Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Matthew Salter. Matthew is the Founder and CEO of Akabana Consulting LLC, a boutique publishing consultancy that offers strategic publishing, editorial, marketing, business development, and Japanese language services to learned societies, scholarly publishers, educational organizations, and publishing service vendors. From 2016-2021 he was the Publisher of the American Physical Society, prior to which he was the Associate Director, Journal (APAC) for IOP Publishing, and the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of MacMillan Science Communication (then a division of Nature Asia-Pacific) based in Tokyo.
In Japan, as in most countries in the northern hemisphere, the Spring is a time of renewal: the Sakura blooms, green shoots emerge and new spring-themed beers appear on the shelves of convenience stores. In the corporate and academic sectors, however, Spring not only heralds the promise of warmer weather and seasonal beverage options, but also signals the start of the new financial and school year with new budgets, appointments, and company staff reshuffling, as well as the promulgation of new policies and initiatives. April Fool’s Day is not really a thing in Japan, so whereas many companies in the West tend to avoid the first of the month when making important announcements, it is in no way unusual that the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), the nation’s second-largest public-sector research funder chose April 1st, 2022 to unveil its revised open access policy and implementation guidelines with a typical lack of fanfare outside of its home country.
Caution – open access ahead
Such a comparatively low-key approach is in line with past precedent as Japanese funding bodies such as JST, have typically opted for a light-touch and iterative approach to open access policies – which for the most part have been developed in consultation with publishers – in contrast to counterparts in other countries that have put forward more radical and headline-generating open access initiatives such as the US OSTP “Holdren Memo”, Plan S, and UKRI’s open access policy announced in mid-2021. Previous versions of the JST open access policy issued in 2013 and 2017 went little remarked upon in many open science circles and were notable for their conciliatory approach, in contrast to the openly-stated ambition to disrupt and reform the world of scholarly publishing of many other funders. Following this consultative tradition, the current policy was circulated in draft form to publisher members of CHORUS, of which JST is a participating funder, for comment prior to publication.
To many observers, the low profile of Japan in the open access debate is anomalous, given the country’s position in the world in general, and the international research community in particular. Japan is a major international economic power ranking #3 in the world in terms of nominal GDP (behind the USA and China), which translates into healthy education and science budgets that claim approximately 3% of total income. Long a leader in scholarship in the region, and for the last 100 years on the international stage, Japan boasts a vibrant and highly developed research infrastructure of more than 3,400 universities, colleges, and research institutions that include many players of international repute which were, at least pre-COVID, attracting growing numbers of overseas researchers. Together these produced over 127,000 scientific and technical publications in 2020 that saw Japan maintain its position as a major global center of research excellence and ranked as the 7th most prolific producer of global scientific publications (a whisker behind Italy in 6th place). Government initiatives in recent years have stressed increased international collaboration aimed at boosting Japan’s international influence in science and technology research, whilst striving to balance increased openness with research security.
Follow the money
This all matters, because many of these Japanese publications arise from projects funded at least in part by JST which, with a budget of ¥142bn (US$ 1.15bn) in 2021 (a rise of 14.4% on 2020), accounting for almost 10.5% of the total Japanese academic science budget of ¥1.37tr for the same year, wields obvious financial clout, a position which is only set to grow stronger with the advent of the ¥10 trillion (US$88 billion) University Fund announced in November 2021 by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and which JST began administering from the start of fiscal 2022.
But it’s not just about the money. As well as distributing research funds, JST boasts huge organizational and intellectual influence in the Japanese research sector, administering services such as J-STAGE the national online platform for Japanese journals launched in 1999, that has now grown to host more than 3,500 journals and provides access to almost 5.38 million articles. This was followed up in 2020 with the pilot of the J-STAGE Data repository which archives datasets from a wide range of Japanese scholarly publications, and the subsequent development into full service in 2021. More recently, the agency has sought to extend its reach and intercede earlier in the research publication cycle launching Japan’s first “fully-fledged preprint server” called Jxiv (pronounced “Jay-kive”), which allows posting in both Japanese and English, in March 2022. In these ways and others, JST (and its forerunners dating back to 1957) has embedded itself into, and shaped, the research ecosystem of Japan and played an important role in raising and nurturing generations of Japanese research talent. Therefore, it is only natural that JST should occupy a central position in the ongoing, sometimes muted, drive towards greater open access in Japan.
JST Open Science 3.0
The most noticeable difference between the new policy and previous iterations is the introduction of an embargo period which stipulates that at minimum the Accepted Manuscript (AM) of any paper arising from a project submitted for funding to JST after the go-live date of April 1, 2022, must be made publicly accessible in an institutional or public repository in Japan within 12 months of publication of the resultant journal article. Whilst cautious by European standards, this is the first time that an embargo of any type has been included in the JST policy. In addition to AMs of research articles, the policy covers those of review articles and conference papers. While the revised policy signals a preference for the green route and does not mandate that the VoR be made available open access, publication as an open access article is a “permitted” route and under the new policy, APCs are fully reimbursable from grant money.
According to Mikiko Tanifuji, Director of the Data Platform Center at the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), the focus on green routes does not imply a failure to value the benefits of immediate open access inherent in gold models but is more a recognition of the reality of the scholarly publishing landscape in Japan. “They [JST] can’t push too hard on gold open access because firstly, there are not many OA journals in Japan — most of them are the US- or Europe-based – and not everybody can afford to pay APCs,” says Tanifuji.
As significant as what is included in the new JST policy is what is left out. In contrast with open access initiatives released by other global research funders, there is no mention of hybrids and consequently no ban on publishing in hybrid journals. That said, while no explicit distinction is made between hybrid and fully open access journals under the new policy, some ambiguity remains, as the new policy – in reference to publishing as “Gold” open access in journals — uses the unusual formulation: “The approach to making research publications publicly available in academic journals committed to Open Access [author’s emphasis] is generally called Gold Open Access (Gold OA).” The slightly opaque formulation should probably not be taken to indicate a preference on the part of JST for fully open access journals, but again as an accommodation of prevailing conditions and a recognition of the limits on the ability to control the behavior of researchers, and stops short of some more radical programs such as Plan S.
“Researchers always have to have the freedom to publish their own papers with the journal that they want,” says Tanifuji. “They have to be free to choose…and even the university libraries cannot control faculty members and say that they cannot publish in a certain journal because it is not part of the Plan S package. You can’t do that.” This position is unlikely to change in the near term, as this would require the creation of a single nationwide policy by the Japanese Cabinet Office, a move that Tanifuji and other observers see as unlikely.
Furthermore, it is notable that both the policy and its implementation guidelines are silent on the twin subjects of transformative journals and transformative agreements. This is perhaps understandable, given that are still very few of the latter in Japan, and those that do exist generally have a low profile. Doubtless, these topics will be revisited in future iterations of the policy as the number and visibility of such agreements grow.
Perhaps the single biggest omission for observers used to grappling with more demanding funder policies is the absence of any reference to author rights retention or mandates around licensing of the AM (e.g., CC BY). This is a significant point of departure from other jurisdictions where such issues are key elements of funder open access policies. The light touch and non-confrontational vibe are reinforced by the pledge by JST to “discuss with publishers, if necessary, in moving forward with the implementation” of embargo and licensing terms in the only mention made in the implementation guidelines to the latter. According to Tanifuji, this measured approach is unsurprising and arises from the dual position occupied by JST in the Japanese research ecosystem. “What JST can say [about licensing] is very, very limited because they are a funding agency as well as a J-STAGE provider,” says Tanifuji, “which means they have [to balance] competing interests. So JST can encourage making things open access — to fulfill their responsibility to the taxpaying public, but they cannot say therefore we assist the Plan S, because that would be a conflict.”
Show me the data
While many observers will focus on the implications of the revised policies for research articles, a large part of the regulations covers the treatment of research data and maintains key stipulations of earlier versions of the policy. In this way, JST reiterates its belief in making data openly available to the greatest extent possible and encourages PIs in receipt of its funding to make all experimental data – with carve-outs and allowable restrictions for data involving such things as personal confidentiality, national security, and commercial sensitivity – publicly accessible without conditions. There is no obligation under the policy to use the J-STAGE Data repository for this purpose, but this would appear to be a natural destination for JST-funded research data sets, and the agency doubtless hopes that many authors will avail themselves of the service. Data is a focus even before researchers have gone into the lab as PIs are required to create and submit a data plan to the JST before commencing their research project including metadata conforming to the agency’s established protocol. The policy does not make explicit references to the FAIR data principles — widely seen as the yardstick for data openness in many research communities – or specified embargo periods for deposition, although the door is left open for individual institutions to add local conditions that strengthen JST’s baseline requirements.
While the revised policy itself contains few surprises, several perennial questions remain. For example, how will the revised policy be implemented in practice, and where will the operational burden fall? Only a minority of Japanese research institutions have requirements for their researchers to publish open access, although those that do often favor green routes. The new JST policy can be seen as an attempt to nudge the majority of Japanese institutions that do not currently require open access publishing of any color to change their ways and help make publicly accessible the 41% of JST-funded work that is still outstanding. The success of the plan will depend in large part on the degree to which institutional infrastructures and individual researchers can be suitably encouraged and supported to make it work.
Infrastructure issues fall under the Tokyo-based National Institute for Informatics (NII) whose multifaceted mission includes informatics research and training, maintaining CiNii – Japan’s national academic database service – along with Webcat and Webcat Plus, two related databases of scientific and non-scientific information, and providing informatics infrastructure in Japan of the kind which underpins the institutional repositories that JST aims to expand and populate through its 2022 open-access plan. The onus for creating and maintaining the repositories, however, falls on institutions themselves, and much of the responsibility for these tasks falls on library and Research Support Office staff – the traditional conduits for information about open access policies at Japanese institutions. Don’t be surprised if you see these folks getting a lot busier in the near future, as they pivot to adapt to their new role.
On this point, a question remains about how the new policy will be policed, and what (if any) penalties will be levied for non-compliance. Given the tendency for Japanese researchers to respect the honor system, and the reluctance of funders generally to cross swords directly with researchers, it may be surmised that JST expects high levels of compliance with both deposition of article and research data, and hopes to avoid confrontation with any recalcitrant authors, preferring to delegate enforcement to the institutions. In all likelihood, the latter will apply a customary light touch and in general be content to focus on simple curation rather than impose additional interoperability.
In a wider context, it remains to be seen how the changes taken together will be viewed by the global research community. More pragmatic observers will likely welcome another incremental advance that brings Japan closer to the position of other major research nations and be encouraged by the direction of travel if not its speed. Advocates of faster and more radical transformation will probably lament the lack of clarity or silence on certain issues – such as a ban on publishing in hybrid journals and gaps around CC BY licensing for the AM – that have become totemic in many open access circles and offer a more lukewarm response. Those in the latter group may find some consolation in the knowledge that in Japan, caution does not necessarily indicate disapproval and is often regarded as a virtue, encapsulated in the phrase: 石橋を叩いて渡る (Ishibashi wo tataite wataru) “to tap on a stone bridge before crossing.” Cautious progress may initially be slower than those who rush headlong, but caution helps avoids missteps. And you’re still going across the bridge.