The European Union (EU) is taking further steps to promote open access publishing and ensure fairness in the scholarly publishing industry. Under the current six-month Swedish presidency of the Council of member states, EU governments have been working on a joint statement outlining a future of unrestricted open access publishing. The draft of the statement was presented last week, and is reportedly receiving widespread support from the EU member states.
The EU has been pushing for open access policy for years and has made significant progress. In 2018, a group of major research funding and performing organisations launched the EU's 'Plan S' publishing initiative, encouraging researchers to publish their work in paywall-free journals. Last summer, the US initiated its own move towards open access, ordering an end to publishers putting most federally funded research behind paywalls. The EU ministers' position paper will build on these frameworks, and is seeking to ensure open access publishing is fair and sustainable.
Open access publishers are welcoming the member states' take on the issue, though they are calling for greater detail on how funders will finance open access journals. Stephan Kuster, head of public affairs at Frontiers, is advocating for demand-led models that allow researchers to choose what kind of journal they want to publish their work in. He believes that if given the choice, scientists often tend to opt for open access journals.
Overall, the EU's open access policy is gaining traction and is set to push for more fairness and sustainability in the scientific publishing industry. The Council of member states is looking to further strengthen the ambition of the joint statement in the final version of their conclusions, so that open access publishing can be the default for researchers across the EU.
The fee problem
The major issue with open access publishing is that it is costly. With over $2 trillion spent on research and development each year, as reported by UNESCO, publishing research results is a lucrative business.
In the past, researchers would submit their findings to publishers for peer review and then make it available to readers for a fee. However, since the push for open access, subscription fees have been eliminated and publishers have begun to charge article processing fees to make up the difference. This has caused science funders to spend much more. According to a study conducted by the French government, their expenditure for open access has tripled in the last decade, to €30 million in 2020, as more researchers have adopted the 'gold' open access publishing model, where authors are charged a fee to have their work published in an open access journal. These fees are funded by public sources.
The European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA) have highlighted the growing fees in their report, noting that publishers are making around $2 billion annually from APCs. Furthermore, the high-impact journals are charging high fees, which creates inequality in terms of who can afford to publish. As ALLEA's conclusions note, "It is essential to avoid situations where researchers are limited in their choice of publication channels due to financial capacities rather than quality criteria, and where they, as well as the broader public, are prevented from accessing research publications by paywalls."
The conclusions from the member states make it clear that this funding model is unsustainable and are calling for authors to not be charged fees. The aim is to reach the 'diamond' open access model, whereby neither readers nor authors have to pay fees. However, this is not yet mentioned in the current draft conclusions, but is expected to be included in the next draft.
Although governments are not aiming to completely eliminate for-profit publishers, they are looking for a balance between for-profit and not-for-profit publishers in order to maintain sustainability and affordability. Some member states are even wary of the push for 'diamond' access, as they do not want open science to put too much strain on public finances if private publishers are no longer part of the open access game.
At present, the policy is not keeping up with the business models of the dominant publishers.
How far to go
Many believe that the current conclusions do not go far enough to address the existing shortcomings in the system. Additionally, there is the issue of the research that is already behind a paywall, with the rights held by publishers. It is also desired to make a reference to predatory publishers in the conclusions, as these take advantage of scientists' reliance on publication metrics and charge exorbitant fees for publishing papers without any assurance of quality. Furthermore, it is important to link the open access policy to the European Research Area (ERA) and its Forum, as EU is attempting to reform how research is assessed by looking at more holistic measures such as societal impact, in addition to quantitative metrics. However, the connection is not explicitly mentioned in the draft of the council conclusions.
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