Academic Publishing

Robert-Jan Smits: scholarly societies “will have to bite the bullet and go Open Access”

I obtained a near-verbatim transcript of a video-conference Plan S architects Robert-Jan Smits and Science Europe president Marc Schiltz had on October 19th with Lynn Kamerin and other authors of the Appeal. It appears that Smits and Schiltz see the scientists and their scholarly societies as the reactionary elements blocking the road to the universal Open Access (OA).

The Plan S, developed by EU Commission’s special envoy Robert-Jan Smits and his partners of Science Europe, a lobby organisation of European funders, might become the biggest scholarly publishing revolution in history, or it might fail spectacularly. It all depends on who joins the cOAlitionS and how exactly it will be implemented. I obtained a near-verbatim transcript of a video-conference Smits and Science Europe president Marc Schiltz had on October 19th with Lynn Kamerin and other authors of the Appeal against Plan S, originally published on my site. It appears that Smits and Schiltz see the scientists and their scholarly societies as the reactionary elements blocking the road to the universal Open Access (OA).

Smits, who is leaving the EU Commission in March 2019 to become president of TU Eindhoven in his home country Netherlands, sees the Plan S as his everlasting legacy. Though he is open to hear input from scientists and other stakeholders, Smits is not prepared to change a word of its 10 points, as he recently declared in his somewhat terse interview with Richard Poynder.There was much debate around Plan S wording and implementation. Those are presently the key issues of contest:

  • Green OA. Much debate goes around on whether Plan S favours Gold OA (where authors or their institution pay a fee for publication) while undermining the cost-free institutional archiving (green OA), e.g. that via NCBI PubMed as mandated by NIH in USA. The formulations of Plan S are however such that no sane publisher would ever agree to institutional archiving without any embargo period and under a CC-BY licence, which woudl allow their competitors a commercial use.
  • CC-BY licence. There main issue with the CC-BY licence as absolutely mandated by Plan S, is that without a non-commercial restriction humanities academics will lose their primary external income, which derives from selling their monographs. However, Schiltz insisted in public that unrestricted CC-BY is mandated by the very definition of OA.

  • Academic Freedom. OA activists presently declare that academics are not supposed to have any right to chose which journals to submit their works to. Their argument goes, because the funders have so far rewarded scientists for publishing in certain prestigious venues (as measured by the journal impact factor), those same funders can now just as well forbid scientists to publish in those same journals, and give them a list of approved Gold OA journals instead. Harsh sanctions are being demanded for recalcitrant scientists, and for countries like Germany, where the law guarantees academic freedom to choose publishing venue, OA activists call for a change in the constitution, to make it Plan S compliant.
  • Scholarly Societies. The financial future of scientific societies and their journals is all but secure, should Plan S gain traction. Presently, most such non-profit societies, which are field- or nationally-defined networks of academics, finance themselves mainly through journal subscriptions, that money is used to support young researchers via fellowships or even to finance free-to-publish Platinum OA society journals (where no article-processing charges (APC) are raised). Quite some of these paying subscribers come from the industry and other businesses, an aspect often overlooked in the OA debate. Because Plan S categorically forbids the Hybrid OA model (where an OA fee is paid to an otherwise subscription journal), virtually all society journals would be off-limits in their present state. A flip to OA publishing would however raise the APC of such quality-controlled society journals well above any defined APC cap mandated by the Plan S.

The Global Young Academy issued a position paper on Plan S, authored by Koen Vermeir, Moritz Riede and Sabina Leonelli, where two scenarios are painted.

The negative Scenario A is where Gold OA becomes the model of choice and APC are initially capped at around current level of Frontiers (€2000-2500), but once the cap is lifted, they soon rise to at least €5000 fee of publishing one single paper.

“As a result of the increased publishing costs, researchers and scholars from lower-resourced institutions within Europe, not to mention scholars from less-affluent countries, struggle to publish in the Open Access journals. […] This leads to isolation of many researchers, to unfair access to publishing their findings and overall to centralisation of academic knowledge and power in few research centres.

In short, researchers have traded their freedom to publish with freedom to access existing research. Smaller academic disciplines die out because they cannot attract
sufficient funding to keep publishing in the expensive Open Access journals that now serve as quality benchmarks. […]

In the absence of an alternative to APC-based Open Access, society journals that had been built on subscriptions start to disappear, affecting not only scholarly communication but also the activities that had been funded by subscription income. After a while, the societies with the least access to alternative means of funding disappear completely, while others become marginalised. In contrast, predatory journals flourish because their business model is reinforced with the introduction of mandatory “author-pays” Gold Open Access. Established research practices that have worked well for decades both for research and its wide dissemination, like depositing on preprints in repositories (e.g. arXiv), disappear. […]

The rest of the world does not follow Plan S. With the strict Open Access requirements imposed by European funders on European authors, collaboration with European researchers becomes too constraining […] Research collaborations between Europe and global centres of excellence dwindle.”

The Global Young Academy authors offer also a positive Scenario B for Plan S, where Platinum OA becomes the model of choice, and non-profit scholarly societies and their journals are financially supported by the funders:

“The money saved from APCs and journal subscriptions is spent to create Diamond Open Access journals that are funded under transparent funding calls to support journals that want to move to a Diamond Open Access model […] This change in the publication funding structure would mean that the decision of which journals to fund is made
by the scientific community […] From now on, the publishers provide a service for a fee, and the editors will choose the publishers who provide the best quality and functionality for the lowest fee. This change creates competition between publishers, breaking up the oligopoly that has harmed science in the past. This approach also leads to an effective cap on publication cost, and excessive profits for publishers disappear. […]

This model is setting an example for countries outside of Europe, which launch their own initiatives in promoting and funding Diamond Open Access journals, becoming a key stepping stone toward truly Open Science. The model is friendly toward existing Open Access practices such as arXiv and encourages innovation in the scientific
publishing process, including journals that provide a fully transparent post-submission
peer review and peer commenting”

The conversation of Smits with the Appeal authors Kamerlin et al however does not really indicate that any of Plan S architects is interested in following the Scenario B. After all, it would mean taking responsibility, and not just kicking the ball into the publisher’s court, which is basically an invitation for the Scenario A.

The men behind Plan S: Schiltz andSmits. Photo: EU Commission.

The videoconference took place on 19 October 2018. Present were:

Plan S architects: Robert-Jan Smits, Marc Schiltz and Smits’ policy assistant Anne Mallaband.

On the other side: chemistry researchers and Appeal authors Lynn Kamerlin , Bas de Bruin, Marc van der Kamp, as well as another peer, Matthias Bickelhaupt.

All participants declared to be very much in favour of OA, but they met and separated in disagreement on whether the Plan S, as it is presently formulated, is the right way to achieve Open Access. When asked why Plan S does not involve data sharing, Smits explained that he originally wanted Plan S to apply for both data and publishing but it would be too complex so they decided to focus on the publication only. During the entire videoconference, he was very loath to discuss any potential problems of his Plan S, insisted there were “just semantic misunderstandings” and was keen to establish common ground, so everyone can be positive about Plan S. Even if his recent visit to US were to prove unsuccessful and only European funders were to accept Plan S, Smits remained convinced that input from European research is so significant that “publishers would ignore us”.

Smits berated Kamerlin for “constantly focusing on problems” and kept asking

“do we agree that there are different models of Open Access?”

To which van der Kamp pointed out that “if you ask are there different forms of anything the answer will always be yes”.

Before Schiltz, the categoric CC-BY licence enforcer, joined the videoconference, Smits the Common-Ground-Finder actually agreed that

[on CC-BY licence] there should be a window for exceptions, but we need to be careful about exceptions not becoming the rule”. 

Schiltz then indicated that he might allow CC-BY exceptions for research with a certain kind of content. He said:

“I understand that there might be good reasons to have a more restrictive license, the result can be used by anyone. They can be used by terrorists, they can be used by any military, they can be used by anyone”.

What about humanities scholars and their monographs, which are not really military-sensitive material,  that was not clear.

Schiltz then explained how Green OA is supposed to function under Plan S:

“Green with CC-BY exists. There is a variety of green around, and

what we specify is zero embargo, must be an open license preferably CC-BY,

and within these constraints that are very general, different models can perfectly exist, but a choice about the particular model would have been much more restrictive”.

On the Diamond or Platinum OA, Schiltz was apparently following the dogma popular with OA activists that the majority of OA journals does not raise any fees. Their usual reference is DOAJ, which does list many such journals. Only that in the sciences at least, these journals are largely not available to the wider research community, being not in English or closed-society university presses. Some are just too obscure for a scientist to form an opinion on their editorial quality or listings, and nobody wants to waste a paper one worked hard for. Schiltz however seems to believe there are oodles of perfectly good Platinum OA journals out there to choose from, since he declared:

“Currently of the existing Open Access journals 2/3rds don’t charge APC, there is zero embargo green, that exists, so it’s not as if the world was black and white. We simply set out these principles and I actually believe that by setting simple principles we empower the research community to choose the model which suits them best. If physicists and mathematicians we say we want preprint servers and overlay journals then we can make that compliant with Plan S. If life scientists want an APC model, that can be made compliant with Plan S, that allows the research community to choose different models, that can allow authors to contribute to different models, we will not just pay APC, we will contribute to flipping journals under certain conditions, we will contribute to platforms, and the funders will not impose one model. That is not what we want to do. We said lend it to the community and let them choose what is the best and suitable model and I am convinced there will not be a single model for all communities. Look at what happens to mathematicians and physicists, look at what they have chosen, another community can choose a different model.”

On behalf of the funders his Science Europe represents, Schiltz seemed initially to offer exactly zero financial support for Platinum OA publishing model, but quite some serious money for the Gold OA of the Frontiers kind, where he also originally announced his Plan S. Schiltz then explain how scientists are expected to make Gold OA a success story:

“you don’t realize that funders have a lot of power, but you don’t realize the power that you have, but who populates these editorial boards of all these journals. You are these peoples. So you have a lot of power there as well because without a good editorial board, no high quality journal can occur. And there are a number of cases now where entire editorial boards have resigned from subscription journals and have set up alternative open access journals which was immediately recognized by the scientific community as a high quality venue but we have an important role to play there as well. Currently it stands as if in this system there are two players, funders and publishers, but we as scientific community have a role”.

What Schiltz is probably blissfully unaware of, is that scientists resigned as academic editors with Gold OA publishers also, like MDPI, or even have been sacked, by Frontiers, individually and even en masse. All because they insisted on some minimal quality standards for their journals. It is not like a commercial enterprise, which answers to its investors only, would let some academic editors dictate the range of its income.

This was where Smits declared who in his eyes are the real trouble makers. Not funders who keep demanding high-impact papers, or high numbers of any papers, all for their decision-making metrics, or commercial publishers who provided that service: it’s the researchers. They failed science, according to Smits:

“You talk about stakeholder communities, stakeholder involvement, stakeholders giving the chance to do what they want, but now you say that funders have to steer because otherwise it will all be Gold Open Access. They empower the community and see what they now use. We want to empower the science community and there you have to be coherent: either the science community takes its responsibility, which it has not done over the past 25 years.

Why is Plan S necessary? Because researchers are irresponsible. They still chase the journal impact factor. They have not made their journals open access. We need Plan S.”

What about the danger of predatory publishing, as outlined by Global Young Academy in Scenario A? Smits thinks he got it under control:

“I think the last point on which we all agreed is that there are different open access models which can be compatible with Plan S. The next point that we have is we should never compromise on the quality.

We don’t want predatory journals to enter into the market and take off big time. We do not want a compromise on the quality, we don’t want predatory journals to enter.

I think we can all agree on that. We can all agree on that. Yes? OK. So let’s move to the points where there are issues: stakeholder involvement, communication issue, timing. I already apologize with regard to the communication: it was not clear there are different types of OA that are compatible with plan S. With regard to Stakeholder involvement, we are moving towards the implementation plan and in the implementation plan a lot of points will be clarified. We will only publish implementation plan after discussion with a broad range of stakeholder communities to see if we get it right, and we get it clear and not clear. So for us it’s very important that in the next phase we get input in terms of the ten principles and how to implement it in a way that is a success.”

Schiltz reiterated:

“We have set up a timetable to implementation. As soon as we have a draft we will set it up for consultation. We have to see how we do: will it be open for everyone? Will we allow comments from all? Will we submit to stakeholder groups like yours directly?”

But who are the stakeholders? Not scholarly societies it seems. This was how Smits replied when asked to include the societies in his implementation talks:

“I talked a lot to scholarly societies. They are a noble group, but they will have to bite the bullet and go open access. We are quite flexible with regard to society journals, but they have to bite the bullet and go.

There are thousands of learned societies that run open access journals. They have an open access journal that they are running successfully and with profit so it can be done and we need to give time to these societies so that they flip. The end goal is open access journals. We will talk to them, we will give them transition opportunities but it is not the goal to keep the subscription”.

Schiltz specified that probably “starting 2026 we are going to be really serious about it”. Smits then added:

“But on the condition that indeed these learned societies are committed to move towards open access. It will be quite important that we are clear that this transition period is limited in duration.

Why did UK sign up immediately after Plan S, because you are paying a fortune to hybrid and for big publishers hybrid is a new business model they want to continue for another 20 years. Hybrid is part of a transformation that will not be a new business model”.

After the Appeal authors explained that they really need the established society journals and the quality science they provide, Schiltz accused them for wanting “to maintain status quo”. Kamerlin proposed a green OA-based model, and later suggested that preprints could be used to circumvent the embargo periods imposed by publishers. Scholarly societies like ACS, she said, are quite flexible with Green OA archiving. The end result would be an accepted version of the manuscript available as an updated author’s version on a preprint server, while the subscription journal would provide the typeset final copy. Smits replied that he doesn’t want to kill scientific societies and wants to avoid “a fight within the academic community”. He instead requested input in the implementation stage:

“That’s why we need to find each other, and that’s why I wanted to reach out to you. Because I want to find a common vision. And we need to stick together otherwise nothing will change. For me a bit of flexibility is important to keep the community”.

Schiltz then indicated that there might be some support for society journals and even Platinum OA after all:

“if we mandate open access, then the least of our commitment is we should also cover the cost of it. Caps will also be discussed in the task force, but it is our commitment that we should cover the costs of APCs. We should also think about how to support other, non-APC models.

It’s very important to find ways to support Diamond or other platform based publication models. We want to remain open with respect to the particular Open Access publishing model. There will be provisions also to fund journals”.

The question is, how serious Schiltz meant that last part. He never spoke of funding Platinum OA in public so far.

Smits was then confronted with the fact that publishers seem to be inventing ingenious solutions to initiatives like Plan S already: mirror journals. For example, the Elsevier-published subscription journal Water Research set up a mirror journal Water Research X. In this way, hybrid double-dipping was reinvented in a new form: scientists still have to pay to read Water Research, and if restricted by an OA mandate, they will have to pay to publish in Water Research X.

The editorial board is same, and authors are to submit to both journals simultaneously. It is up to them to decide where it will be published if their paper is accepted. Of course Water Research X will need time to get listed and to acquire a citation score. Will it be just as “good” as original Water Research? Or will the modest APC of $3750 at Water Research X prove too tempting for the bi-journal editors to reject anything? Smits however doesn’t seem troubled by the concept of mirror journals:

“It would still have the double dip issue, but, at the same time, it would allow the transition to Open Access through the new journal that takes off.

I don’t like it to be quite frank but we need to look into different elements. We should not be smarted out by the establishment, but also think about all these matters in order to not destroy a system where we ultimately regret we destroyed the system.

The first reaction like all of us is the gut feeling they are outsmarting us again and they come up with new solutions. But it will ensure a transition, it will ensure sustainability, and we need to look into it in the implementation group”.

The debate moved to Smits telling of his US visit and his scheduled trip to India, and how he started designing Plan S in April 2018, together with Anne Mallaband, plus later on with “several people who came up with the ideas mobilized, with enormous support from Marc [Schiltz] and the 13 funders”.

Schiltz then concluded the videoconference with saying that

“in this whole transformation there are three players: publishers, funders & policymakers, research community. We do not want to impose a particular model of publishing on the research community. We want to liberate the community from the subscription model, we want to liberate researchers from the financial model this has burdened us with.

But what comes next is for the research community to choose what innovative model we want to have. We can always discuss to what extent is it compliant or not and then we can always make the necessary adjustments to Plan S in the implementation phase if they come up with a model and we say this is a good model but that doesn’t fit Plan S there is room for this. Same thing with impact factor and assessment. We have a responsibility as funders but the community has the greatest responsibility and we need to work together to change this impact factor mania. It’s not something we can do alone but there needs to be a change within the research and science community. We need to judge quality by other means.”

Smits added a final observation:

“If we are flexible on both sides we are better positioned to reach the end goal. Send our input, as quickly as possibly, notably on the ideas that Lynn put forward with the learned societies. Send all the inputs as soon as possible and we organize a dedicated meeting when we have the draft document”.

Note: the quotes above were stenographed. They are referenced near-verbatim and verified with the participants of the videoconference, but may not always mirror the exact wording .

I then obtained feedback from other Appeal authors who were unable to join the videoconference at that time:

Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede commented after reading the statements by Smits and Schiltz:

“I get the feeling they open up for discussion and flexibility during ‘implementation’. That is good. Still, I do not feel they answer our major concerns about societies and APCs etc. And it is unclear if they truly want to do any amendments as they also say the 10 principles cannot change. I think they are naive in thinking they can get the whole world onboard quickly and under these rules”.

Maja Gruden-Pavlovic, chemistry professor in Serbia, refuses to be blamed:

“We all agree on that involvement of the community for implementation of the Plan S is necessary. But Robert-Jan Smits’ statement: “Why is Plan S necessary? Because researchers are irresponsible. They still chase the journal impact factor. They have not made their journals open access. We need Plan S.” sounds bad for me — researchers should do research and in principle not care about IF, it is funding agencies that forced them to think about it. It is important issue for itself, and I don’t see how it is related to Plan S. Furthermore, it is also not clear what will be with the rest of the world”

Now it is time for the wider scientific community to pick up Smits’ invitation and to speak out. Or others will speak on their behalf.

Update 22.10.2018, 19:40

After reading this article, an editor working for a non-profit scholarly society reached out to me with this statement on Plan S and a flip to OA:

“Societies and their coalitions spend significant time educating policymakers and advocating for the importance of basic and applied science and its funding – and none of us can afford to leave that to chance.

We’re talking about the very existence of your funding for your discoveries, your career, your data. We invest in activities that result in tangible benefits to the scientific enterprise. Society representatives engage with policymakers, help to shape science and data availability policies, lead advocacy efforts around proposed bills, communicate science to the public, and more. None of these activities provide income for societies, and are not inexpensive to do effectively. What would happen if those functions disappeared?

Scholarly societies are run by elected boards, and have practising scientists as journal editors. They’re in the trenches of peer review, editing, and publishing, and see as their main priority helping authors to publish a paper that represents good scholarship, the greatest impact of your work, the widest distribution to the desired audiences, and a good author experience. These scientists are your peers. One size doesn’t fit all, and societies have varied missions, niches, staffs, and budgets. But the one thing in common is that societies value scholarship, sustainability, and support – and they’re also idealistic in wanting to serve their communities.

Most societies would welcome flipping journals to sustainable OA.

Societies exist to serve our science and our communities – members, authors, reviewers, readers, meeting attendees, fellows, early- and mid-career scientists especially – we endeavor to do what our communities want and need. Societies that offer hybrid journals find their authors enjoy the choice.

Many societies have launched OA titles with APCs, but operate at a loss or a modest return. Successful OA journal operations are supported by patrons, and costs are high.

Still, we’re responding to our communities by giving them choices, and we support the OA titles even if they’re not providing a return. If forced to flip to OA before we can make it sustainable, I suspect many small-to-medium sized societies without significant new income from patrons, endowments, or operations would quickly die or be forced to sell their operations to for-profit publishers, whose positions will only be strengthened by the die-off of independent publishers.”



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18 comments on “Robert-Jan Smits: scholarly societies “will have to bite the bullet and go Open Access”

  1. Dear Leonid,
    maybe I am missing something here?
    Who the HELL are these two people, smits and schlitz, that they dare to think that anybody gives a rodents posterior about their ideas?
    How dare they tell publishers how to run their business or tell societies how to manage their members and run their scholarly journals?
    They need to be shunned, ridiculed and left to the dung heap of history!
    O.k I agree that frontiers is bad and a predatory publisher, but let the market and scientists decide where they want to publish their reseach.

    There are bigger problems in scholarly publishing that need to be addressed instead: e.g. plagiarism, research misconduct.. do i need to go on?

    Cheers, oliver


    • I agree and disagree: there should be established rules that allow a total transparent publication process including full access to raw data and a transparent peer-review
      Also I think similar to what happens to pharmacies research labs should be routinely inspected by national and international independent inspectors


  2. The Open Access Movement is not really about open access.


  3. Peter Kasson

    Robert Jan Smits is clearly trying to suppress researchers’ dissatisfaction with his poorly thought out policies. These policies will harm European academia, perhaps irreparably. It is disappointing that he is trying to hide this discussion from open engagement with the breadth of the European research community. I find this to reflect the worst of European policy.


  4. The so called Plan S is a true scandal. Too hasty and way too extensive without evaluation of consequences for european researchers.

    How can it be that this Robert-Jan Smits, without any true research background, can start this gambling with the future of scientific publishing in Europe?

    From Science, news Feb23 2018:
    …Smits, who is from the Netherlands, joined the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (DG research) in 1989 and worked in different research policy roles until taking up the top post in July 2010. “When I started in the ’80s, colleagues [in other commission services] thought that we at DG research were people in white coats doing research ourselves,” he recalls. “Over the years, we have moved research and innovation out of their silo and embedded them in other policy areas.”…

    In order to act like God and come up with solutions for future scientific publishing in Europe, one would think that experience from scientiic publishing would be preferable.

    From Smits’ CV:
    Degree from Utrecht University in the Netherlands
    Degree from
    l’Institut Universitaire d’Hautes Etudes Internationales in
    Degree from the Fletcher
    School of Law & Diplomacy in the United States of America

    Does anyone know what kind of degrees he is listing here?

    For future progress in science we don’t need bureaucrats with their Plan S, but a Plan T for Trustworthy. To clean up the mess in scientific publishing so that the litterature we researchers have access to is true and in fact possible to reproduce.

    What if ERC and EU could show some responsibility and do something to stop the predatory publishing and untrustworthy publishing? With their power they could stop the indexing of the thousands of journals publishing bullshit, eg. the many Elsevier open access journals.

    Instead they are just playing hazard and initate some major upheavals in order to pretend they really care about the research.


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  12. Torbjörn Björkman

    Robert-Jan Smit attacking “the establishment”!?!?! The man has the title “Envoy of the European Commission” and is described on his EPSC page as “one of the main architects […] of Horizon 2020” and “instrumental in the development of […] the European Research council”…

    That’s a bit rich. I can’t remember when I felt so much bile rise in one go. The nerve of the man!


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