Academic Publishing

Frontiers and Robert-Jan Smits emails reveal how Plan S was conceived

The emails published here prove that EU Special Envoy for OA, Robert Jan Smits, received constant counselling from Frontiers CEO Kamila Markram when designing Plan S. It seems, Frontiers and Smits share exactly same vision for the future of scholarly publishing.

Guess what. After pestering the EU Commission and the European Ombudsman for exactly NINE months (since November 2018) the baby is born and I got the emails between the former EU Special Envoy for Open Access (OA), Robert-Jan Smits, and the Swiss, Lausanne-based, OA publisher Frontiers, namely its CEO Kamila Markram, who founded Frontiers together with her husband, the EPFL professor and brain simulator Henry Markram.

I previously published an analysis of same emails where, aside of addressee, sender and date only the subject line was made available. That was enough to establish the influence of Frontiers over Plan S conception. The finally released emails are still heavily censored yet even more revealing. We learn that the Frontiers vision of the OA future mediated to Smits neatly translated into what became on 4 September 2018 his Plan S, with one initial exception: The caps for Article Processing Charges (APC) were put in place, though not specified. Much of the email exchange between Smits and Markram was about APC caps, which the latter protested against, so the free market and innovation are not impeded. Frontiers highest APC is currently at €2440 or $2950, and Markram conceded to Smits to accept a cap of €3000. Soon after Plan S was announced, Smits turned to speaking of caps as not being necessary; at the revised Plan S, all talk of capping APC ended.

Plan S was designed to flip scholarly publishing first in Europe, then in the world, to full OA, by banning all scientists from publishing in subscription journals and even by punishing them for attempting to do so. That is, all scientists who receive funding from Plan S-subscribing cOAlition S members of national and EU funders as well as charities. Learned societies were ordered to flip their journals to OA and to cease using the publishing revenue for any outreach, training and community activities not directly related to publishing.

Because quite a number of scientists protested, Plan S soon became chaotic and even after revised Plan S was announced on 31 May 2019, it is still not clear how, when, where and to whom it will be applied, if ever. And it is certainly not at all clear who will pay for OA: it seems the cOAlition S funders won’t provide an extra penny, the researchers will have to cough up the uncapped APC from their research grants. Or their own private pockets, when grants run out. Of course there are still protests from academics.

The Plan S consultations between Smits and Markram were allegedly, as EU Commission pronounced to me:

part of a broad engagement with key stakeholders over the spring 2018.”

Which were so secret that even the EU Commission admitted to not possess a list of the participants:

the Commission does not hold any documents that would correspond to the description”

Because obviously it was just Smits and his Plan S advisor from Frontiers, Kamila Markram. Nobody else was invited to provide input, that much EU Commission basically admitted. Certainly no learned society publishers, or, god forbid, scientists, all of whom Smits admitted to deeply mistrust. Smits left the EU Commission in February 2019 and is now president of the University of Eindhoven in Netherlands, remarkably the cOAlition S still has not appointed a new leader.

Much of the emails text was censored, initially EU Commission announced to remove not just personal information, but also anything of commercial sensitivity for Frontiers. After I protested, the EU Commission now declares that only private information was removed. Which was still quite a lot. As the letter by the Secretary-General Martin Selmayr explains:

“With regard to the information that does not fall under the definition of personal data, such as the relevant redacted parts of the exchanges marked as ‘4’, ‘5’, ‘7’, ‘8’ and ‘15’, containing the personal comments of the representatives of Frontiers Media SA, I consider that their public disclosure would undermine the privacy of the persons concerned. Indeed, it is still possible to associate the above-mentioned comments of strictly personal character, with one of only three individuals, given that the scope of your application for access to documents, encompasses the exchanges between Robert-Jan Smits and three, named ‘Frontiers executives’. Consequently, the public disclosure of the personal comments would have impact on the privacy of the three individuals in question and therefore Article 4(1)(b) of Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 applies thereto.”

The emails are available here, the dates and subject lines were cross-referenced with the previously provided list here.

Email 1

On 26 March 2018, when almost a month has passed since Smits “last week discovered it was his time to be rotated out of DG Research” and was appointed Special Envoy for Open Access, he received this email from Frontiers Brussels office, likely authored by the EU liaison officer Laure Sonnier. It had the subject “Request for a meeting with Dr. Kamila Markram, Frontiers CEO and co-founder (April 25th, Brussels) ” and had attached a “Letter from Frontiers CEO to Mr. RJ Smits 23032018.pdf”, that CEO being officially Kamila Markram:

“On behalf of [censored, obviously Kamila Markram] I am sharing with you the enclosed letter to extend her congratulations on your recent appointment as Special Adviser for Open Access and innovation at the EPSC and to enquire on your availabilities for a F2F meeting in Brussels possibly on April 25th

[censored, obviously Kamila Markram] also further looks forward to the group discussion with you tomorrow at the meeting of the EC Expert Group on Scholarly Publishing and Scholarly Communication where Frontiers is an appointed member.
Thank you very much in advance for your reply and consideration.”

The F2F (face-to-face) meeting indeed took place, see my earlier report for details.

Emails 2 and 3

Right after the meeting on 25 April 2018, Frontiers Brussels office sent this email to Smits, with subject “Meeting Frontiers and Mr. R-J Smits – Thank you note and next steps”:

“Dear Mr. Smits, dear [censored, probably Smits’ assistant Anne Mallaband]

On behalf of Frontiers, I would like to extend our gratitude for a very interesting meeting this morning.
You will find in attachment, for your convenience, the slide-deck we presented.
As agreed, in the coming week, we will also be sending further detailed information about Frontiers business model and pricing policies.
We very much look forward to collaborating with you and wish you the best of success in your new role and mission.”

Smits replied:

“Dear [censored, presumably Sonnier]
Thank you for your mail !
I enjoyed our meeting and appreciate the follow up you will give by providing us further information about Frontiers pricing policies.
Kind Regards.
Robert-Jan Smits”

The follow-up email came from Kamila Markram on 3 May 2018:

“Dear Robert-Jan and [censored, probably Anne Mallaband]
many thanks again for the very interesting and enjoyable meeting last week. We have in the meantime been busy preparing the data and statement regarding costs per article. We have decided to include not only past audited data but also our latest 2018 budget numbers. We are currently putting the final touches on this and I’ll come back next week with the final data and document. “

Email 4

Cross-checking with previous document, it seems the following lengthy email was sent by Kamila Markram on 31 May 2018, subject “Re: Frontiers feedback on the transition to OA and APCs”. Attached was a file “Frontiers APC Policy_ 180529.pdf”. Apparently this email was a follow-up on an identical (and then deleted) communication where “the attached document did not work”. Full version of the email can be read here, now a slightly shortened one:

“Dear Robert-Jan,
Following our recent meeting, I am pleased to attach the Frontiers A11icle Processing Charges (APC) policy.
We have previously circulated this information to our 500 Editors-in-Chief.
Frontiers was founded ten years ago with the motto “for scientists, by scientists.” From the outset, this focus has set us apart from all other publishers with a relentless insistence on editorial excellence and transparency, and with an exceptional focus on technological innovation. Our track record proves that our model enables high-quality, high-impact articles to be published efficiently at scale. Today, Frontiers’ 61 journals have together published 90,000 peer-reviewed articles across 500 academic specialties. Our journals consistently lead their categories as measured by traditional metrics such as Journal Citation Reports (Clarivate Analytics) and CiteScore (Scopus) and have received over 420 Million article views and downloads (as measured with our pioneering article-level metrics).
We achieve this with our APC-based business model that is designed to be sustainable and inclusive, while allowing us to invest in innovation.

[…] During our meeting, I sensed that you are considering imposing a cap on APCs for articles based on European-funded research. In our view, such a policy would hamper the development of a robust open­ access market in Europe. Cost minimization is important, but capping APCs could create unintended, new risks that could undermine our mission – the full transition to open-access publishing. Please consider the following:

  1. Imposing an OA model with low, capped APCs would mean a 60% loss of revenue for commercial and society publishers that currently use the subscription model. These would need to reduce investment in high-value services and make major cuts in their estimated 110,000 workforce.
    Subscription publishers, who currently publish about 90% of annual research papers, thus have strong incentives to resist a transition to OA.
  2. Capping APCs at a low price would put the new breed of innovative Gold OA publishers at a competitive disadvantage. It would prevent us from establishing an APC schedule capable of fully covering the costs of a high-quality service. We need to hire the best talent, invest in innovative technology, subsidize younger OA initiatives and build up a stable foundation of capital – key ingredients for sustainable high-quality publishing. Ironically, capping APCs for Gold Open Access journals removes the level playing field, distorting fair competition between OA publishers and subscription publishers, the latter who receive two to three times the income per article published.
  3. Even at Frontiers – a company that is sufficiently robust to adjust to capped pricing- the imposition of caps would have huge implications. It would put pressure on us to divert workforce out of Europe to “low-cost” locations; severely undermine our policy of inclusivity; and reduce our investment in innovation. Growth of our business and the rate of technological breakthroughs would both be impacted.

Transitioning to 100% open access is analog to the transition to clean energy. Would it make sense to place caps on the price of solar panels, if the goal were to move to 100% renewable energy? A tax on carbon emissions is a more constructive mechanism towards the goal. In this analogy, caps on “Big Deal” subscription packages would be more effective in driving the transition to fu ll open access than capping the emerging Open Access market – particularly since OA APCs already cut the costs of publishing by more than half (a tremendous achievement in itself!).

We firmly believe that the rapid transition to Open Access should be the main goal – artificially regulating the emerging Open Access market would only perpetuate, unintendedly the subscription model.
We advocate for a transparent market place that allows fair competition, because in such a market added value can be openly assessed and prices can self-regulate. To this end, we support:

  • Full transparency in pricing policy;
  • Elimination of NDAs for public procurement of subscriptions or any type of publishing services;
  • Focus on transparent consortium and national agreements that simplify logistics of APC payments and allow for clear budgeting and centralized invoicing;
  • A clear commitment from funders to transition to open science, for example such as the crystal-clear Open Access policy of the Gates foundation.

Our recent and first-of-the kind national agreements with Austria and now Sweden (to be announced on Friday with initially 21 participating universities) show that full transparency in publishing agreements can be done, can be simple and straightforward – and costs a fraction of a subscription deal.
One last comment on funders: Funders have always carried the costs of publishing- in the subscription model it is just a hidden overhead fraction that is distributed from research grants to libraries. Now that APCs make these costs transparent and introduce them as a clear line item in funders budgets, instead of trying to cap them funders need to compare them to the hidden subscription costs – OA is cutting publication costs by more than half and could free grant budgets for more research that is freely accessible to all. […]”

The email concluded with an invitation to meet again, details were censored, just as a “PS” was. The APC cap was initially introduced in Plan S, but Smits himself dropped it very quickly. In the revised version of Plan S, APC caps are not envisioned.

Emails 5, 6 and 7

The Frontiers CEO then sent Smits an email (on 1 June 2018) informing him of the announced deal between Frontiers and the Swedish library consortium, with this link provided:

Smits replied, it is not clear if he favoured OA deals in general or specifically with Frontiers:

“Dear­ [censored, obviously Kamila]
Congratulations !
My tour of Europe’s capitals has made it clear to me that an increasing number of countries will take similar actions to accelerate the transition to full and immediate Open Access.
Kind Regards.

Smits wrote to Kamila Markram on 8 June 2018 with reference to the earlier lengthy email:

“Thank you very much for your mail with this very useful input !
We have begun to analyse this and will certainly get back to you in case there are questions.
we can meet after this, say at 18.00 hours.”

This scheduled meeting between Robert-Jan and Kamila did not happen, someone else was delegated instead by Frontiers. Markram explained:

“Dear Robert-Jan,
Thanks again for your kind message and offer to meet [censored].
Unfortunately, I finally can’t make it to Brussels on [censored] as an important recent commitment requires my presence. So sorry about this last-minute change [censored] will replace me [censored, long sentence(s)]

I also remain fully available to talk with you by phone at any point and, if our agenda allows, I would suggest we meet again in person [censored, long sentence(s)]
With kind regards, “

Smits replied with “No problem whatsoever” and agreed to meet the secret Frontiers representative. The EU Commission revealed previously that there was a matching meeting on Monday 11 June 2018. Yet the following emails reveal the meeting took place on a Friday, which was indeed June 8th. Were there two meetings? In any case, Smits seems to have picked up on the phone offer, as the following email suggests:

Email 8

Kamila Markram sent Smits this message, apparently on 18 June 2018. Again, full version of the email can be read here, now a slightly shortened one:

“Dear Robert-Jan,

As a matter of fact, before we talked on Friday, I was just writing an email to you, below, to follow up on last week’s meeting and some additional input for Plan S. [a sentence censored] – thanks again for taking the time for the meeting. [a sentence censored]… Just for the record record, no caps is best, (but if there must be one, I do know from informal discussions that some of the subscription publishers would be able to fully flip to OA at 3K Euros.

If I may, I’d like to off er additional context on this matter. At Frontiers, we are fully behind your approach of uniting funders to accelerate the transition to full open access. However, we are concerned that a focus on APC caps could delay or jeopardise our shared goal of a full transition lo OA in Europe for the following reasons:

1/ APCs are not a principal obstacle to OA publishing
Capping APCs would implicitly signal that OA publishers are overcharging for their services and placing an unreasonable burden on institutional budgets. In fact, our direct experience in establishing national publishing agreements (that are fully transparent and publicly available, for Austria here and coming soon for Sweden here) shows that APCs are not the issue. OA publications already cost 1/3 to 1/2 of the price of subscriptions and therefore the transition will already save money, as calculated by the Max Plank Institute. The Swiss have dropped APC caps as being a confusing message and not helpful to drive Open Access.
A focus on APCs therefore misdirects the debate away from the principal need to fully transition to immediate Open Science and to establish a fully transparent market conductive to fair competition.

2/ Artificial market regulation via caps is likely to cause harmful unintended consequences

[…] APC caps will also dissuade the large subscription publishers from transitioning to OA. Elsevier earns around 6,000 Euro/paper. The staunch resistance of these publishers to capping will only significantly delay the OA transition.
Typically, subsidizing new technologies to strengthen their competitiveness seems to work. This has been applied successfully by governments in several sectors, such as solar panels, electric car plug-ins, IoT, 4G internet – to name a few. APC caps would be contrary to this principle and cause harmful unintended consequences. (We are not asking for subsidies, to be sure! Just making my point.) 

If anything, regulating the subscription market could fuel the transition to the open access model.
Another thing to look into might be whether the subscription market with its non-disclosure agreements is compatible with European Competition Law.[…]

Our vision
We believe that a transition to a fu ll OA system could be achieved with these steps:

  1. Establish a transparent, free market where market forces shape the relationship between price and value. This means to ban non-disclosure agreements between subscription publishers (or any publishers) and publicly funded universities. This will allow all actors in the system to assess the relationship between service value and price openly, compare and negotiate better deals.
  2. Mandate that publicly funded research should be published in fully OA journals – not hybrids. (Not capping them, will allow hybrids to fully flip to OA).
  3. Focus research evaluation on objective article-level and author-level metrics (rather than Journal Impact Factors and where researchers publish). I hope you will understand that is a subject of some concern for us – not so much as an OA publisher (we might even benefit if hybrids are banned and caps imposed), but as a responsible partner committed to enhancing knowledge transfer within the European Research Area.

I know time is tight now, just wanted to get these points across again.
With kind regards, “
Smits replied same day on 18 June 2018:

“Dear [censored, obviously Kamila]
Thank you for your mail ! I really appreciate this input because we are on the eve of taking ground breaking decisions and have to make sure that we take the right decisions.
I remain convinced of the necessity to impose a cap on the APC. In this context, I like what the Swiss did: they started by imposing a cap and once the market had stabilised, they removed the cap.
However, since I am building a Europe wide coalition of Funding Agencies, I will not get my way on everything (including caps).
Kind Regards.

Emails 9 and 10

These are “Out of scope” as EU Commission declared and censored the two emails from 20 June 2018 totally. I invite your imagination to figure out what the EU Special Envoy for OA, Robert-Jan Smits, and Frontiers CEO Kamila Markram, have discussed at such length which had no connection whatsoever to Plan S and OA transformation. Apparently these had to do with the subject “ESOF Panel: Open Science Update”, where the two OA experts eventually spoke on 11 July 2018 in Toulouse. Maybe they discussed what to wear, or simply exchanged cake recipes.

smits and kamila
Fan art, made in Photoshop

Emails 11 and 12

On 31 August 2018, Smits wrote to Kamila Markram, with the subject “Plan S – Release on 4 September 2018”:

“I am very pleased to inform you that ‘PLAN S’ – a set of principles to accelerate the transition to full and immediate Open Access to scientific publications – will be released on 4 September 2018.
Several national research funders, members of Science Europe have signed up to the PLAN and both the European Commission and the ERC are supporting it in view of Horizon Europe.
Full details of the PLAN and supporting documents are being forwared [sic!] to you by Science Europe.
Based on the constructive discussions we have had over the last months, for which I would like to thank you once more, I really hope that your organisation will be able to express both its overall support for the PLAN as well as to propose how it could contribute to its implementation.
I am looking forward to continuing to work with you and other stakeholders to take PLAN S forward.
Kind regards”

Frontiers CEO replied on 3 September 2018:

“Dear Robert-Jan,
My heartfelt congratulations on a momentous achievement of uniting this amount of founders behind Plan S!
We are excited to publish and disseminate it tomorrow and will put all our force behind it on social media and our newsletter to 500K researchers.
I am very much looking forward to continue the discussion on the details of the implementation to ensure open access to high quality and rigorously certified research.
Warm regards”

Emails 13 and 14

Smits replied right away with his gratitude which was apparently so deep it had to be censored, and added:

“Hope to see you soon in Brussels or Lausanne.”

Plan S was released on 4 September as scheduled, Frontiers advertised for it (together with PLOS), and Kamila Markram wrote this to Smits, same day, congratulating him again “on a great success”:

“Dear Robert-Jan,
I started reading the news articles on #PlanS – this is just wonderful the 434 people here at Frontiers are super-excited.”

Smits thanked back “for these tweets and articles”. The rest of the email was censored, probably another cake recipe exchanged.

Email 15

Kamila Markram updated Smits on a Friday, likely 7 September 2018, with screenshots:

“Dear Robert-Jan,
Just a quick update on a successful PlanS campaign:

The Editorial was viewed over 40K times from all over the world, see the article and impact metrics here:

We disseminated Plan S via our newsletter to 420K researchers. More than 105K researchers opened the email (this is good!) and we received lots of enthusiastic support and feedback for PlanS!

The social media campaign reached over 420K people so far and got over 11K engagements and clicks.
Congratulations again on a very successful initiative!
Have a great weekend, “

Smits replied with:

“Thank you for your mail!
These figures are very impressive. [censored, presumably Anne Mallaband] is very happy with this result and just forwarded me your mail”

Kamila replied with something censored and again instructed Robert-Jan to have a good weekend.

Email 16

On 14 September, emails were sent with the subject “Quick catch-up discussion in Vienna on Tuesday?” referring to the COASP 2018 OA publisher conference in Vienna which took place on 18 September 2018 and where Smits was listed as speaker. Kamila Markram wrote:

“Dear Robert-Jan,
I am attending the [censored, obviously COASP 2018] and would be pleased to see you for a quick catch-up discussion if you have the time. One option would be at [censored] for example.
Hope to see you there,

Smits replied form his iPhone with “Good idea to catch up during” the COASP conference.

Emails 17 and 18

These emails were exchanged between 10 and 21 October 2018, with the subject “Invitation to participate as speaker – Open Science Policy Symposium – 29
November 2018, Brussels”. It was a private Frontiers conference with hand-picked speakers:

  • Jean-Claude Burgelman – Head of Unit Open Science, European Commission [more on that guest below]
  • Michael Hengartner – President of swissuniversities and Rector of Zurich University
  • Stephan Kuster – Secretary General of Science Europe [who helped Smits design Plan S]
  • Kamila Markram – CEO Frontiers
  • Ingeborg Meijer – Senior Researcher and Research Evaluation Consultant, Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS)
  • Gareth O’Neill – President of the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers [who is an ardent fan of Smits and Plan S, and even had his tax-money-funded Eurodoc block me on Twitter]
  • Florian Pecenka – Head of Unit, Austrian Permanent Representation to the EU
  • Falk Reckling – Head of Department Strategy, Austrian Science Fund  (FWF)
  • Monique Ritchie – Co-Chair Open Science Working Group, Young European Research Universities (YERUN)
  • Alexis Walckiers – Invited Professor in Microeconomics, Université Libre de Bruxelles

This email was sent by Frontiers Brussels office to Smits sometime in autumn 2018. It was an invitation to that Frontiers November event in Brussels:

“Dear Robert -Jan,
[censored, obviously Kamila Markram] asked me to send the below message on her behalf as she is currently on her way to [censored]
I hope it will find you well and that you will be able to join our event.
Kind regards, [censored, likely Laure Sonnier]

Dear Robert-Jan
On Nov 29th late afternoon ( 16:00-19:00), in collaboration with SwissCore and the Austrian Presidency, we are organising a Policy Symposium in Brussels, entitled ‘Enabling the Open Science Modus Operandi in Europe’.
We foresee two sessions at the symposium:
1. How to transition to immediate open access swiftly and foster a transparent and competitive scholarly communication sector
2. How to embed open science in research assessments, incentives and rewards.
We would be delighted if you could come and speak about plan S in session 1, if this is possible?
I have attached the latest draft programme and an official invitation here for your consideration.
Please let me know if this is of interest and if you’re able join the programme? We would be  honoured to have you there.
My colleague Laure can then be further in touch to organise.
Many thanks in advance,
Kind regards, [censored, obviously Kamila Markram]

Smits was likely already in hot water for his too close connection to Frontiers, so he declined:

“Thank you very much for your kind invitation !
Unfortunately, I already have other commitments that day and therefore will not be able to participate.
I wish you a successful event.”

Instead of Smits, the EU Commission official Jean Burgelman took part. And this is how PLan S was conceived and born. With senior EU offiicals led by the hand by Frontiers CEO Kamila Markram.

Update 26.01.2019

Plan S was officially designed by Smits together with Science Europe, a network of European research founders. Its Secretary General used to be Stephan Kuster, who left Science Europe in July 2019. In September 2019, Kuster started as Head of Institutional Relations at… you can guess it.


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14 comments on “Frontiers and Robert-Jan Smits emails reveal how Plan S was conceived

  1. Impressive. Just love how for profit publishers lobby decision makers to pressure institutions to embed self serving initiatives in “research assessments, incentives and rewards”. Guess how publishing became a researcher’s duty?


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  3. Very interesting article. Thanks.


  4. Frontiers is for-profit for sure. I submitted an article in Frontiers in Materials recently and it took about a month for my article to get accepted. The reviewers’ critics were so easy and I thought my article is really well written… After acceptance, Frontiers put the names of reviewers on the published version. The reviewers of my article did not have any experience in my field whatsoever. Furthermore, Frontiers demanded 1450$ for APC which is ridiculous for a review that is done for merely show with inexperienced reviewers. Long story short, I just took back my article and I will not publish in Frontiers never…


  5. Very interesting read!
    Do you have a link to the requests you made to the EU Commission regarding emails between RJS and the other publishers? Were they disclosed in the end?


  6. Frontiers has started humbly and gently. They rather were good at their beginning. But over time, when they see money drops on them easily and generously, they turned on unethical practices.
    A lot of money corrupts science and publishing.


  7. Pingback: Henry Markram crushes COVID-19 with metformin and Atkins diet – For Better Science

  8. Klaas van Dijk

    Copy/pasted from : “Ook daar werden protesterende studenten hardhandig aangepakt, maar niet alleen door armen- en benentrekkende beveiligers. TU/e-bestuursvoorzitter Robert-Jan Smits hielp een handje mee, getuige een videofragment dat op Twitter werd gedeeld.” See


    • Smits was always an industry shill.and otherwise just creepy. Maybe there was more than just his utter incompetence which led to his demotion as EU Commisioner and then full departure from EU Commission .


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