Are the days of journal paywalls finally numbered?

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Europe has taken an ambitious step forwards in the fight for open access to academic papers. On September 4th, Science Europe announced the launch of cOAlition S: an initiative to enforce open access publication for all publicly funded research by 2020. Less than 24 hours later, before the presses had time to cool, Belgium also announced a new open access law in “Het Staatsblad”. It is clear that change is fast approaching for European academics!

By Amy LeBlanc

What’s the problem?

Both cOAlition S and the new Belgian law are based on a simple concept: If scientific research is financed by taxpayers, then everyone should have access to the resulting publication. As it currently stands, that is not the case; academics and the members of the public are both often unable to read research papers, as they are locked behind expensive journal paywalls.

Europe has made a political commitment to open access. Now is the time for us to act collectively to make this a reality. – Carlos Moedas, European Commission

The majority of scientific articles are published in academic journals where the articles can be accessed only at a high cost, or through astronomically expensive subscriptions. The bills for these subscriptions are usually footed by universities or institutions, but many are becoming fed up with the system. The president of Science Europe, Marc Schiltz, framed it as such:

“Publication paywalls are withholding a substantial amount of research results from a large fraction of the scientific community and from society as a whole. This hinders the scientific enterprise in its very foundations and hampers its uptake by society. No science should be locked behind paywalls!”

Scientific journals have really managed to create a perfect profit engine; scientists are paid by the government to conduct research and write up their findings themselves. They then submit their manuscript to the journals, who send it out to be peer reviewed (at no cost). Finally, once the study is published, any other scientists wanting to access the paper have to pay the journal for the right to read their colleagues’ research.

No other industry allows anything remotely similar as a functioning business model, but in science it has formed the status quo for decades, enabling academic publishing houses to reap billions in profits every year. Time has come for academics to break the wheel.

What is cOAlition S?

cOAlition S  (capital OA for ‘Open Access’ and S for ‘science, speed, solution, shock’) is an initiative formed by 11 national research funding organizations, with the support of the European Commission  and the European Research Council (ERC). The participating members, from countries including The Netherlands, France, Great Britain, and Sweden, together fund €7.6 billion (US$8.8 billion) worth of research annually, through public grants across the continent.

We think this could create a tipping point. The idea was to make a big, decisive step, not to come up with another statement or an expression of intent. – Marc Schiltz, Science Europe

cOAlition S was announced by Science Europe, an umbrella group of European research funders, after a meeting between Marc Schiltz (the President of Science Europe) and Robert-Jan Smits (the Open Access Envoy of the European Commission). The coalition’s plan includes 10 principles, but the key message is as follows:

“After 1 January 2020 scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.”

What is the new Belgian law?

Belgium is not yet represented in cOAlition S, though there are whispers that the Fonds voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (FWO: the Flemish Scientific funding body), may join later this year. Nevertheless, the Belgian government is taking their own steps to promote open access. Coincidentally unveiled the day after the launch of cOAlition S, a new Belgian law has been implemented, which also requires scientists to publish their articles freely accessible to the public.

No science should be locked behind paywalls! – Marc Schiltz, Science Europe

The law takes a less hardline stance than cOAlition S: it only applies to research where more than 50% of funds are derived from public funds and states that studies must only be made public after a 6-12 month waiting period. The key difference between this law and cOAlition S is that the law does not prevent scientists from publishing in the more prestigious (and expensive) journals, such as Nature and Science. cOAlition S, on the other hand, forbids publishing in any journal that is not 100% open access, eliminating roughly 85% of current scientific journals, including not only Nature and Science but also other sought-after publications such as Cell and The Lancet.

What are people saying?

At the KU Leuven, the reaction to the cOAlition S announcement seems to be mostly positive. The university itself had already started a project to stimulate open access, including a platform on which scientists can publish their work openly. Demmy Verbeke of KU Leuven Libraries said:

“We are cautiously optimistic about the European plan. We still have to wait and see if the shift in costs, from subscription to publication costs, makes a real difference.”

The Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp has also responded enthusiastically to the plan. Bouke de Jong, Head of the Unit of Mycobacteriology and Chairman of the Academic Board, said:

“I cannot imagine that there are scientists who oppose open access, but the journals are in an incredible position of power because scientists want to be published in the first place. One can only hope that there will be a change in that dependence [on the journals].”

Starting such a global transition away from reliance on the traditional publishing system is a not-so-secret extra goal of cOAlition S, according to Marc Schiltz (who helped organize the initiative):

“We think this could create a tipping point. The idea was to make a big, decisive step, not to come up with another statement or an expression of intent.”

Where to from here?

It remains to be seen how the implementation of the cOAlition S plan will affect academic publishing practices in Europe and the world. It may be that, by taking a stand, the coalition will force the hand of the publishing firms resisting the move to open access. In the meanwhile, local changes to laws and regulations, such as the new Belgian law, are still important steps in the right direction. As the European Commissioner Carlos Moedas stated:

“Europe has made a political commitment to open access. Now is the time for us to act collectively to make this a reality.”