Academic freedom and responsibility: why Plan S is not unethical

Since its announcement on 4th September the European Commission’s plan to make a radical shift towards open access (OA) has caused quite a stir. Backed by eleven* national funding agencies, the plan aims to make the research that they support free to read as soon as it is published. This is a major challenge to the status quo, since the funders are effectively placing subscription journals off limits for their researchers, even if the journals allow green OA (publication of the author-accepted manuscript) after an embargo period; Plan S also specifically excludes hybrid open access except in cases where journals have an agreed schedule for flipping to OA. The plan has been welcomed as “admirably strong” by OA advocate Peter Suber, though he has also offered cautionary notes on some aspects. Others have been less enthusiastic. A central charge, from some publishers and some academics is that Plan S is an infringement of academic freedom to choose how and where your work is published and it therefore unethical. 

I disagree. The claim that Plan S is unethical derives from an understanding of academic freedom that appears to me to rest on foundations that, if not shaky, are at least highly questionable.

I realise this is contentious territory. And I accept that the views of many scholars on this issue spring from deep convictions about the nature of the academic calling. There are real complications and tensions, not the least of which are disciplinary differences, especially between the natural sciences, engineering and medicine on the one hand, and the arts and humanities on the other. I therefore propose to tread carefully. But ultimately I believe the disputes about Plan S can be located at the blurry, shifting and negotiable boundary between academic freedom and responsibility and it is this boundary that I am mainly interested in exploring.

Let’s look first at the particular claims made with regard to the incursion of Plan S into academic freedom.

The statement made by the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM) asserts that “it is vital that researchers have the freedom to publish in the publication of their choice”. No documentary support is offered to justify its interpretation of academic freedom so we must look elsewhere. Before doing so we should note that the STM’s view fits well with the status quo – a state of affairs that is financially very rewarding for many publishers, so there is a vested interest in play that must inevitably colour any assessment of their claims.

The academic view advanced in trenchant terms by Kamerlin and colleagues is that “Plan S clearly violates one of the basic tenets of academic freedom – the freedom to publish research results in venues of the researcher’s choosing.” However, despite the fact that the authors of this piece are all researchers or scholars of one type or another, they give no citations to back up their claim.Perhaps they take that feature of academic freedom as a given, something that is so widely accepted that it no longer requires a supporting reference. If so, that is a difficult position to sustain. For one thing, choice of publishing venue is not mentioned at all in the community-authored Wikipedia article on academic freedom. If we are to properly debate the question of whether choice of publication venue is a “basic tenet” of academic freedom, we need an evidence base of some sort.

J Britt Holbrook, one of Kamerlin’s co-authors, goes into more depth in a response to Marc Schiltz, the president of Science Europe and one of the prime movers behind Plan S. Holbrook mentions the definition offered by the American Association of University Professors in their 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which presumably is widely accepted by scholars in the USA, though I don’t know how much purchase this document has in the rest of the world. The AAUP defines three elements to academic freedom, the first of which pertains to the conduct of research:

Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.”

The key phrase is in the first sentence – “full freedom in research and in the publication of results”. To some that implies full freedom in the choice of where to publish. As I understand Holbrook, this is the interpretation that he places on it. But the document isn’t specific on the point and other interpretations appear equally valid. The intent could be merely to guarantee the right to publish, free from any political or institutional constraint on what you can write, without implying that authors must also be completely free in the choice of venue. Indeed, on this point it is important to note the second, qualifying part of the sentence – “subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties” – which raises the question of academic responsibilities, at least to their university.

The latter part of that quotation from the AAUP statement is perhaps even more relevant to Plan S (which, as I understand it, applies only to funded research). The AAUP notes that “research for pecuniary return” must be subject to an “understanding” with the employing university. The phrase “pecuniary return” is open to various interpretations. It could mean a direct fee, or grant funding that contributes directly or indirectly to the academic’s salary. The AAUP is rather vague on the point, but this qualifier does seem to suggest that academic freedom is subject to consideration of the interests of other stakeholders.

This isn’t the only instance of vagueness in that short sentence. Consider what exactly the AAUP means by “full freedom in research”. Clearly, in part, it seems reasonable to interpret this as asserting freedom to research any question or topic. But what about academic freedom in their tools of enquiry? In the UK, for example, when funding is awarded to researchers for the purchase of large items of equipment, there is usually a requirement to ask for price quotations from two or more suppliers and an accompanying duty to secure good value for money in the purchase. On a narrow interpretation of the AAUP statement, this would constitute an infringement of academic freedom, though I have never heard of anyone making such a complaint. While this may seem like a trivial consideration in the present discussion, to me it illustrates the complexity underlying even apparently simple statements. Here it is a reminder of the need to be very careful of context when examining the justice of particular claims made for academic freedom.

Where else might we look for greater clarity on the shared understanding of academic freedom? One of the more detailed documents that discusses and defines academic freedom is UNESCO’s Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel, published in 1997 and first brought to my attention earlier this year on Twitter by the journalist Richard Poynder. This is a long and detailed document but in paragraph 12, highlighted by Poynder, there appears to be an unequivocal assertion that the definition of academic freedom includes choice of publishing venue:

“higher-education teaching personnel should be free to publish the results of research and scholarship in books, journals and databases of their own choice and under their own names, provided they are the authors or co-authors of the above scholarly works.” 

However, again, it is important to examine the context of such statements and here at least the UNESCO document is more helpful than the much briefer AAUP statement. UNESCO provides a lengthy preamble to locate its definition of academic freedom in appropriate social, political and academic contexts. The preamble reflects not just the rights of academics but also their duties, and the rights and expectations of other stakeholders. In composing the document, the authors are “conscious that higher education and research are instrumental in the pursuit, advancement and transfer of knowledge” and “conscious that governments and important social groups, such as students, industry and labour, are vitally interested in and benefit from the services and outputs of the higher education systems”; they are concerned “regarding the vulnerability of the academic community to untoward political pressures which could undermine academic freedom”; and mindful that “the right to education, teaching and research can only be fully enjoyed in an atmosphere of academic freedom and autonomy for institutions of higher education and that the open communication of findings, hypotheses and opinions lies at the very heart of higher education.” (Italicised emphasis above and elsewhere added by me).

In outlining the guiding principles of the UNSECO document, the issue of academic responsibility is fleshed out in more detail. Its authors note the need to ensure that academics are free to “pursue new knowledge without constriction” but also note that “teaching in higher education is a profession: it is a form of public service that requires of higher education personnel expert knowledge and specialized skills acquired and maintained through rigorous and lifelong study and research; it also calls for a sense of personal and institutional responsibility for the education and welfare of students and of the community at large.” They also observe that “where public funds are appropriated for higher education institutions, such funds are treated as a public investment, subject to effective public accountability”, that “the funding of higher education is treated as a form of public investment the returns on which are, for the most part, necessarily long term, subject to government and public priorities” and that “the justification for public funding is held constantly before public opinion.”

These statements come just before paragraph 12 (quoted in part above) and must be borne in mind if we are to better understand the authors’ intentions. To help with that, it is worth also considering paragraph 12 in full:

“12. The publication and dissemination of the research results obtained by higher-education teaching personnel should be encouraged and facilitatedwith a view to assisting them to acquire the reputation which they merit, as well as with a view to promoting the advancement of science, technology, education and culture generally. To this end, higher-education teaching personnel should be free to publish the results of research and scholarship in books, journals and databases of their own choice and under their own names, provided they are the authors or co-authors of the above scholarly works. The intellectual property of higher-education teaching personnel should benefit from appropriate legal protection, and in particular the protection afforded by national and international copyright law.”

The preamble and principles put a clear emphasis on academic freedom as a freedom from undue political interference in the questions that academics may ask and write about, and it is this concern that seems uppermost in their minds when they write about the freedom to publish. One interpretation of their specific statement about journal choice could therefore be that they wanted academics not to be forced by instructions from governments or institutional leaders to only publish in venues that might limit the exposure of their ideas. There is a clear emphasis also in the document on public service and accountability, which envisages academic scholarship and professionalism as things that are valued certainly, but also as things in which the public has a vested interest. Might that interest also reasonably include a desire to facilitate the widest possible dissemination of research and scholarship?

Further uncertainty about the precise intent of the UNESCO authors with regard to mentioning choice of publication venue in their definition of academic freedom comes from their restatement of the definition in paragraph 27 as:

“the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.”

In this formulation there is no specific mention of choice of where to publish. If, as claimed by Kamerlin and colleagues, this choice is a “basic tenet” of academic freedom, one would expect to see it stated consistently in authoritative documents.

I would argue that neither the AAUP statement nor the UNESCO document posits the free choice of where to publish academic work as a core component of academic freedom or an unfettered right. The various statements, particularly in the UNESCO document, about the wider public interest in academic research and teaching support the view that academic freedom is understood to operate in an environment where a reasonable level of academic responsibility and accountability are also expected.

Clearly there are complications here, but I hope at least that the above analysis gives a clearer view of the boundary where Plan S has landed. For what it’s worth I believe that academics should certainly be as free as possible to choose where to publish, in acknowledgement of their professionalism and expertise. I think it is therefore important that the implementation of Plan S strives to ensure that there remains a rich variety of outlets. But we also need to acknowledge that at present academics’ publishing choices are constrained by the perverse incentives that have grown up around metrics of journal prestige. For that reason, I was pleased to see that reform of research evaluation is at the heart of Plan S. If it can help to drive real change on this front, arguably Plan S will make a positive contribution to academic freedom.

Clearly also, the questions of how different academics envisage their responsibilities and what might constitute a reasonable level of public accountability remain valid matters for debate. One also has to remember that the UNESCO document was written in 1997, well before the Berlin Declaration on Open Access which came along six years later. It seems highly unlikely that the UNSECO authors would have given much consideration to the implications of the impact of open access on academic freedom. That said, paragraph 13 hints that the authors might have seen open access, an idea that owes its being to the digital technology of the internet, as an opportunity to enhance academic freedom by facilitating the exchange of ideas:

“13. The interplay of ideas and information among higher-education teaching personnel throughout the world is vital to the healthy development of higher education and research and should be actively promoted. To this end higher-education teaching personnel should be enabled throughout their careers to participate in international gatherings on higher education or research, to travel abroad without political restrictions and to use the Internet or video-conferencing for these purposes.”

Of course, we cannot know what their view might have been of how open access or Plan S interact with academic freedom. Times have moved on and the UNESCO document is now over twenty years old. But these are matters that have to be kept under continuous review and debate as technology and norms change. One point where I am in complete agreement with Kamerlin and her co-authors is that the voices of academics certainly have to be heard as Plan S moves to implementation and I understand that moves to facilitate that dialogue are already afoot.

Part of that dialogue will also need to consider the question of licencing under Plan S which is need of clarification. If I have read carefully, a significant portion of Holbrook’s claim that Plan S is unethical is related to the plan’s explicit and implicit requirement for a CC-BY licence on published research, which permits access and re-use, in whole or in part, by commercial and non-commercial users as long as proper attribution is made to the original authors. While it should be emphasised that Plan S also envisages authors retaining copyright on their publications (perhaps along the lines developed by the UK Scholarly Communications Licence), there is resistance to the use of CC-BY licences, particularly among some humanities scholars (though not all) and also among some researchers in the natural sciences.

I am not going to dwell on the details of this debate except to observe that humanities scholars appear to be more personally invested in their published works (in addition to often not being directly funded to write them, though the question of funding raises yet further complications) and that that inevitably affects their view of their rights as authors. Many of these issues have been explored in depth by Martin Eve in his freely available book, Open Access and the Humanities. I will focus instead on the perceptions of research scientists, largely informed by my own experiences.

I think it is fair to day that there is still a lot of confusion among academics about what licensing means. Like many other scientists, for most of my career I never gave copyright a second thought and willingly – though not really knowingly – transferred it for free entirely and exclusively to the publishers of my papers. But I’m thinking about it now thanks to the debates aroused by open access about what scholarly publishing is for. And I find that I can’t think about it properly without also taking account of my rights and responsibilities as a researcher and an academic. Some of those responsibilities arise from the contracts that I entered into when I accepted funding for my research – typically from a publicly-funded UK research council or a charity such as the Wellcome Trust. In the same way that I didn’t see requirements to submit equipment purchases to a process of competitive tender as unreasonable, I haven’t seen requirements that seek to maximise the accessibility of my published results as undue interference in my research or an infringement of my academic freedom. This is because I accept there has to be a reasonable balance between my freedom to explore the questions of my choosing, and the funders’ interest in the return on their investment.

Of course, there is a proper debate to be had about what funders should consider to be a reasonable return. The arrival of Plan S is just the latest opportunity to revisit it. At present in the UK it seems to me we have – give or take the occasional protest – a shared recognition among politicians, academics and the public that there needs to be a balance between blue skies, curiosity-led research and work that is more strategic or applied. In an open society, the particular point of balance is rightly a matter of public debate between these different stakeholders. In Britain in recent years much of this discussion has revolved around the tensions arising from the impact agenda, a topic that has been explored in an interesting and constructive article on academic freedom published by Holbrook in 2017. Holbrook raises important points about the neoliberal capture of science policy via the impact agenda (particularly by the EU), though in my view overplays the influence of that agenda and underplays the extent to which seeking real-world impact from research work is in tune with the motivations that bring many scientists to the laboratory in the first place. Nevertheless, he concludes that academics need both to develop a more positive view of academic freedom that embraces the common good and to engage in conversation with “the communities in which our universities are situated”.

On that last point we can certainly agree. I look forward to the continuing conversations – with other academics and the communities we serve – about Plan S and about how best to define and protect academic freedom.

*Update 01 Oct 2018, 10:23 – there are now twelve funders backing Plan S. Thanks to Ross Mounce for the correction.

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49 Responses to Academic freedom and responsibility: why Plan S is not unethical

  1. Pingback: The bold plan to realize an open science future – qBionano

  2. Just two quick comments:

    – In Germany, academic freedom is granted by our constitution and has always been presumed to include freedom of choice of publishing venue. For the first time now, due to an OA mandate for green depositing (not affecting the original publication!) at University of Konstanz, a group of law professors have challenged this mandate at the constitutional court in Germany. Depending on how the court decides, there may be an instance in at least one country, where choice of publishing venue is explicitly part of academic freedom. I expect, in this case, the requirements for publications in certain venues for hiring, tenure, funding, etc. to also fall. Of course, the opposite may also be decided.

    – Because this is a thorny issue and internationally not very well harmonized, I propose for institutions to sidestep this issue entirely and only provide funds and infrastructure for the most cost-effective publishing solutions. Due to the paywall costs, these will automatically be OA as a side effect. If authors choose other venues, they may use their private funds for their private activities.

    I’d hope that it won’t take a high-stakes trial to determine that academic freedom certainly does not entail exemption from spending rules?

  3. I agree with Björn. It will be interesting to see how the Konstanz case plays out, but academic freedom, including where to disseminate, is strongly protected under German law.

    It was also explicitly mentioned in the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation Considering the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel:

    Specifically, point IV.12:

    12. The publication and dissemination of the research results obtained by higher-education teaching personnel should be encouraged and facilitated with a view to assisting them to acquire the reputation which they merit, as well as with a view to promoting the advancement of science, technology, education and culture generally. To this end, higher-education teaching personnel should be free to publish the results of research and scholarship in books, journals and databases of their own choice and under their own names, provided they are the authors or co-authors of the above scholarly works. The intellectual property of higher-education teaching personnel should benefit from appropriate legal protection, and in particular the protection afforded by national and international copyright law.


    27. The maintaining of the above international standards should be upheld in the interest of higher education internationally and within the country. To do so, the principle of academic freedom should be scrupulously observed. Higher-education teaching personnel are entitled to the maintaining of academic freedom, that is to say, the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies. All higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to fulfil their functions without discrimination of any kind and without fear of repression by the state or any other source. Higher-education teaching personnel can effectively do justice to this principle if the environment in which they operate is conducive, which requires a democratic atmosphere; hence the challenge for all of developing a democratic society.


    29. Higher-education teaching personnel have a right to carry out research work without any interference, or any suppression, in accordance with their professional responsibility and subject to nationally and internationally recognized professional principles of intellectual rigour, scientific inquiry and research ethics. They should also have the right to publish and communicate the conclusions of the research of which they are authors or co-authors, as stated in paragraph 12 of this Recommendation.


    (e) to respect and to acknowledge the scholarly work of academic colleagues and students and, in particular, to ensure that authorship of published works includes all who have materially contributed to, and share responsibility for, the contents of a publication;

    IV.12 is the most relevant here because it emphasizes that ‘higher-education teaching personnel should be free to publish the results of research and scholarship in books, journals and databases of their own choice and under their own names’.

    Rick Andersson also has a thoughtful critique of the academic freedom problem, which predates Plan S here:

    Specifically, he points out:

    ‘The issue in such cases is not a loss of revenue, which the authors surely never expected to realize in the first place, but rather being forced into a publishing relationship not of their choosing — as well, in some cases, as an objection to the commercial reappropriation of their work in principle. In some disciplines, particularly in the humanities, authors worry about translations of their work appearing under their names (in accordance with CC BY’s attribution requirements) but without their vetting and approval. Sometimes authors who are anxious to see their work made as freely available to readers as possible balk at granting the world carte blanche to repurpose, alter, or resell their work without permission.’

    Here is also a piece by Kyle Grayson in the LSE Impact Blog about impact on the arts, humanities and social sciences:

    Note that he quotes also from the Statement on Academic Freedom provided by the University and College Union (UCU,, adding to this that academic freedom should also include freedom to:

    “* conduct research that adheres to your methodological and topic-area preferences based on your own evaluations of your expertise;

    * and pursue opportunities to place your research where you believe it will have the biggest impact on the audience that you are trying to reach.”

    For most of us who are massively concerned by the restrictions Plan S would place on our ability to choose our preferred venue of publication, this has less to do with chasing impact factor but rather because it would also prohibit us from publishing in reputable, academic-driven, rigorously peer-reviewed, high quality society journals, that for many of us are the bastions of scholarly communication in our disciplines. In particular, considering that Plan S encompasses only a very small portion of the global scholarly publishing landscape, the likelihood is that these venues will continue as usual, whereas those of us in countries under Plan S regulations would be restricted from disseminating in these venues. We can debate about the fine points of academic freedom, but, academic freedom or not, I find it hard to see how this would not be damaging to the larger global research enterprise.

    • Stephen says:

      I appreciate there are concerns about Plan S and that these may be particularly acute among scholars in the arts and humanities. I acknowledged as much in my post. But we can’t “debate about the finer points of academic freedom” (which you raised in the first place in relation to Plan S) unless you engage in the substance of my critique.

      Anderson’s post is predicated on the following statement: “if we assume that academic freedom includes the right to have some say as to how, where, whether, and by whom one’s work is published” (my emphasis); it turns out (in the comments beneath his post) that this assumption is based on his interpretation of the AAUP statement, which I have discussed above.

      Grayson’s post (from 2013) is mostly composed of a set of predictions that haven’t come to pass.

      The UCU statement suggests an interesting convergence with the aims of Plan S, which are to achieve the biggest possible audience for academic research.

      The question I keep coming back to but have yet to see addressed satisfactorily by critics of Plan S is whether it is reasonable for funders to apply conditions to their funding that aim to maximise the reach, re-use and value of the research that they have supported financially. Isn’t that in the public interest that the UNESCO document talks about?

      I appreciate that the funding situation is often more complicated (and disadvantageous) for humanities scholars and that Plan S is therefore more of a concern. But I am nevertheless interested in testing the proposition that, as long as funders do not interfere with the content of published research, they have a rightful interest in requiring work that they have funded to be disseminated effectively.

      • ‘But I am nevertheless interested in testing the proposition that, as long as funders do not interfere with the content of published research, they have a rightful interest in requiring work that they have funded to be disseminated effectively.’ –> I have to disagree with you here, to me the plan reads as a government and funder-driven boycott of society journals in favour of commercial OA publishers, which in turn could lead to extinction of (some? many? all?) scientific societies, who are depending on subscription revenue for their survival. If dissemination were really the only goal here, any form of OA would be fine, for example preprints + Green OA, alt. accepting hybrid publication in society journals, and it will be just as disseminated because it is open access. In addition, rigorous models of peer review and publication gate keeping are more critical than ever in a world where pseudo-science is increasing quite rapidly.

        For the record: almost every single publication (of around 70) of the past several years I have published has been open access unless a collaborator has explicitly demanded otherwise, in high profile generalist and specialist journals alike, our code is on Github, we put data in Dryad, our Supporting Information documents sometimes exceed 100 pages because we put a ton of stuff in there for reproducibility, etc. So I already go way further than most in the field do when it comes to openness and data sharing. But this does not mean I am not exceedingly alarmed by what I see as a very damaging proposal. Without the blatant push for Gold (=pay-to-publish) and the hybrid ban this would be a laudable proposal. In its current format however, it is very dangerous, and while I maintain that it is a restriction on academic freedom, its restriction on academic freedom is the least of its problems.

        • Stephen says:

          Thanks for the comment Lynn but we read the plan differently.

          You see it as a “blatant push for gold”, whereas the preamble states that “the plan does not advocate any particular OA business model.”

          You talk about the importance of rigorous peer review, implying for some reason that this might not be achieved in OA journals or platforms. But the plan says “The funders will ensure jointly the establishment of robust criteria and requirements for the services that compliant high quality Open Access journals and Open Access platforms must provide”. It goes on to say that: “In case such high quality OA journals or platforms do not yet exist, the Funders will in a coordinated way provide incentives to establish these and support them when appropriate; support will also be provided for Open Access infrastructures where necessary.”

          I believe some of the funders involved already support preprints (as do I!), though these are not peer-reviewed so I guess that is why they have not figured in the plan.

          Now, I’m guessing none of the above will assuage your fears, though I have taken the trouble to make these points so that we are clear in what we are talking about. The preamble to the plan does convey a clear intent to be radical and to shake things up and you are perfectly entitled to read between the lines. I think also some further clarification of points of implementation would be helpful, particularly to address the details of licensing – CC-BY is preferred in the plan and not yet mandated, though it remains murky how much wiggle room is allowed between that and the statement that outputs should comply with the Berlin declaration.

          Finally, you talk about the possible extinction of learned societies which depend on journal revenue. I appreciate that but it is also important to bear in mind that learned societies did not always depend on journal income. They do so now because they saw the profits (surpluses) that were being made as commercial firms made a big move into academic publishing in the 50s and 60s. Some of them make much bigger surpluses than the likes of Wiley or Elsevier. This is discussed in more detail in a report that I co-authored along with historian Aileen Fyfe and colleagues) which calls on societies to reconsider their approach to publishing. I fully accept that’s a non-trivial ask but these considerations need to be part of the conversation around plan S.

    • “considering that Plan S encompasses only a very small portion of the global scholarly publishing landscape”

      I take issue with this statement. If all research funded by the EU or by national funding agencies of European countries follows plan S, that will be a large portion of global research output, and I think that publishers will have to adapt.

      Which by the way makes me cautiously optimistic about scholarly societies. If the whole landscape of publishing changes, then they should be able to be part of the new landscape as they were part of the old one. But I agree on that point that we need to think hard about the future of societies, both as society members and as members of the institutions which pay the subscriptions many societies rely upon.

      • Stephen says:

        I think there could be opportunities for scholarly societies here but suspect societies may be struggling to visualise them right now. They clearly perform important functions within the scholarly landscape and their voices should certainly be heard in this debate. I’ve often wondered if a re-orientation to facilitate open access help societies in the humanities to convince broader audiences about the very real value of their disciplines.

        • I agree that societies are not yet ready for this transition. But I have started discussions with executive committee members of societies within my field (and I once was treasurer of a small society), and I get a feeling of openness to new models which I didn’t get a few years back.

          • Mark C. Wilson says:

            What about a simple model whereby subscriptions are replaced by supporting memberships and everything becomes OA?

  4. Pingback: Academic Journal Database Free – Art Coronium

  5. I wrote a post that I think is probably too long for the comments section here:

  6. Thank you for this informative and sourced post, very useful!

    I wonder where the following aspects of research dissemination fall in this discussion on academic freedom:

    – In some fields researchers have an obligation to share data through specific repositories, which use a certain licence, sometimes free of rights (≈ CC0) (e.g. GenBank at NCBI for molecular biology). The metadata contains part of the design and of the interpretation, at which point is this considered some form of publication? Is it in violation of academic freedom?
    I don’t think it is, but then where is the limit of what is a publishable item which should be protected by academic freedom?

    – If a state employer enforces that work of its employees cannot be copyrighted (as is the case for the USA government), or must be under some specific open copyright (recent Belgian law), does this limit academic freedom?
    I don’t think it does, but I have a feeling some might disagree. Depending on how such a regulation is enforced, it could forbid giving the copyright to toll-access publishers, which would mean their model of selling access would be meaningless.

    • Good questions, Marc! Here’s my attempt at an answer (would also be interested to hear what Stephen Curry thinks about it!).

      I think in the first case, it’s really not clear — and, as you suggest, it depends in part on where we draw the line between a publication and ‘mere’ data. I wonder whether there is ever any waiver for this requirement? If so, then that makes it clearly, in my opinion, not a violation of academic freedom.

      In the second case, I again would say that it’s not a violation of academic freedom. People who work for the US government don’t enjoy academic freedom in the same way that people who work at colleges and universities do. If I work for a university and receive a grant from a federal agency, I am still considered an employee of my university, rather than a federal government employee.

      • Stephen says:

        On point 1, I have direct experience of this requirement as a structural biologist who is required to deposit the coordinates of the molecular structures we write papers about in the Protein Data Bank. Twenty years ago this practice was not rigorously enforced and many opted not to do it, in part to have an advantage in exploiting the data in subsequent work. However, it is now clearly a norm within the structural biology community and enforced by journals – you cannot publish without having deposited and provided the public identifier. So I guess this is the case where a norm has defined (changed?) what might be meant by academic freedom (a point that J Britt Holbrook makes in his responding blogpost.) And the norm has been established more or less for the same motivations behind plan S – to ensure that the results are immediately and widely available for scrutiny and re-use. As an academic, I have absolutely no problem with this requirement. I feel my freedom uninfringed in this regard! Evidently the value I see in this practice has coloured my view of the balance between academic freedom and responsibility… 

        On point 2 I think Britt (?) is correct that there is an essential difference between US govt employees and academics.

        • That’s interesting. Insofar as it became a norm within structural biology, and is one now, then I would say it doesn’t interfere for that community. But that’s different from imposing it across all fields. It’s also interesting that it wasn’t enforced in the beginning. Better to have a mandate with a waiver (opt-out), in my opinion, since one can then keep track of compliance.

          And yes, I go by Britt. 😉

          • Stephen says:

            What I don’t really know is how exactly that norm became a rule or a mandate, because the ‘community’ we are talking about isn’t well defined. It may have been promoted by the International Union of Crystallographers (I don’t know the history), but if so I have never been a member of that organisation.

            Question: do we consider funders as part of the academic community?

            • I consider funders as boundary organizations between the academic community and politicians. They are not part of the academic community in the same way that people at universities and colleges are. The institutional setting is different.

        • Interesting that there’s a difference between government employee and university employee in the US. I’m an employee of the state university of Canton de Vaud, and therefore an employee of that state. So if Vaud would make a rule on copyright of it’s employees production, all university personnel would be affected as far as I know (might be different depending whether our salary comes from soft money or state budget, but for professors it’s state budget).

          For data deposition: in genomics also it’s been community or journal enforced, but the Swiss NSF is moving towards fixing and enforcing these community standards. So I think the question will be posed pretty soon if it’s not already the case in some fields.

  7. Stuart Taylor says:

    Many thanks, Stephen, for this thoughtful and well-argued piece. It’s a valuable addition to the debate. I do agree with you and think the argument is nicely encapsulated in your line,

    “…there has to be a reasonable balance between my freedom to explore the questions of my choosing, and the funders’ interest in the return on their investment.”

    I do find it very strange that some researchers appear to consider the ‘academic freedom’ to choose a restrictive outlet for their research as more important than the entirely legitimate expectation of a funder to maximise the dissemination and usefulness of the work they have funded! As you point out, this is largely driven by the dysfunctional system of research assessment and reward which considers the venue of a publication as more important than its content.

    @Lynn Kamerlin – you appear to be equating open access journals in some way with a lack of editorial quality;

    “[Plan S] ..would also prohibit us from publishing in reputable, academic-driven, rigorously peer-reviewed, high quality society journals, that for many of us are the bastions of scholarly communication in our disciplines.”

    This statement is entirely false. It is also rather offensive to those of us who run reputable, academic-driven, rigorously peer-reviewed, high quality society journals which are OPEN ACCESS. Perhaps you should take a rather closer look at the actual landscape before making such sweeping generalisations.

    • I don’t base my arguments about academic freedom on the current reward system (which I agree is totally messed up).

      Instead, I question whether the funders know more about the venue researchers should target for submission than the researchers themselves. Why assume that the funders’ choices will necessarily result in maximizing the dissemination and usefulness of the research?

      Researchers often pick journals on the basis of the audience they are trying to reach — precisely in order to have the maximum impact and usefulness — rather than on the basis of the journal’s impact factor.

      • In this discussion it is good to try to imagine alternatives in which a paper is immediately openly available, cc-by (e.g. as preprint) and where through mechanisms decoupled from that they are vetted by the community and (overlay) journals and are disseminated buy the authors to whatever audiences they like. This can already be done. Societies can surely help in setting vetting norms and maintaining community networks, as some also already do.

        Apart from that I tend to agree that researchers quite likely also take audiences into account when choosing a journal to submit to, but often do that within a very limited set of Q1 IF journals, systematically disregarding 75% of journals with IF, let alone those without IF. In total perhaps 85% ;-). New entrants in the academic community are seldomly asked whether they like this and are quite often not free to choose where to publish. That is decided for them (in some fields more so than in others), either very directly by their PI or indirectly by community norms. Do we really grant young academics full freedom to publish where and how they wish? Do we honestly and impartially tell them about all the options, with their pros and cons and the background of those pros and cons?

        • We do not, Jeroen — but we should. We should actually all be working to empower researchers, especially early career researchers. I believe that if the implementation of Plan S takes this point into account, rather than simply serving as a notice to publishers, it could be brilliant.

          I do also think, though, that violating researchers’ academic freedom disempowers them. So, allow us to retain copyrights, mandate gratis (though not whether Green or Gold), and mandate libre (but offer the option of a waiver), and I think a lot of the problem is solved.

          The other big remaining issue is Lynn’s worry about how banning hybrid journals will affect society journals and societies themselves. I see her worry as less that you cannot get quality peer review with OA journals and more as the fact that there are existing journals she and her colleagues trust that stand to be hurt badly by Plan S. If that happens, it again feels like disempowering the researchers. So, the implementers will need to figure out how to avoid it.

  8. Bas de Bruin says:

    I fully agree with Lynn that Plan S has many other and way more important problems than academic freedom. So why is the whole discussion around Plans S, here and elsewhere, so strongly focused on what we wrote about academic freedom? I would much rather see researchers get involved in the discussion about the risks that we identified:

    (1) We fear that banning our society journals (most of these journals use a hybrid model) will expose us in an uncontrolled manner to tons of papers with compromised quality without a system that allows at least some preselection by qualified reviewers of trusted journals.

    (2) Banning society journals (= journals coupled to professional organizations), may not only have a negative impact on the average quality of research papers, but will likely have a much broader impact. Mind that these societies represent our interests, organize meetings, give awards, stimulate career development and take care of broad inter-institutional educational aspects! Do we want to risk losing all of that for the sake of Plan S? While the appreciation of society journals might well be different in varying fields, chemists surely value them! Plan S seems to ignore the existence of such important cultural differences between research fields and in our opinion the presented one-size-fits-all approach will simply not work for all fields.

    (3) We fear Plan S might hurt science in Europe. Plan S will likely make it very difficult for us to do our work in a global system involving both competition and collaborations. We worry in particular that Plan S will hurt our collaborations and have a negative impact on internationalization of PhD students and postdocs. One thing and another might quickly result in a lower global standing of the cOAlition S countries and the individual researchers involved, especially if little changes in other countries.

    (4) We fear that a strong bias toward Gold OA publishing could eventually lead to high(er) costs for authors. If scientists need to pay for each publication high APCs from their research budget it will affect their research, especially for those with a small research budget. Furthermore, it will not eliminate the paywall, as it is only being shifted from reading to publishing. Science funders in the NL wrote in response to Plan S that they want to cover APCs for authors using the funds liberated from disappearing subscriptions. If that is the idea, we fear this may create a situation where we eventually can’t even legally read our non-flipping society journals anymore (e.g. ACS journals, which are rather unlikely to flip).

    That being said, I still want to add this: If we researchers are forbidden to publish in well-read and respected society journals with a trusted and rigorous peer-review policy, this simply does not feel right. So if not objectively (of which I am not convinced yet), Plan S is at least subjectively an attack on our academic freedom.

    • Stephen says:

      Hi Bas – you ask “why is the whole discussion around Plans S, here and elsewhere, so strongly focused on what we wrote about academic freedom?” I guess it’s because you and your co-authors mentioned the issue prominently in the summary of your article on the plan, saying “Plan S violates researchers’ academic freedom.” That raised an important issue – that I’d come across elsewhere recently – and I wanted to take some time to explore it. Judging by the comments here, on Twitter and in J Britt Holbrook’s blog it’s an issue that matters to a lot of people and seems to go to the heart of their concerns.

      But I agree there are other aspects that need to be discussed. With regard to your numbered points:

      (1) I don’t see how the quality issue arises given the phrasing used in the plan and the preamble (see my response to Lynn above). I think, as Stuart Taylor has pointed out, we need to be very clear that OA is not synonymous with “compromised quality”. Yes there are certainly risks with predatory OA journals but the plan repeatedly mentions its insistent on “high quality OA journals”.

      (2) Again I addressed this issue in part in my response to Lynn. The role of societies has evolved over the years – they used to see publishing as a valuable but loss-making service – and has to be considered openly, with a full understanding of the costs and benefits of current practices. I accept there are many issues to discuss here (including alternative funding models for the valuable work that societies do) but that will have to be for another time and place.

      (3) Reform of research evaluation is a core part of Plan S. If people are recognised for the quality of what they publish rather than where they publish, why would Plan S be a threat to European science. Obviously this is part of a broader push to establish more robust methods of research evaluation (that are free from JIFs etc.) which I fully support as Chair of DORA.

      (4) “A strong bias toward gold OA”. Again, please see my response to Lynn – Plan S expresses no such bias. I think it’s important that people portray what is in the text of Plan S and make clear what is their reading of it.

      • Bas de Bruin says:

        Thank you for anwering Stephen! Much appreciated. It is important to discuss these matters.
        In an ideal world, where all countries (including USA, Russia, China, India, Japan and the rest of Asia) use the same publication system (i.e. the Plan. S mandates) and DORA evaluation, I would probably agree with most of what you are saying.
        However, in the current, perhaps less ideal situation I remain to believe Plan S will be hurting science and scientists in the cOAlition S countries. Even if you believe the whole world will eventually flip (to both Plan S and DORA-type evaluation), there will still be a foreseeably long transition period. Don’t you agree that at least in this period PhD students/postdocs from other countries are unlikely to come to e.g. the NL if they can’t publish in society journals that are (still) important for them? And what about collaborations? Don’t you think Plan S will make international collaborations between signing and non-signing countries very difficult, if not impossible? Would collaborators in the USA or China accept publishing in e.g. the OA journal Molecules instead of a trusted hybrid ACS journal such as ACS Catalysis?

        As for the quality issue: I don’t care much for JIFs myself. But I do care about the reputation of trusted society journals (and yes, I know, some of them are fully OA). The JIF has little to do with this. The ACS journal organometallics (which has a relatively low JIF) is equally important to me as for example JACS. Most of the journals I care about have much lower JIFs than Science or Nature, which are really much less important for me and the field I work in. I strongly believe the trusted society journals are valuable and should (in my opinion) not be banned, even if they remain hybrid. Is this really such a big ask?

        • Stephen says:

          Hi Bas

          You raise quite a number of interesting and thorny issues in that reply. I don’t think I can do justice to all of them but let me have a go at addressing the ones that strike me most forcibly.

          1. Philosophically, I am of the view that if we have to wait until the world is ideal, we will never get anything done. We have to deal with imperfect reality and try to make progress nonetheless.

          2. Now, you may feel that the transition entailed in Plan S is too damaging to proceed. But if that is your opinion, how do you propose to make a shift to OA? Plan S is born of the frustration that progress over the past decade or so has been too slow because we have not been able to wean ourselves from journal prestige or figure out a way to transfer the funds that sustain an dysfunctional and over-priced market in subscriptions journals to create a market in OA journals where publishers compete on the quality of their service to authors?

          3. I think in any case that you overstate the risks because you are not taking sufficient account of the safeguards built into Plan S (which states a desire to maximise author choice and facilitate the creation, where needed, of high quality OA outlets). Of course we still need to see the full details of implementation and different people will have different views on the good faith of the architects of the plan! It seems to me that European funders are likely to be very mindful of the need to ensure the quality of research and scholarship published by the people the fund. For this reason I believe Europe will remain a highly attractive destination for researchers and collaborators.

          4. I have to say, you still seem to be pushing the line that society journals are trusted while OA titles are not. This is a false dichotomy that, as others have pointed out, is unfair to many OA journals. I have personal experience of a very high standard of peer review at OA mega-journals such as PLoS ONE and PeerJ (and at more selective titles). I have also served as a reviewer at F1000Research and Scientific Reports and assure you that I bring all the critical faculties to that task that I do for any society journal. Yes there is an issue with predatory OA titles but again Plan S makes explicit its commitment to quality. It is important again to bear in mind the commitment in the plan to trying to free researchers from the tyranny of JIFs in research assessment. It is by no means an easy problem but the radicalism of plan S suggests to me that its supporters are determined to be equally radical when it comes to reforming research assessment.

          5. There are challenges for society journals in Plan S to be sure and I am sure they will want their voices to be heard by those in charge of implementation. It also remains to be seen how creatively publishers (including societies) will respond to the challenge. Allowing zero embargo green OA is one option. The commercial publisher Emerald Publishing has been doing just that since 2017 without any apparent ill-effects. I also think that societies need to reflect on whether the status quo really is the optimum way to support and demonstrate the value of their disciplines (as discussed in the preprint I mentioned to Lynn. Stuart Schieber at Harvard has written insightfully on this topic.

          I’m not claiming to have any or all of the answers and don’t think we can resolve this debate until more details of PlanS emerge. But I still take a different view…!

    • “Banning society journals”? Where do you see such a ban? What societies are you talking about?

      Societies are free to choose whichever operating model they prefer, under Plan S. There are many models which allow immediate open access under CC-BY. If some of those journals force their authors to have their work constrained, it’s their decision.

      A society may decide to keep operating more or less as usual, but stop requiring copyright transfer and allow immediate deposit under CC-BY of the published version. AMS, AAS, RSC etc. already do this for all or many journals. You can find many more examples on Sherpa/Romeo.

      Another society may decide that they care about ensuring preservation and saving the researchers’ precious time, and establish automatic deposit.

      Another society may decide to switch to full open access journals, in order to reduce costs on non-core activities such as software development or sales and litigation, and instead spend most money on their core societal mission.

      Another society may decide that they don’t want to benefit from public funds (such as publicly-funded researchers’ work) because they have other priorities.

      In all cases, with Plan S it remains their decision, their move.

      Finally, forcing all authors to give away their copyright is not a contribution to academic freedom. CC-BY ensures that authors can use, republish and redistribute their own work at will, because nobody has an exclusive right on it. Without CC-BY, tomorrow anyone with deep pockets can buy all proprietary journals and just bury them entirely, or selectively depending on what content is inconvenient, and nothing can stop them because they have the vast powers of international copyright at their disposal. A powerful politician could do the same as well. So what’s the academic freedom in preventing (re)publication?

  9. Bas de Bruin says:

    @ Stuart Taylor:
    We don’t want to offend anyone. Apologies if we did. Of course there are also high quality OA journals. Again, we should realize that there are large differences between fields and we simply argue this aspect should be recognized. In chemistry there are simply too few high quality fully OA journals and too many crappy ones, at least at the moment. Most Royal Society of Chemistry journals, for example, are high quality journals with a good reputation, but at the same time hybrid and hence not compliant with Plan S (except Chemical Science, which is high quality and compliant). Reputation and trust is not easy to build. It takes time and is very important in our field. Therefore we think it is much better to keep the existing journals included somehow. Slightly different rules in plan S can make this happen.

    • Stuart Taylor says:

      @Bas de Bruin:
      Thanks for this.

      Can I also point out though that many hybrid journals are compatible with Plan S via the ‘green’ route (specifically deposit of the accepted manuscript version in a repository with zero embargo and CC-BY license). Robert-Jan Smits has confirmed this a number of times. Hybrid journals which only allow embargoed green OA would to well to drop their embargo if they wish to retain European authors.

      • I’d be interested to see this confirmation in writing, since Plan S clearly states that hybrid journals are not compliant.

        • Stephen says:

          I think what Plan S would allow is unembargoed green OA (with CC-BY) in a subscription journal whether it offers hybrid OA or not. My understanding is that the intention here is to disallow payment of an APC for the hybrid OA option in a subscription journal (unless the journal has a clearly stated plan to flip to OA).

          I agree it would be good to have more of the details of implementation fleshed out, though I think many of these are still to be determined. For that reason, this debate remains very important because it could very well shape how things turn out.

          • Yes, we need the implementation to be crafted carefully and to allow for researcher input and public comments before it goes into effect.

            The way I read Plan S now, it kills all hybrid journals, forcing them to choose Gold or Full Subscription (with the latter also mandating Green OA, final version, no embargo, and CC-BY or equivalent).

          • Stuart Taylor says:

            Stephen, my understanding of the ‘green’ route in Plan S is the same as yours.

            Britt, I agree that we need the detailed implementation plan (which I understand from Robert-Jan is currently in preparation). This is not the only area of ambiguity. Another is the licence requirement. The preamble states that access to research cannot be monetised in any way, but this is in direct conflict with the preference for CC-BY (which explicitly allows such monetisation)

            • I would say the monetisation of research through content shared cc-by is not monetisation of access but monetisation of the fruits of free access, as it happens in parallel to all research being guaranteed freely available.

              • Stuart Taylor says:

                Jeroen – I agree with you, but that’s not what I am referring to. CC-BY allows a re-seller to charge for access to journal articles in a new collection. That is absolutely monetising access. But I mention this only as an illustration of the relative lack of clarity in the current Plan S.

            • I really hope the implementation is spelled out clearly in a draft that is open to public comments!

            • Federico Leva says:

              There is no way to prevent monetisation, except by establising a communist regime for publishing.

              CC-NC ensures that monetisation is possible at any degree, because someone keeps the commercial monopoly. CC-BY constrains monetisation by means of free competition.

      • Bas de Bruin says:

        That would be great: Green OA without an embargo period and authors keeping their copyrights. I would be applauding for Plan S if that would happen. Really. But I simply don’t see that happening.
        Of course the problem is, as always, economy. Who would pay for a subscription if every paper can be immediately (i.e without any embargo period) downloaded for free?
        A subscription/licence to publish maybe? Perhaps that could work.

        • Stuart Taylor says:

          Here is the video of the talk Robert-Jan Smits gave at COASP in Vienna recently after which I asked him this specific question. His answer was an unequivocal yes.

        • Federico Leva says:

          If all published versions were archived in an open archive under CC-BY, you could still pay subscriptions, to get any added value that the publishers actually happened to provide. For instance a usable interface, navigation and recommendations, full text search, you name it.

          You would just stop paying subscriptions for the content itself, which publishers don’t produce or help produce and which they should never have had any exclusive copyright for in the first place.

    • On the ‘somehow’ in your next to last sentence: one approach for publishers could be to create a B version of each of their journals: same journal, same editor-in-chief, same editors, same set of potential reviewers, same copy editing, same platform, same policies, same standards, same dissemination, same marketing. So in essence the same journal, for one thing, that is is full OA, cc-by (perhaps with an opt out for those that really can’t live with it, but most can), with copyright retention and as such Plan S compliant. Formally it is a separate journal, with a separate ISSN. For authors it should be as acceptable as the A version. On the platform of the publishers A and B content could even virtually be mixed. Then see what happens. Call it soft flipping.

      • Stuart Taylor says:

        Jeroen – yes, a number of people have made this suggestion as to how hybrid publishers might respond to Plan S. But I am not sure it would be a desirable solution – we already have 30k journals! Aside from this, it seems to me that hybrid publishers have three options:
        1 simply ignore it and lose cOAlition S funded authors (this may be acceptable for, say, a US journal with few European authors
        2 allow unembargoed green OA with a CC-BY licence
        3 flip the journal to OA

  10. Stuart,

    There are quite likely 60K journals worldwide. The is nu fundamental difference between 30, 60, or 90. Also: creating A and B versions does not create new journal identities and it is indeed flipping (your option 3), but in a manner that might be more acceptable to publishers and societies and authors, and less disruptive in the short term. Also takes away any international collab problems that have been raised.

  11. I find it quite hard to imagine why anyone would want to hide their work behind a paywall these days. And the copyright battle is essentially won. In recent times I have returned requests to sign over copyright to publishers with a polite request for exemption form this requirement and it has, so far, always worked.
    I can’t wait for the day when everything is published on preprint sites, with comments open for post-publication peer review.

    The only real problem that I can see is for scientific Societies that rely on journal subscriptions for income which they use for worthy purposes. But the advantages of open access are so overwhelming that it is bound to happen whether Societies like it or not. Now that one is forced to think of the problem, it’s a bit bizarre that Societies should fund their activities, however worthy,, by charging more than it costs to publish papers. It might even be described as misappropriation. It’s time to think of other ways to fund the activities of Societies..

    • Federico Leva says:

      Indeed. Is there any study of the budgets of such societies, to show how many of them actually use such operating profits to pursue their core goals? I’ve checked the form 990 of a few entities with a budget over 50 M$ and often I see less than 5 % of the revenues being used for core activities (e.g. scanning old publications for an entity devoted to digital preservation), while the rest seems to go into supporting a bureaucracy for the sake of it.

  12. Pingback: Academic Freedom Articles – Art Coronium

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