Canada takes note as Europe moves swiftly on open-access publishing

Lindsay Borthwick
November 28, 2018

An international consortium of research funders is moving rapidly to transform academic publishing. Known as cOAlition S, the group has approved a plan that requires full and immediate open access to research funded by national and European research councils and funding bodies, beginning January 1, 2020.

Thirteen of Europe’s biggest national funders and three charitable foundations, including the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have signed onto the mandate, known as Plan S. They are calling on universities, research organizations and libraries to align with the policy.

Plan S was first announced in September 2018, but details on how it would be implemented were scarce. This week, in London, England, the consortium released an implementation guidance and began soliciting feedback from stakeholders.

Proponents argue that science only works if all research results are made available to the scientific community. Yet, today, fewer than 20 percent of research articles are fully and immediately available in open access.

Canadian funders are not part of the consortium, but Europe’s move may force policymakers here and in the United States to review their open-access policies. In fact, in October, Robert-Jan Smits, the Open Access Envoy of the European Commission, travelled to the United States seeking support for it.

In a statement to RE$EARCH MONEY, Alison Bourgon, Director General of Science Policy at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), said the funding agency is engaged with cOAlition S to learn more about its implementation and potential impact. She added, "CIHR is committed to engaging in dialogue with key stakeholders to further examine the principles of Plan S and how they could inform [Canada's existing open-access publishing policy]."

But the impact of Plan S will be more direct than that. More than half of Canadian publications are co-written with researchers from abroad, mainly in the United States and Europe, said Vincent Larivière, Canada Research Chair on Transformative Scholarly Communication at Univ de Montréal and Co-scientific Director of Observatoire des science and des technologies (OST), which tracks grants awarded by Canada’s three major funding agencies. Others may hold grants from foreign funders that have endorsed Plan S and will be required to adhere to its policies.

Transforming open access

In Canada, researchers funded by CIHR, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) must follow the Tri-Agency Open Access Policy on Publications. It was introduced in 2015 to ensure the results of publicly funded research reach the widest possible audience as quickly as possible. It stipulates that peer-reviewed research must be freely available within 12 months of publication, either in an open-access journal or an open-access repository. That differs from Plan S, which will require immediate access.

There is another important difference. Under Plan S, authors will be unable to publish in hybrid open-access journals except during a transition period. Hybrid open-access journals are subscription-based and charge a fee, known as an “article processing charge,” to make some articles open while others remain closed access. They have proliferated in the past decade and include some of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals.

Some scientists have pushed back on this aspect of Plan S, arguing that by preventing them from publishing in journals of their choice, it infringes on academic freedom.

Univ de Montréal’s Larivière said there needs to be coherence between open-access policies and how researchers are evaluated: “This is where Canada could take the lead. We could create a progressive evaluation policy, which I think we’ve been quite good at compared to European countries, and then move on toward adopting open-access policies that are more consistent with Europe’s.”

In the new publishing world that Plan S aims to create, the question of who will pay also looms large. In an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY, Susan Haigh, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, called it a "wicked problem."

“With Plan S, Europe is taking a bold and welcome step to move the bar forward,” she said. “[Canada] is also moving in that direction. We should appreciate them making this move and trying to resolve the questions and concerns that will inevitably arise.”

Ensuring compliance

Several other principles of Plan S stand out: Authors will retain copyright of their publication with no restrictions; open-access publishing fees, which are paid by the authors and typically covered by their grants, will be standardized and capped; and, funders will monitor compliance with open-access rules and sanction non-compliance.

A new study underscores just how important monitoring and enforcement is. Univ de Montréal’s Larivière and Cassidy Sugimoto of Indiana University analyzed compliance with the open-access policies of 12 funders between 2009 And 2017.

Their findings, published this month in Nature, showed that approximately two-thirds of research papers subject to open-access mandates are freely available within 12 months of publication, but rates varied greatly from funder to funder. For example, approximately 90 percent of research funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Wellcome Trust meet that requirement. In contrast, about half of studies funded by CIHR are compliant, though the agency's own data for 2017 put that figure at more than 60 percent, and less than a quarter funded by NSERC and SSHRC. (Larivière noted that the rates for SSHRC would be much higher if the analysis included research published in French.)

Larivière said a lack of monitoring and enforcement in Canada is partly to blame. The rates also reflect differences in infrastructure to support open-access publishing and in policy. For example, the NIH requires authors to deposit articles to an open-access repository at the time of publication, whereas Canada’s policy gives authors up to 12 months to do so.

“What we’re seeing at the world level is that open-access policies look very similar on paper but they have very different results,” he said in a phone call with RE$EARCH MONEY.

In a statement, CIHR's Bourgon, who was briefed on the study, said the Tri-Agencies recognize that more needs to be done to make all research freely available to the public. "This is why CIHR continues to raise awareness of the importance of OA with researchers, has put in place monitoring systems, and ensures all research institutions are keenly aware of the Tri-Agency OA policy requirements."


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