Europe leads the way in the transition to open access publishing : what is at stake?

Open access publications will be exceeding 43 000 journals in 2020 thanks to a push by some research funders. Critics object on grounds of sustainability, tight timelines and restrictions that look unsuitable for social sciences.

This week is the Open Access Week: an annual scholarly communication event focusing on open access and related topics. Typical activities include talks, seminars, symposia, or the announcement of open access mandates or other milestones in open access.

Definition of Open Access

The Bethesda Statement

On 11 April 2003 the Howard Hughes Medical Institute held a meeting to discuss better access to scholarly literature. The group came up with a definition for open access journal as one that grants a ‘free, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual right of access to, and a licence 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’ and from which every article is ‘deposited immediately upon initial publication in at least one online repository’.

Along with the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, the Bethesda Statement established ‘open access’ as the term used to describe initiatives that aim to make information more widely and easily available.

Two main business models for open access to publications

Self-archiving (also referred to as ‘green’ open access) means that the published article or the final peer‑reviewed manuscript is archived (deposited) by the author – or a representative – in an online repository before, alongside or after its publication. Repository software usually allows authors to delay access to the article (an ‘embargo period’). Some publishers request embargo periods, arguing that they protect the value of the journal subscriptions they sell.

Open access publishing (also referred to as ‘gold’ open access) means that an article is immediately provided in open access format when published. In this model, the payment of publication costs is shifted from the reader (who pays a subscription) to the author, often by means of a one-off charge, known as an ‘Article (sometimes ‘Author’) Processing Charge’ (APCs). These can usually be borne by the university or research institute to which the researcher is affiliated, or by the agency funding the research. In other cases, the costs of open access publishing are covered by subsidies or other funding models.


Transformative agreements

Once the niche choice of a motivated few who wanted to make their scholarly publications freely available, open access publishing has become increasingly mainstream. At the end of August 2019, Projekt DEAL, a consortium of more than 700 German research institutions and libraries, announced that it had signed an agreement with the publisher Springer Nature to make it simpler for authors to publish their papers open access. The agreement is expected to cover more than 13 000 articles per year and is so far the largest of its kind worldwide. It materialised after more than 3 years of negotiations with major publishers but it was not the first. In January 2019, Projekt DEAL secured a similar arrangement with Wiley, the world’s third largest publisher, which will account for some 9 500 articles per year.

Collen Campbell ESMH ScientistThese are “transformative agreements” according to Colleen Campbell, leader of the Open Access 2020 Initiative coordinated by the Max Planck Digital Library. She describes them as “agreements where the contracted payment from a research institution to a publisher shifts from a subscription model to an open access model through a “publish and read” fee. She says that, if properly negotiated, transformative agreements allow researchers to avoid costly publication fees (APCs) – often totalling a few thousand euros – and grant free access to students, researchers and citizens”.

Colleen Campbell added: ‘at the same time, publishers can protect their market from illegal distribution systems such as Sci-Hub, which provides illicit access to journal articles and which was ordered to pay USD 15 million in damages to Elsevier in 2017’.

Liz Ferguson ESMH Scientist“We are very pleased with the DEAL agreement, which is unique to Germany, and we have four other agreements in Austria, Norway, Hungary and the Netherlands … There is currently a lot of interest in the US and elsewhere for these solutions but one size doesn’t seem to fit all … [Other than] the financials, a major challenge of the transition is to assess the actual article output of a country or consortium … These transition agreements don’t significantly impact the overall cost of subscriptions and APCs to libraries but help them transition to an open access model. As publishers, we need to invest more in infrastructure requirements as they are quite different from traditional subscription models and we need to make sure researchers have a positive experience” says Liz Ferguson, Vice-President for Editorial Development and Publishing Solutions Director at Wiley.

At the end of September 2019, the registry maintained by the Efficiency and Standards for Article Charges Esac accounted for 52 transformative agreements signed by 18 different publishers in 13 countries, including the three major publishers – Elsevier, Springer Nature and Wiley – and for more than 43 400 publications. As most agreements were signed in the last 18 months for an average duration of 24 months, it is reasonable to expect this situation to develop in the near future.

Hybrid OA journals

Open access has in fact been around for decades but the development of the world wide web has allowed newcomers in the scholarly communication industry open access, such as PLOS (Public library of science), to immediately start as Open Access journal and to grow. In the past, traditional publishers, such as Elsevier (USD 1.17 billion in turnover in 2017), were quick to respond and created hybrid Open Access (OA) journals which have both subscription‑based and open access content. One current proposal is to limit hybrid journals in their duration i.e. allow them just for a traditional subscription-based journal to ‘mute’ progressively into a pure OA journal.  But this ‘mutation’ can take decades because of the appeal of the ‘double dipping’ for publishers.

Plan S

Europe is leading the way in this transition thanks to Plan S, an initiative that requires members to subscribe to 10 principles founded on the basis that “With effect from 2021, all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access Journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo.”

Plan S’ OA offers two routes: ‘Gold open access’, whereby an author publishes their article in an online open access journal, and the more flexible ‘green open access’, whereby an author publishes their article in any journal and then self-archives a copy in a freely accessible repository. The initiative, where the ‘S’ stands for ‘science, speed, solution, shock’, was launched in September 2018 by cOAlition S, a consortium of the major funding organisations coordinated by Science Europe and supported by the European Commission and the European Research Council (ERC), which gained momentum.

The World Health Organisation joined Plan S at the end of August and required that all papers reporting the results of research funded by its agencies be published in open access journals as of 2021. Two of the major international private funders, the Seattle‑based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the London Wellcome Trust (jointly investing over USD 2.5 billion in research every year), will no longer pay for their grantees to publish in hybrid journals.

However, Plan S has no shortage of critics. A global consultation concluded in 2019 highlighted the shortcomings of the concept and saw the Swedish Riksbankens Jubileumsfond step away from Plan S (but not from cOAalition S) objecting that the current transition roadmap is too fast and unsustainable. In April 2018, Kelvin Droegemeier, Director of the US Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) commented on Plan S, saying, ‘one of the things this government will not do is to tell researchers where they have to publish their papers’.

Sabina Leonelli ESMH ScientistSabina Leonelli – Co Director of the Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences : “Plan S proposes a very ambitious open access model … [but] is essentially driven by the publishing and funding model of the hard sciences. She said that cOAlition S is aware of the need to evolve and is looking at less aggressive propositions, such as Horizon 2020. ‘More specifically, [for the social sciences] we need to look at what is already being done elsewhere, such as the Open Library of Humanities, where institutions pool resources to create publications with no publishing or subscription fees”.

EU latest initiative

In July of this year, the European Commission launched a call for tenders for the setting up of a publishing platform (European Commission Open Research Publishing Platform, tentatively named ‘Open Research Europe’) as a free service for beneficiaries of Horizon 2020 (and by extension Horizon Europe, the next framework programme for research). The aim is twofold: to assist Horizon 2020 beneficiaries and researchers in complying with the Horizon 2020 open access mandate, and to increase the uptake of open access for peer‑reviewed scientific articles and their underpinning data in Horizon 2020. The evaluation is ongoing and the results of the procurement procedure are due to be published by the end of 2019.

Horizon 2020 Open Access to scientific publicaitons

Useful links :
The Berlin declaration
EC Open Access Policy

Related Content:
A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Colleen Campbell about Open access
A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Liz Ferguson about Open access
A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Sabina Leonelli about Open access

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