Care before speed

Svein Stølen, Rector of the University of Oslo (UiO), calls for a Plan I: an implementation approach to precede ‘Plan S’.

The Norwegian government has decided that Norway will join the ambitious open access strategy, ‘Plan S’, which was signed by the European Research Council (ERC) and other research funders from ten European countries. And it appears that this initiative is gaining momentum following the announcement on 5 November 2018 of two additional funders: the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will join ‘cOAlition S’.

Let me start by saying that I wholeheartedly support ‘Plan S’’ vision, “open science for the benefit of all,” and the University of Oslo is ready to contribute to open access, both in national and European contexts.

Open access (OA) to publications, data and source code provides new avenues for science and supports business development. Several members of government recently visited the robotics lab at our Department of Informatics. They were impressed to see that our researchers distribute the source code they developed openly and freely. At the same time, our researchers can utilize knowledge developed in other parts of the world in the same way. Businesses can capitalize on this knowledge too.

However, implementing Plan S would be unwise without having proper transition tools and due consideration of the implications for research practices. Today's publishing system is the starting point for everything from international rankings and institutions’ budgets, to evaluations and recruitment. A hasty implementation of Plan S could mean that our researchers cannot publish in today’s leading journals, thus reducing their attractiveness and competitiveness for positions and projects in the global research ‘market’.


A 'Plan S' for institutions and researchers

It is the quality of a researcher's work that must be considered when financing projects and employment. How do you compare 150 different candidates for a position? Publishing channels (as a quality criterion) are one way of screening candidates for a job. It can help us reduce 150 candidates to 15, which will then be subject to further quality assessments.

We need a way to differentiate between various journals simply because the publishing volume today is so huge. You cannot put together an assessment committee that reads all the candidates work. Even though you can find gold in a weak magazine and zinc in good magazines, a journal hierarchy is useful. The transition phase must ensure that such hierarchies are also distinguishable in open access publishing.      

Open access is and should be the goal. Research funded by taxpayers’ money should benefit everyone. The Nordic model is based on an egalitarian approach to knowledge. It is a good principle that we have to protect and promote. No one wants to go back to a time when knowledge was reserved for the few. But the rapid pace decision-makers are expecting is not realistic.

In addition, the expectation that the institutions going through intense transition periods can cover the expenses of existing publisher journals and simultaneously devote considerable resources to enable their own professionals to take ownership of new publishing channels, lacks root in an economic reality. I fear that the individual researcher will lose in this.

Therefore, in order to successfully transition to OA, we need an implementation plan developed in partnership with our professionals. The plan should evaluate the consequences of a new publishing policy and point to what needs to be done before making major decisions that are difficult to reverse. We must also consider diversity. Something that works well in one field can be harmful in other fields. In some subjects, research is often published in book form, which will require completely different solutions than those published exclusively in journal articles.


Questions before moving forward           

Plan S is radical, but it also provides room for transitional agreements and arrangements that deviate from the principles. Since turning the big publishers around seems like a utopian project, perhaps it's easier to create new publishing channels. Could internationally learned societies increasingly take ownership of publications? Such companies and organizations exist already within most fields. They are often non-profit and run by professionals themselves.

The publishers’ role in the overall publishing process is already very small. The entire process leading up to a completed manuscript and the very central peer-review is based solely on the researchers' work. Our professionals are also editors and are on the board of editors. From this, publishers make a big profit and they increasingly control the data on which the research is based.

For all these reasons it is crucial that the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC) – to be launched in Vienna on 23 November 2018 – becomes a success. The EOSC will provide an important (and hopefully high-quality) platform for open access to EU-funded research publications, and ultimately, data. However, creating the EOSC is a start, but it is not more than that.

For it to work we need to work within and across different academic cultures, structures and practices to ensure that EOSC is not simply a platform that may or may not be used, but that it becomes part of a broader cultural change involving scientists, publishers, and a wider public.

Only if the EOSC succeeds and we have other good open access journals that have established themselves, can we really make open science a reality? For this, we need bold steps, and certainly, Plan S is a bold step. But we need a transition phase, and a careful implementation plan involving scientists, institutions and disciplinary societies – alongside funders and governments.

Published Nov. 9, 2018 11:11 AM - Last modified Nov. 9, 2018 11:11 AM