The global push for open access has ramped up in recent years, with efforts from both academic institutions and funding agencies to make more of their content freely available to the public. There were some major developments in 2019—and there are likely to be more in 2020. Here’s what to keep an eye out for in the coming year.

Funder-driven open-access demands

Earlier this month, a rumor began to circulate that the US government was planning on passing an executive order that would mandate all papers from federally funded research be open access immediately upon publication—abolishing the 12-month paywall allowed under current rules.

What they are saying is, ‘Plan S, you are working so hard to replace paying to read with paying to publish that you are creating problems for those of us who have actually achieved something even better.’

—Lisa Hinchliffe, University of...

In response, more than 135 scientific societies and academic publishers penned an open letter to President Donald Trump’s Administration strongly opposing such a policy, warning that the proposed changes would “jeopardize the intellectual property of American organizations engaged in the creation of high-quality peer-reviewed journals and research articles and would potentially delay the publication of new research results.” The letter has been widely criticized by academics and open-access advocates on social media.

Whether the executive order will come to fruition remains to be seen in the new year. If it does, it wouldn’t be the first funder-driven push for open-access: Last year, a group of European funding agencies calling themselves cOAlition S launched a plan to mandate strict rules to make research published by grantees immediately and freely available to the public. The initiative, which was dubbed Plan S and is set to launch in 2021, has been both praised and criticized by members of the academic community.

Although the coalition has managed to gain some international members, the overall response to Plan S has been lukewarm outside of Europe. India’s government, for example, decided to forgo joining the coalition and develop its own national effort to advance open access, despite earlier indications that it would be joining the group. In Latin America, where Argentina has joined cOAlition S, academics have raised concerns about the initiative’s focus on pay-for-publishing models. One worry is that if funders or universities are required to cover fees for publishing open access in commercial journals, financial resources could be diverted from their current system, under which journals are free to publish in and free to read—and scientific publications are owned by academic institutions.

“What they are saying is, ‘Plan S, you are working so hard to replace paying to read with paying to publish that you are creating problems for those of us who have actually achieved something even better,’” says Lisa Hinchliffe, a professor and the coordinator of information literacy services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

See “Plan S: The Ambitious Initiative to End the Reign of Paywalls

cOAlition S is currently taking feedback on its implementation framework until early January, and the group plans to publish a final version next fall. An open question is how, exactly, the funders will incorporate the Plan S guidelines into their own grantmaking activities, Hinchliffe says. “The biggest thing I’m waiting for is to see the release of the call for proposals from those funding agencies and what they actually say will be required of their grantees.”

More transformative deals

There are many ongoing negotiations to draft new licensing agreements between publishers and academic libraries around the world. Disagreements have arisen as libraries increasingly seek open-access publication and push back against increasing subscription fees. As a result, several discussions are currently locked in stalemates, such as those between Elsevier and the University of California and Springer Nature and swissuniversities, a group that represents universities in Switzerland. We will be tracking how these shake out in 2020.

Over the last few years, there has been a growth in so-called “transformative” agreements, in which publishers and academic libraries at universities and research institutions agree to a contract that contains elements geared towards increasing open access. Many of the large commercial publishers, such as Elsevier and Wiley, have several such agreements in place.

Transformative agreements typically include fees for publishing open access either in combination with—or instead of—traditional subscription fees. One of the implications of the growth in these types of contracts is that larger institutions that publish more research “would have to shoulder more and more of the total burden for scholarly publishing,” says Joseph Esposito of Clarke & Esposito, a publishing consultancy firm.

The rise of these deals, as well as Plan S, has raised concerns for small society publishers, Esposito tells The Scientist. The new publishing environment has become increasingly complex—for one, because a transformative agreement in one country can affect contract negotiations in another. “[This complexity] is overwhelming the smaller players in the marketplace, forcing them to seek cover, either through arrangements with larger publishers or by bringing in, at great expense, outside counsel to assist them,” Esposito adds.

The results of some of the ongoing discussions are likely to become public in the coming year. Some of the new contracts may include access to digital research tools—for example, Elsevier’s research performance assessment tool SciVal—as some large publishers seek to expand the content of their deals.

Efforts to reduce “leakage”

In recent years, sites such as Sci-Hub, which provides illegal access to paywalled scientific papers, and Research Gate, an academic networking platform where authors can share their published work, have provided alternative options for academics to assess content in scholarly journals. This phenomenon, which is known as “leakage,” has caused the value of subscription content to decline, says Roger Schonfeld, the director of Libraries, Scholarly Communication, and Museums for Ithaka S+R, a consulting group in New York focused on higher education.

GetFTR, which will launch as a pilot project in 2020, has raised concerns among librarians.

Leakage is an issue that publishers are working hard to address—either by making their content more accessible on alternative websites readers use, or by finding new ways to drive users to their own platforms, Schonfeld tells The Scientist.

One such effort is the pilot article-sharing project between Springer Nature and ResearchGate. The initiative, which was announced last March, allows articles published in Nature journals to be freely accessible from scientists’ ResearchGate pages. Another is Get Full Text Research (GetFTR), a new online tool designed to help users find scientific articles. GetFTR was announced this December by a group of major publishers, including Wiley, Springer Nature, Elsevier, and the American Chemical Society (ACS). The tool, which will be integrated into platforms such as Mendeley or Dimensions, will take users to final, full-text versions of papers (if they have access through a subscription or it is available as open access) or, in cases when the publisher allows, direct them to alternatives to paywalled articles, such as pre-prints.

GetFTR, which will launch as a pilot project in 2020, has raised concerns among librarians. “Identifying an appropriate copy has historically been the responsibility [of librarians] and an opportunity for the library to direct users to the copies that we would like them to use,” Hinchliffe says. With GetFTR, “the user experience is coming more and more under the control of the publishers rather than libraries.”

Against the backdrop of efforts such as GetFTR is the ongoing legal battle between ResearchGate and two publishers, the ACS and Elsevier. The publishers have filed lawsuits against ResearchGate in the US and Germany for illegally sharing copyrighted work. “The biggest thing I’m watching for is the outcomes [those lawsuits],” Hinchliffe tells The Scientist.

ACS and Elsevier previously won lawsuits against Sci-Hub, but the site remains active today. Sci-Hub founder, Alexandra Elbakyan, is currently under investigation by the US Justice Department on suspicions that she might be aiding Russian intelligence. “I think that whether I can be a Russian spy is being investigated by U.S. government since they learned about Sci-Hub, because that is very logical: a Russian project, that uses university accounts to access some information, of course that is suspicious,” Elbakyan told The Washington Post this month. “But in fact Sci-Hub has always been my personal enterprise.”

See “Major Publishers File Second Lawsuit Against ResearchGate

The growth of academic publishing in China

China recently made moves to expand the reach of its domestic journals. In November, the country’s government announced that over the next five years, it would provide more than 200 million yuan ($29 million US) per year in funding for efforts aimed at improving the standards and reputation of more than 200 mostly English-language journals put out by Chinese publishers—and to attract international submissions.

That same month, Chinese Science Publishing and Media, a company majority-owned by the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), bought the French academic publisher Edition Diffusion Press (EDP), a deal that some experts say will provide the Chinese publisher more opportunities to expand its business beyond the country’s borders.

In the past, Chinese journals have had low rates of international submissions, partly due to concerns about the low quality of their papers, which contained rampant plagiarism as well as cases of fraudulent research. In recent years, China has launched several initiatives to clamp down on misconduct and improve the reputation of its journals. Whether the new efforts will successfully increase international clout remains to be seen, and some are skeptical. Cao Cong, a science-policy researcher at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, told Nature this month that he doubts that the investment will boost the number of non-Chinese speaking scientists who publish in Chinese journals.

Recent revelations about ethical violations in Chinese government-based research may make some academics wary of the country’s efforts to broaden its influence in the scientific publishing space. This month, an investigation from The New York Times sparked an outcry from the global scientific community when it revealed that journals—including ones belonging to international publishers like Springer Nature—were publishing papers based on studies conducted with DNA from Uighurs, an ethnic minority population in China, without verification of proper consent.

See “The Past and Present of Research Integrity in China

Diana Kwon is a Berlin-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @DianaMKwon.  

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