A turning point for open-access publishing

11 March 2019

The European Commission is embarking on an ambitious project called Plan S to make all scientific publications open access from 2020, but particle physics is ahead of the game.

High-energy physics (HEP) has been at the forefront of open-access publishing, the long-sought ideal to make scientific literature freely available. An early precursor to the open-access movement in the late 1960s was the database management system SPIRES (Stanford Physics Information Retrieval System), which aggregated all available (paper-copy) preprints that were sent between different institutions. SPIRES grew to become the first database accessible through the web in 1991 and later evolved into INSPIRE-HEP, hosted and managed by CERN in collaboration with other research laboratories.

The electronic era

The birth of the web in 1989 changed the publishing scene irreversibly. Vast sums were invested to take the industry from paper to online and to digitise old content, resulting in a migration from the sale of printed copies of journals to electronic subscriptions. From 1991, helped by the early adoption by particle physicists, the self-archiving repository allowed rapid distribution of electronic preprints in physics and, later, mathematics, astronomy and other sciences. The first open-access journals then began to sprout up and in early 2000 three major international events – the Budapest Open Access Initiative, Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities – set about leveraging the new technology to grant universal free access to the results of scientific research.

Today, roughly one quarter of all scholarly literature in sciences and humanities is open access. In HEP, the figure is almost 90%. The Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics (SCOAP3), a global partnership between libraries, national funding agencies and publishers of HEP journals, has played an important role in HEP’s success. Designed at CERN, SCOAP3 started operation in 2014 and removes subscription fees for journals and any expenses scientists might incur to publish their articles open access by paying publishers directly. Some 3000 institutions from 43 countries (figure 1) contribute financially according to their scientific output in the field, re-using funds previously spent on subscription fees for journals that are now open access.

“SCOAP3 has demonstrated how open access can increase the visibility of research and ease the dissemination of scientific results for the benefit of everyone,” says SCOAP3 operations manager Alex Kohls of CERN. “This initiative was made possible by a strong collaboration of the worldwide library community, researchers, as well as commercial and society publishers, and it can certainly serve as an inspiration for open access in other fields.”

Plan S

On 4 September 2018, a group of national funding agencies, the European Commission (EC) and the European Research Council – under the name “cOAlition S” – launched a radical initiative called Plan S. Its aim is to ensure that, by 2020, all scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants must be published in compliant open-access journals or platforms. Robert-Jan Smits, the EC’s open-access envoy and one of the architects of Plan S, cites SCOAP3 as an inspiration for the project and says that momentum for Plan S has been building for two decades. “During those years many declarations, such as the Budapest and Berlin ones, were adopted, calling for a rapid transition to full and immediate open access. Even the 28 science ministers of the European Union issued a joint statement in 2016 that open access to scientific publications should be a reality by 2020,” says Smits. “The current situation shows, however, that there is still a long way to go.”

Recently, China released position papers supporting the efforts of Plan S, which could mark a key moment for the project. But the reaction of scientists around the world has been mixed. An open letter published in September by biochemist Lynn Kamerlin of Uppsala University in Sweden, attracting more than 1600 signatures at the time of writing, argues that Plan S would strongly reduce the possibilities to publish in suitable scientific journals of high quality, possibly splitting the global scientific community into two separate systems. Another open letter, published in November by biologist Michael Eisen at University of California Berkeley with around 2000 signatures, backs the principles of Plan S and supports its commitment “to continue working with funders, universities, research institutions and other stakeholders until we have created a stable, fair, effective and open system of scholarly communication.”

Challenges ahead

High-energy physics is already aligned to the Plan S vision thanks to SCOAP3, says Salvatore Mele of CERN, who is one of SCOAP3’s architects. But for other disciplines “the road ahead is likely to be bumpy”. “Funders, libraries and publishers have cooperated through CERN to make SCOAP3 possible. As most of the tens of thousands of scholarly journals today operate on a different model, with access mostly limited to readers paying subscription fees, this vision implies systemic challenges for all players: funders, libraries, publishers and, crucially, the wider research community,” he says.

It is publishers who are likely to face the biggest impact from Plan S. However, the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) – which includes, among others, the American Physical Society, IOP Publishing (which publishes CERN Courier) and The Royal Society – recently published a statement of support, claiming OASPA “would welcome the opportunity to provide guidance and recommendations for how the funding of open-access publications should be implemented within Plan S”, while emphasising that smaller publishers, scholarly societies and new publishing platforms need to be included in the decision-making process.

Responding to an EC request for Plan S feedback that was open until 8 February, however, publishers have expressed major concerns about the pace of implementation and about the consequences of Plan S for hybrid journals. In a statement on 12 February, the European Physical Society, while supportive of the Plan S rationale, wrote that “several of the governing principles proposed for its implementation are not conducive to a transition to open access that preserves the important assets of today’s scientific publication system”. In another statement, the world’s largest open-access publisher, Springer Nature, released a list of six recommendations for funding bodies worldwide to adopt in order for full open-access to become a reality, highlighting the differences between “geographic, funder and disciplinary needs”. In parallel, a group of learned societies in mathematics and science in Germany has reacted with a statement citing a “precipitous process” that infringes the freedom of science, and urged cOAlition S to “slow down and consider all stakeholders”.

Global growth

Smits thinks traditional publishers, which are a critical element in quality control and rigorous peer review in scholarly literature, should adopt a fresh look, for example by implementing more transparent metrics. “It is obvious that the big publishers that run the subscription journals and make enormous profits prefer to keep the current publishing model. Furthermore, the dream of each scientist is to publish in a so-called prestigious high-impact journal, which shows that the journal impact factor is still very present in the academic world,” says Smits. “To arrive at the necessary change in academic culture, new metrics need to be developed to assess scientific output. The big challenge for cOAlition S is to grow globally, by having more funders signing up.”

Undoubtedly we are at a turning point between the old and new publishing worlds. The EC already requires that all publications from projects receiving its funding be made open access. But Plan S goes further, proposing an outright shift in scholarly publication. It is therefore crucial to ensure a smooth shift that takes into account all the actors, says Mele. “Thanks to SCOAP3, which has so far supported the publication of more than 26,000 articles, the high-energy physics community is fortunate to meet the vision of Plan S, while retaining researcher choice of the most appropriate place to publish their results.” 

Further reading

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