Engine Room column


Engine Room Column: Opening up access to scholarly publications requires imagination from funders, too

Plan S is an initiative for open-access research publishing, supported by cOAlition S, an international network of research funders. The funders in the network require that, from 2020 onward, scholarly publications supported with a cOAlition S grant must be published in or on compliant open-access journals or platforms. In his Engine Room column, Kone Foundation’s Director of Research Funding Kalle Korhonen discusses issues related to open-access research publishing from the viewpoint of research funders.

Research funders are confronted by many fundamental questions regarding open access to scholarly publications, such as: Who pays for the publishing process and dissemination? What can a research funder require of its grantees? How can research administrators and funders take into account the evolution of scholarly publishing?

Academic publications became more openly accessible in the 1990s, when academics began to understand that the internet could be used to disseminate articles more freely, instead of sending out offprints or requiring that readers visit libraries to access printed publications. The processes and institutions of scholarly publishing did not, however, cease to exist: peer review, editorial boards, and editorial principles. As well, printed publications did not disappear, and different disciplines have shifted their materials online at a different pace. The format of the scholarly article, the ‘basic unit’ of scholarly publishing, remained similar to a printed article, although actual printing became less common.

An important recent turn in the openness of publications is Plan S, supported by cOAlition S, an international network of research funders. Comprised of predominantly public funders, from 2020 onward the network will require that scholarly publications resulting from their grants must be published in or on compliant, open-access journals or platforms. This lies in unison with the idea that research funded by taxpayers should be available to them.

Currently, the dissemination channels of scholarly publications can be placed in roughly two categories: original publishers and parallel publishing platforms. Peer-reviewed scholarship is published by a large number of small not-for-profit publishers, most of whom produce one or two journals or at most a series. Much more visible are global commercial publishers such as Springer and Elsevier, which is part of the RELX Group, or Taylor & Francis, Routledge, and CRC Press, all of which belong to Informa. When articles are accepted for publication, academics often transfer – accidentally or compulsorily – their copyright to the journal, which may later cause problems in their scholarly communication.

Most academic publishers charge subscription fees, but for the past two decades some publishers have boasted only open access journals in their portfolio, such as Public Library of Science (aka PLOS) and BioMed Central. Such publishers use article processing fees in order to sustain their work. In all, a great diversity can be seen among scholarly publishers, which is also reflected in their open access policies.

Parallel publishing is practised in publication repositories, which can be discipline-based (such as Research Papers in Economics) or institutional (Helda, University of Helsinki). However, in some disciplines academics make their publications openly accessible even prior to peer review. A famous example is arXiv, established in 1991, which serves physics, mathematics and computer science.

Commercial actors are at work in parallel publishing, too, such as ResearchGate  and, the basic versions of which can be used by academics at no explicit cost. Although often dubbed as “social media for researchers” and criticised, they can be truly useful in creating research contacts, which has been noted by publishers, too. One can still hear comments like ‘nobody reads scholarly publications’. Such assertions are exaggerated, and social media sites can make it easier to find one’s own readership, even for publications not in English.

As I mentioned, Plan S mandates that academics either publish in open-access journals or deposit their publications in Plan S-compliant open platforms from 2020 onwards. Some critics have misinterpreted the requirement, claiming that open-access journals would be a mandatory publishing venue, even in fields where no decent open access journals exist (e.g., in a letter signed by 133 Swedish researchers in humanities and social sciences). This is not the case, because institutional repositories are included in Plan S. Be this as it may, the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond), one of the few private funders who so far have joined cOAlition S, recently decided not to commit to the tight schedule of Plan S.

The board of Kone Foundation has discussed Plan S and has an overall positive attitude towards it, but some questions regarding its principles remain: What does Kone Foundation require from or mandate to its research grantees? We now require them to do the promised research and verify it with a final report. Should the foundation issue further mandates? Even though the ideas behind open access were born in the academic community, they could possibly be perceived as part of the so-called New Public Management of universities. This could make open science another burden for faculty.

But what is cOAlition S’s attitude towards the constant evolution of online scholarly publishing? Commercial publishers are usually not stupid predators, since profitmaking involves offering services to clients. And how should one deal with academic social media? How many technical requirements are necessary in open science?

In my view, Plan S lends new possibilities to research funders to lift their eyes from the screen or paper and reflect – together with the rest of the academic community – what form academic publishing should take in the 2020s without getting stuck in the conventions of a small number of disciplines or technical complexities.


Kalle Korhonen