Wednesday, 22 July 2020

(1/2) Open access mystery: why did the ERC backstab Plan S?

The European Research Council (ERC) just announced that they would withdraw their support for Coalition S, the consortium of research funders behind Plan S. Plan S is the valiant but not universally welcome attempt to impose strong open access requirements to research articles, without paying more money to publishers.

The ERC is Europe’s most prestigious research funder, and a main backer of Plan S. Without Plan S, the ERC has no open access strategy, and without the backing of ERC, Coalition S may not be big enough for succeeding. Why would ERC make this U-turn? I do not know, but let me gather a few potentially relevant pieces of the puzzle. The pieces are of three types:
  • some context on the ERC and more generally on Europe’s research plans,
  • the recently announced rights retention strategy by Coalition S,
  • ERC’s meager and not very credible justification for their withdrawal.

A weakened ERC in a less ambitious European Union

Important budget decisions are being negotiated right now, and the leaderless ERC seems to be in a weak position. Support for Plan S may not weigh much when billions are at stake.

Blaming publishers, courting researchers: new tactics by Coalition S

On 15 July 2020, Coalition S announced its Rights retention strategy, designed to ensure that research that it funds is openly accessible as soon as it is published.

Rather than declaring some journals to be compliant, and forbidding researchers from publishing in non-compliant journals, the idea is now to write researchers’ contracts in such a way that their articles can be made openly accessible, no matter what the journals later say.

This is apparently an important change, and could even be interpreted as a shift from Gold to Green open access. The change seems to answer the objection that Plan S restricts researchers’ choice of journals, which could endanger their careers in a world where articles are often judged by the journals they appear in.

However, in principle, the change is not so important. A researcher can still be caught between a funder’s open access mandate, and a journal’s rules, and unable to publish if there is an incompatibility. The difference is that instead of Plan S banning the journal, it is the journal who will now reject the submitted article. The announcement by Coalition S is therefore essentially an exercise in blame shifting, aiming to have the publishers appear as the villains, and to win researchers to the cause.

If this can be made to work legally, this looks like an effective tactic: which publisher would dare reject submitted articles on purely administrative grounds?

The Rights retention strategy comes with a list of implementation dates for the various members of the coalition. It looks like a long-planned move, whose timing was presumably independent from the ERC’s schedule, although it came less than one week before the ERC’s withdrawal.

A vague and puzzling announcement: trying to read between the lines

It would be easy to dismiss the announcement by ERC’s scientific council as too vague to be meaningful. However, maybe we can salvage a few pieces of useful information:
  • The title is about “respecting researchers’ needs”. In the context of academic publishing, this is a code word for allowing researchers to publish in any journal, without worrying about cost or open access. Focusing about researchers’ needs means helping them thrive in the current perverse publishing system, and forgetting about reforming the system, which is the point of Plan S.
  • “Members of the ERC Scientific Council are participating constructively in various activities aimed at making Open Access a reality.” Who cares what the members are doing? The ERC is an important institution, and what matters is what it is doing as an institution. Writing about its members means admitting that the ERC no longer has any plan or strategy about open access.
  • “During the past six months”: Planning for the U-turn occurred when the ERC had an absentee president or no president at all.
  • “the ERC Scientific Council has intensified its internal debate”: The debate must have been internal indeed, since the annoucement has caused surprise and confusion among groups representing young researchers. The ERC claims that it is “especially the needs of young researchers” that motivate their decision, but apparently did not consult them.
  • “cOAlition S has declared that the publication of research results in hybrid venues outside of transformative arrangements will be ‘non-compliant’”: This is the only feature of Plan S that the ERC is denouncing, but this issue seems to be mooted by the Rights retention strategy.

Tentative conclusions

In their incredulous response to the ERC’s scientific council, Coalition S appears to be as puzzled as everyone else, and not worried about its own future.

However, the ERC’s U-turn is certainly not the manifestation of any reversal of opinion in the European research community, and it completely ignores the recent progress of Plan S. Maybe its origin can be found in political machinations at the European level?

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