Open access

Dreaming about 2030

COAlaition S wants to make scientific publications completely and freely accessible in 2020. What could that yield in the longer term? Four key figures tell us what they hope for. Such as more societal relevance, less ego tripping and new, exciting ways of doing research.

Text: Malou van Hintum, credits: Harry Meijer

‘Ideally, I would like to join forces with the scientific publishers’, says NWO president Stan Gielen.

credits: Harry Meijer

‘But the ridiculous amounts that universities must now pay for subscriptions can no longer be justified. And as the president of a research funding agency, I find it no longer acceptable that a significant amount of government money intended for scientific research now goes to publishers. Publishers who make exorbitant profits on work that is mainly done by researchers.’ Gielen is not the only one who has had enough.

No longer acceptable that a significant amount of government money intended for scientific research goes to publishers
- Stan Gielen

Stan Gielen (credits: Ivar Pel)

At a European level he is also active in cOAlition S, a partnership of – at the moment this article was written – 14 research funding agencies in 12 countries. Aim: all of the research that is paid for by public funds must in 2020 be available for everybody via open access journals or open access platforms. ‘That requires a radical plan because otherwise it’s not going to work at all’, says Robert-Jan Smits, special envoy open access to the European Union. The partners established "cOAlition S". With the S of Shock Solution for Science. That they really mean it this time is evident from a sentence printed in bold in the preamble: ‘No science should be locked behind paywalls!’

Open data

Imagine that their efforts succeed in 2020. Then what will open access look like a decade later, in 2030?

We need to have a Spotify for scientific articles
- Van Wezenbeek

Van Wezenbeek (credits: Marcel Krijger)

What consequences will it have for how researchers do and value research and for how they share their results and ideas? ‘We need to have a Spotify for scientific articles’, says Wilma van Wezenbeek, director of the library of Delft University of Technology and involved in the negotiations with the publishers on behalf of the Dutch universities. At the same time, the importance of publications will decrease, she expects: ‘Now we talk about publications with underlying data, whereas in the coming years there will be a shift towards open data that publications are attached to. All that output will be made findable by attaching a specific identifier to it so that it can always be established who did what and where. We are already working on that.’ But "Open data" does not mean that all data will be made public immediately, adds Gielen. ‘Just as for publications, a critical assessment will have to be made by others. I can also imagine that organisations which have made a financial contribution to research will receive the data earlier than other parties. This is already happening in astronomy.’

New assessment criteria

Gielen expects that publications will still be important in 2030. He hopes that by that time the editors of top journals will have been successfully convinced to work for open access journals. ‘This way, editors will take the status of the journal with them.’ Then there will be no reason to remain stuck in the "old world". However, this does not mean that nothing else will change in the new world. Gielen foresees that with the establishment and expansion of open access journals and platforms, the way in which researchers are valued will change too. ‘In the future, more importance will be given to what you publish, not to how much you publish. Delivering one top publication per year is far better than ten articles all concerned with a small part of your message. However, to realise that we first of all need to change the criteria with which researchers are assessed.’

Smits: 'That requires a radical plan because otherwise it’s not going to work at all'

Robert-Jan Smits (credits: EPSC)

Smits: ‘In 2030, we will ask for the three most important contributions that somebody has made to science, for an explanation as to why these are important and what the research has yielded for society.’ Smits gives the example of an Irish scientist who researched therapies to prevent decubitus. The Irish researcher deliberately published in a journal for nurses, which from a scientific point of view was not a top journal. ‘However, the take-up was enormous! This example illustrates exactly the direction we should be going: making findings accessible for the target group.’

More team science

Sarah de Rijcke is Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University and goes a step further still. ‘Open access concerns far more than publishing and making publications available’, she says. ‘We face a fantastic and exciting challenge of doing high quality, interdisciplinary, participatory research with exciting, innovative media. Research for which non-scientists – patients, citizens, policymakers, artists – can contribute ideas on an equal footing.’

Sarah de Rijcke (credits: Bart van Overbeeke)

Ze hoopt dat open access in de nabije toekomst ‘interdisciplinair gastvrij’ betekent. ‘Doordat er veel meer verschillende vormen van kennis, gegevens, methoden, publicatieformats en resultaten open circuleren, hoop ik dat ook het begrip voor verschillende manieren van werken groeit en dat er meer wordt geëxperimenteerd.’ We zijn nu nog te veel bezig met alles meer open beschikbaar maken en met het behoud van de kwaliteit en de reputatie die we associëren met boeken en tijdschriften, zegt ze. ‘Het zou mooi zijn als we het over meer kunnen hebben dan dat.’

She hopes that in the near future open access will mean "interdisciplinary and welcoming". ‘As far more different types of knowledge, data, methods, publication formats and results will openly circulate, I hope that there will also be a growth in understanding of different ways of working and that more experimentation will take place.’ At present, we are still far too busy with making everything available in the public domain and with the retention of the quality and reputation that we associate with books and journals, she says. ‘It would be fantastic if we could talk about more than just that.’ Van Wezenbeek also predicts another way of working. ‘Now the researcher who is the author of a certain publication is important, but soon team science will play a far greater role. The technician, the data scientists, somebody who writes the results in an accessible manner, everybody has his or her role. Also, far more people will work in a scientific institution: teachers, managers, people who make connections with industry and society. All of them will receive credits for their work.’ De Rijcke adds: ‘It would be great if the academic community could think more about how we can build upon our reward policy for all the existing forms of open science or about smart ways of making the work of, for example, editors, reviewers and others more visible.’

Global coalition

Inspiring prospects, but isn't open access mainly a European thing? ‘No’, says special envoy Smits decisively. ‘There is a lot of international interest. We have been inundated with requests to come and say something about cOAlition S: from the United States, Japan, South Africa, India, Mexico and Canada. We want to create a global coalition because this transformation will only be successful if it occurs on all continents.’ And when it comes to developing countries: at present they have no access to knowledge because they do not have the budget to purchase the articles, he says. ‘Therefore they cannot build a science system.

'There is enough money in the system but, unfortunately, it is in the wrong place’

In the new system, they have free access to scientific knowledge and do not always have to pay to publish because there will be enough fee-free open access journals. Furthermore, with enough dispensations, we can ensure that researchers without a budget can continue to publish. At present, there is enough money in the system but, unfortunately, it is in the wrong place.’

Towards 100% open access

Last year, 45% scientific articles from research funded by NWO were published in open access form. The European average is 35%. In March 2018, special envoy open access Robert-Jan Smits from the European Commission was given the task of increasing the percentage to 100 %. Therefore in September of this year, cOAlition S was launched, an international coalition of research funding agencies that includes NWO. They subscribe to the ten principles of Plan S. Central theme: from 2020 onwards articles will only be published in full open access journals. At present, there is a transition situation: researchers may purchase their articles from top journals and make these freely available. This happens in hybrid journals, which often offer the possibility for open access publications against an extra fee. In two to three years’ time, this practice should no longer exist. NWO reimburses any costs associated with open access publishing. Since 2018, these costs can also be entered in the budget for grant proposals.

Read more