The boldest Open Access initiative ever, Plan S, designed by the former EU Commissioner Robert-Jan Smits, became a complete and chaotic mess where everyone, including the members of the signatory cOAlition S of research founders, does whatever they want. I learned all that while participating at the Academic Publishing Europe (APE) conference in Berlin, on 15-16 January.
The show I was personally part of was comedy gold (pun on Gold OA intended), and it played in front of all the big scholarly publishers. It started with Smits played the conquering hero on whose command publishers jump to attention, reticent scientists beg for mercy, and funding agencies rejoice. His Plan S with its ten commandments seemed an inevitability, and a success story, endorsed by everyone who matters.
Smits, after congratulating himself, mentioned in passing an Open Letter organised by some “chemists” (he meant the initiative of the Swedish chemistry professor Lynn Kamerlin, which originally started on my site and became a signature campaign with over 1600 supporters from various fields of science and even humanities. But that letter was not important to Smits, as he then also mentioned the other Open Letter by Michael Eisen (that one actually made no reference to Plan S, yet was strongly endorsed by Frontiers and gathered over 1900 signatures). Then Smits educated the audience that it is the chemists who are the problem, because according to him, physicists are very much in favour of Plan S. The poor man confused Gold OA publishing with preprints, which are indeed most popular in physics while rather an obscure novelty in chemistry.
The next bit of the keynote speech was amazing. Smits declared summarily all scientists criticising his Plan S as “fake news”-spreading trolls. He namely presented these three categories of criticisms:
- “Genuine concerns” of scholarly societies who need help to transition to OA publishing
- “Fake News”, literally, this was the expression Smits use to describe claims that Green OA is made virtually impossible under Plan S or that free-to-publish Diamond or Platinum OA was not actively supported
- Trolling references to academic freedom or accusations that Plan S would promote predatory publishing, which according to Smits are only introduced to destabilize the debate
Researchers are definitely not someone Smits has much respect for. When questioned from audience why he didn’t go to talk to the scientific community before imposing Plan S, Smits answered that he very much did, because he received support from academic librarians whom he sees as representatives of the scientific community. I personally can imagine certain OA librarians on Twitter who will rejoice to be appointed as official speakers for all of sciences, but I am not sure if scientists agree being represented like this.
Scholarly societies got off slightly better, for them Smits still sees a future, provided they “bite the bullet” and go OA. Smits explained that learned society journals make “too much money” which they use for things he apparently doesn’t approve of, like student fellowships or teaching activities. Under Plan S, Smits said, the non-profit societies will “need a new business model”, and otherwise join transformative agreements. Later at a panel discussion, Smits gave societies and scientists this lesson on their way:
“It’s not what Plan S can do for you, its what you can do for Plan S.”
Plan S is presently at the “Consultation” stage, where everyone is invited to submit feedback until 1 February 2019. Smits however said in his talk that the consultation only serves to “provide clarity”, as nothing will be changed in the structure of Plan S itself. Well, that is reassuring.
To render everyone acceptant of Plan S inevitability, Smits even claimed new funders were joining cOAlition S “as we speak”. He didn’t name any, and how many of them per hour were joining. He did admit that Germany was not part of cOAlition S, but he explained that Germans are committed anyway, by pursuing the strategy of flipping journals. Only it turned out, also that was not true.
Already during Smits’ victorious keynote talk, the facade started to crumble. The feared sanctions and punishments which the scientists would be facing for daring to publish in forbidden subscription journals? Smits announced a “trust-based approach”, with little monitoring. I am not sure what he meant to convey here – whether there will be no sanctions for Plan-S non-compliance at all, or that he rather invites scientists to report on each other to cOAlition S authorities. Maybe both?
Later in the afternoon, during an all-male panel talk, Smits admitted that his cOAlition S and the 10 commandments of Plan S are everything but solid. I heard that surprising news before during a coffee break, from a British society publisher, but also Smits mentioned that Plan S is “for each funding agency to implement as they see fit”, the cOAlition S signatories will get “fully flexibility”. Basically, this means that the 10 rules of Plan S can mean anything, or even nothing. Every funder can do whatever it wants about OA and call it Plan S, and indeed David Sweeney of the newly fused British central funder UKRI, and one of two partners of Smits tasked with finalizing and overseeing Plan S, confirmed that on Twitter:
But that secret was spilled later in the evening. In his morning talk, Smits tried to convince the audience that none other but the mighty China joined Plan S, while actually no such thing happened at all. China merely voiced support for Plan S and OA transformation in December 2018, but the huge country with its exponentially growing publication output certainly did not join the cOAlition S. The China issue provoked a nasty public incident later on, featuring the Projekt DEAL (an Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany) negotiator Gerard Meijer, Dutch chemist and director of a Max Planck Institute in Berlin. Meijer previously positioned himself as a staunch supporter of Plan S (more here), even if he himself prefers to publish in what he described as “prestige channels” rather then in available OA journals, as he mentioned during the conference panel discussion.
That is how the incident went: in his talk Meijer spoke of a closed (sic!) Open Access conference in Berlin earlier in December, before China publicly endorsed Plan S. There, a Chinese delegate was participating whom Meijer quoted as saying that he got “orders from the highest level” to switch to OA, and that in China orders are always followed through. Meijer did not comment on whether that is a proper way to impose scientific policies or not, but he sure sounded impressed from how high up the order allegedly came.
A member of audience, a Swiss university librarian, eventually picked up on that story. He said that the authoritarian regime in China is not a role model for us and that he prefers democracy. Meijer went livid, what he shouted at the Swiss librarian was loud, angry and sounded like a threat: “Be careful with such statements!“, for Meijer would never ever endorse Chinese dictatorial approach. The audience was shocked, but then another member dared to speak up and told of a paper by his student from China which explains things. There is apparently a good reason why China is so much in favour of Plan S. China publishes many journals, also in English, and their number grows and grows, standing currently at 5% of all English-language STM titles worldwide. There is obviously no way to get western institutions to buy Chinese subscriptions, but Gold OA is a different thing. As the member of audience said, it is “an attempt to gain influence internationally”. One does suspect that we should not rejoice as Smits and Meijer do at receiving support from China on Plan S. Unless publishing in state-owned Chinese OA journals, some of which are basically Party propaganda outlets, is a clever idea for OA transformation in Europe.
Big news came during the morning session. The German Projekt DEAL announced at the conference a Read and Publish OA agreement with the publisher Wiley (actually, Wiley exec Judy Verses announced it first in her talk). The agreement goes beyond OA publishing, and will be published in full in one month, but the publishing aspect is apparently is the usual one: DEAL members pay Wiley a lump sum to retain subscriptions and publish all the papers from their employed authors in such subscription journals in hybrid Open Access, free to read for everyone. How much an individual article will cost then, remains a secret, as the DEAL negotiator Meijer made clear. That this contradicts the requirements of Plan S, where exact article processing charges per paper must be declared and justified, was suddenly not an issue. The triumphant bigmouth Smits looked rather small as he agreed that such a DEAL with Wiley is perfectly Plan S compliant.
Even better, Smits suddenly had no problem with hybrid OA. To stress what happened there: earlier in his morning keynote address, Smits made it absolutely clear that hybrid OA will be temporarily tolerated under Plan S only when a journal subjects itself to a transformative agreement to full OA from 2020 on. Not otherwise, and same for so-called mirror journals, where same editorial team opens a parallel OA platform to compliment an existing subscription journal. Smits described such mirror constructs like “you’ve been taken for a ride” by the cunning publishers, unless the main subscription journal subjects itself to a binding OA transformative agreement.
And this transformation is, as EMBO Press Chief Editor Bernd Pulverer explained, an irreversible process: once a journal agrees to flip to OA, it cannot go back. Now the German DEAL with Wiley is a different one: nobody on Wiley’s side pledged any OA transformations there. Even Meijer admitted to me that Wiley’s chemistry flagship journal Angewandte Chemie announced no plans to flip to OA whatsoever. Yet to Meijer, this model is perfectly Plan S compliant, as he sternly told me. Meijer is definitely not someone who allows dissent, and Smits sure didn’t dare say a word. Thus, if the Germans say their hybrid OA is Plan S compliant, then it is compliant.
Basically, Plan S turned out to be whatever you want it to be. There is a German version where hybrid OA deals are perfectly compliant, a Chinese Communist Party version of global dominance, a Dutch puritan version with hardcore OA mandate and punishments for sinning scientists, a British version where everything can happen like with Brexit, and a Smits version, where he is king of open access and everyone in his kingdom except of some trolls and perverts loves him.
Below the belt
Which brings us to the last point I wanted to mention. I did ask Smits about his interactions with the Swiss OA publisher Frontiers, in public. Smits explained the audience instead what a lying slanderous troll I am, who would never criticise Elsevier, only Frontiers. Smits has never visited Frontiers offices (the issue was rather Frontiers visiting him, in his Brussels office). It also turned out I have been spreading “below the belt accusations” about him “from day one”, and also about the Frontiers CEO Kamila Markram and even about her husband, the Frontiers co-founder Henry Markram.
Later on, Meijer also poured scorn over me for my slanderous accusations against Smits. Apparently, I made all those emails up. In any case, the EU Commission denied me their uncensored versions. I hope they contain nothing “below the belt”.
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