taxpayer money. Taxpayers might like to have a voice in evaluating what is being researched, and what the results are.
Furthermore, having a lot of money to spend is not necessarily antagonistic to the public good.
Finally, the Gates Foundation and Microsoft are two different entities that work according to very different rules. The last point is not relevant to the discussion.

Thank you, Michael. This is indeed important. And when an article claims to deplore a loss of logic, the same article should not display such a clear example of omission. What is interesting in Plan S, whether it gets really implemented or not, is that a number of funding agencies, at last, have come to understand that they have the money and the responsibility to take a close look at how scholarly publishing should be working. Their present, on-going, evaluation is that the present system does not work very well. We can expect more of this in the near future, and this is a welcomed development.

‘…the present system does not work very well.”

Really. On what basis? In an era where more researchers are submitting articles than ever before? Where more are published and more support peer review through their actions as authors, reviewers and reader than ever? Where access has spread from elite Western universities to thousands of institutions worldwide. Where time to publication has shrunk? Where citations rise and that long tail thickens every year (I.e more papers get more citations). Where annual usage for even mid level (STM) journals garners hundreds of thousands of article downloads? Where publishers fund initiatives from ORCID to Portico to CrossRef to ensure the integrity and viability of scholarly publishing. Where innovation in platforms, metrics and analytics in runaway train mode with new projects funded every year?

I wonder if the primary function of Plan S will be to push large publishers that have balked at proposed terms for read and publish deals into a weaker negotiating position than they had before. If hybrid journals get a transitional grandfathering only for publishers that have signed these read and publish deals, that gives countries like Germany more leverage in the renewal process.

I know of no “read and publish” deal that includes a full transition to OA for the journal itself. Unless Plan S revises the principles significantly, I don’t think a “read and publish” deal is going to be considered transformative.

I presume you are referring to the Wiley/DEAL agreement and Smits commentary at APE? What seems to have changed is Smits definition of transformative. The Wiley/DEAL agreement does not include a commitment to full transition to OA for any Wiley journals.

I agree that the question of the extent of funder control over research is an important one. But let’s be rigorous here, and separate two completely different issues: (1) research topics, and even whole fields, that public funders may favour, possibly to the detriment of others (think applied vs basic research, or STM vs HSS) and (2) constraints on the way research results are disseminated and (re)used. I think one can be completely coherent by fighting against (1), and insisting on the primacy of peer review can be part of the strategy, while seeing (2) as perfectly acceptable, as long as it brings no indirect constraints on the research itself.

Here’s a theoretical — is it okay for CZI to insist that all research they fund be published on Facebook (their parent company and the source of their funds)? To author or read about the work, you’d need to have a Facebook account. Visibility of the work will be dependent on Facebook algorithms, how active the author is on Facebook, and advertising spend. There’s no restraint put on the direction of the research itself, although if it carried a message harmful to the parent company, it could very easily be hidden away.

Would this be “perfectly acceptable”?

What if Gates or Wellcome decide that their funded authors can only publish in their branded areas of F1000 Research and only other Gates/Wellcome researchers are qualified to act as peer reviewers? Would bringing all evaluation in-house be a good thing for science?

What if the current government decides that all EPA research must be reviewed, approved, and edited by the White House before it is allowed to be disseminated? No restraint on the actual research itself, just the communication of the research? Okay or not okay?

I realize it may not have been clear that my whole comment was about *public* funders. In order to comment on your first two scenarios, I would have to give some serious thought to the what is (must, should, could…) be different with funding from charities or corporations.

As for your third scenario, which seems much more realistic than the others in this troubled era, I’d say that such a vetting process would constitute an (indirect) constraint on the research itself. Who would take the risk of doing research on topics whose results would likely remain not only unpublished, but undisclosed, thus nonexistent?

This kind of self-censorship already takes place, as per the first issue I raise: researchers, freely some would say, will tend to choose topics having the potential to bring or increase funding, according to priorities established by the funders.

However, I don’t see how constraints on the access mode to and reuse rights of papers (what I was referring to in reality) could affect the research itself, unless the constraints are so tight that it becomes impossible to find legitimate journals accepting papers on specific topics. This would be a fight I would support.

Marc Couture’s distinction is valid. However, I do not understand why anyone should want to fight against 1, except if it is a very rigid 1. First of all, those who pay the piper can select the tune. The same is true of funding agencies. In the case of public funding agencies, the funding programme also expresses some form of science policy, which may even include some room for so-called “free research”. Is expressing a science policy inappropriate for a public body? And is translating this policy into a funding programme equally inappropriate? If so what are the role and use of public institutions? Are they not there to interpret, express, and implement the popular will? Is this not what a government is supposed to do?
For those who would be tempted to conflate market behaviour with scientific research, please read: “David A. Hollinger, “Free Enterprise and Free Inquiry: The Emergence of Laissez-Faire Communitarianism in the Ideology of Science in the United States,” New Literary History 21, no. 4 (1990): 897,” The thesis that scientific research is best served with free research is a partial myth, but so is the thesis that only programmed research can yield worthy results.

So we should be okay with tobacco companies creating research programs to prove that smoking doesn’t cause cancer? Or obesity studies funded by soda companies showing that their products are blameless? Those pipers are calling their tunes and expressing some form of science policy, right?

Wow! You open here a whole can of worms, important and worth discussing of course, but completely unrelated to this conversation, I fear.

I thought the conversation was about how much control researchers are willing to cede to funders in exchange for money. You suggested that restraints upon the expression of the research results were, “perfectly acceptable, as long as it brings no indirect constraints on the research itself.” I suggested some scenarios where it might not be so acceptable, which seems related to the conversation. Or did I miss your point?

The issue of companies, selling tobacco, soda or whatever, funding research on topics related to their business is certainly related to our conversation. Like I said, I would need to take some time to explore this issue. Others can certainly contribute in a thoughtful way. Companies “creating research programs to prove that smoking doesn’t cause cancer”, as you put it a bit bluntly, raises the completely different ethical and political issue of the way science and scholarship (including publishing) and society deal with conflicts of interests. I don’t think mixing the two issues is useful.

I would argue that it all falls along the same spectrum. If researchers are willing to give up control of their research in order to secure money, how much control is it okay to give up?

Let us distinguish three things here:

1. Science policy
2. Research programme
3. Evaluation of research results

Science policy would probably be something like: focus on cancer research;
Research programme would probably be something like: relationship of smoking with cancer;
Evaluation of research results: research shows a link between smoking and cancer, and evaluation shows the research to be valid.

Now, science policy may be in the hands of a funding agency (private agency in particular: e.g. Gates and malaria) or in the hands of a research ministry. Research programmes are squarely in the hands of individual funding agencies (who pays the piper selects the tune); however, research evaluation will not be very credible if it emanates from the same funding agency that finances the research. In particular, evaluation cannot be in the hands of a single funding agency.

The evaluation situation would be even worse in the case of a firm trying to manipulate research results while financing it (which they occasionally do, as has been documented in the past).

All funding agencies know this. That is why they use various procedures, including juries of peers, to ascertain the validity and credibility of research proposals, and they leave the evaluation of research results to others.

The irony of all this is that the evaluation of research is itself open to many questions… but that is another matter, better left aside here.

How does that gibe with funders becoming the evaluators (and publishers) of research (e.g, eLife, Gates Open Research, etc.)?

Good question: it means that transparent, open procedures, preferably involving different institutions, have to be put in place. A fascinating project IMHO.

When this is compared with the present problems associated with peer review, etc., we should not suppose we are starting from an ideal situation either. But we are drifting towards research evaluation here.

Plan S is authoritarian in the same way as antitrust laws or the minimum wages are authoritarian. Yes, “authoritarian” measures are needed for preventing researchers from giving away their works to publishers.

The “balanced discussion” you call for has been going on for decades, and has not stopped the relentless rise of subscription costs.

My detailed response to criticisms of Plan S:

And my objections to the plan’s implementation guidelines:

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