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 is 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.