Open science in the EU – Will the astroturfers take over?

European Commission (EC) President Jean-Claude Juncker’s transfer of heavyweight Robert-Jan Smits, the energetic outgoing director general of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, to the European Political Strategy Centre, an EC think-tank, as an ‘open access envoy’ has raised the prospect of added momentum being given to the commission’s plans for establishing a platform for open access by 2020.

With the call for proposals for establishing the open access platform due any day now, University World News has investigated with relevant stakeholders how Smits’ transfer might impact on the timing and implementation of the platform and what its significance could be.

In particular, after years in a deadlock with publishers, researchers are keen to know whether we will now see for-profit companies and ‘astroturfers’ enter the open science landscape and undermine science in pursuit of their commercial interests, while claiming to support the struggle of researchers – notably those in Germany, in their fight against Elsevier – who demand more say in the publishing of scholarly articles.

Smits’ task will be to help accelerate momentum towards making publicly-funded scientific papers and data freely available by 2020 – an ambitious target set by the Dutch government, and agreed upon by the other 27 member states, back in 2016.

He believes that once EU-funded research is made open it will be stored on European servers – to prevent the possibility of European scientific data being stored abroad with access arbitrarily limited by non-EU governments.

“A lot of the talk about open access is just lip service,” Smits said to ScienceGuide, and he wants to move past this.

Procurement due to begin

The aim behind the plan for a European Commission Open Research Publishing Platform is to offer Horizon 2020 funding beneficiaries a free and fast way to publish both peer-reviewed articles and pre-prints. The public procurement process is due to begin before the end of March.

The commission notes that implementing such a demand-driven platform requires “a robust service, on a par with the highest quality standards of scientific publishing” and that this can only be provided by outsourcing the implementation of the platform through a “fully transparent public procurement process, allowing any entity to apply”. The budget for the service is €6.4 million (US$7.9 million) over four years.

The call for such a platform is timely. The commission notes that funders are increasingly recognising that publishing is a fundamental part of the research process, and actively supporting initiatives to move towards new open infrastructures.

The stakes are high because of the transformative impact that switching to open access could have on science, if handled in the right way.

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, vice-chancellor at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, who previously, as rector of the University of Oslo in Norway, worked extensively on introducing open access, told University World News: “What is most dramatic now is not the economic problems, which can be difficult, but what we might call a paradigm shift within publishing.”

He said not since the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg have we seen a similar revolution. “And in fact we can learn from much of what happened after Gutenberg – what is at stake is the power over knowledge, and the resistance against new technology and a new way of thinking, and it is not least about the transfer from a ‘reception society’ to a ‘participation society’.

“Open access is the start of a thinking around co-creativity or collective action which has good resonance with the UN’s Agenda 2030.”

Scientists’ concerns

But while the EC’s initiative is welcomed by researchers, there are concerns about the blocking role that major science publishers might try to play.

Professor Günter M Ziegler of the Free University of Berlin, who is one of the negotiators in the German Projekt DEAL against Elsevier publishers, told University World News it is “certainly good” if the EU puts an eye and pressure on open access developments.

But he also sees, for example, in the context of the Projekt DEAL negotiations in Germany, that “the major science publishers, and in particular Elsevier, claim to support open access, but do block movement in this direction, and clearly are working on strategies to maintain their unreasonable level of profits in case open access is forced.”

Tony Ross-Hellauer, senior researcher in open science within the social computing research area at Know-Center GmbH, Austria, who is a former OpenAIRE2020 scientific manager at Göttingen State and University Library, University of Göttingen, suggested in his blog that the only way to overcome such concerns in an ‘open’ way would be for such a ‘platform’ to follow the participatory approach of OpenAIRE.

“Through the promotion and adoption of common standards and protocols, such a distributed system would ensure the avoidance of ‘lock-in’ or any single points of failure, since open standards would ensure that any node in the network is in principle replaceable,” he said.

He said the governance mechanisms for such a system could build naturally upon and integrate with the governance framework currently being developed by the EOSCpilot –The European Open Science Cloud for Research Pilot Project.

University World News asked Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) – the university network of 23 leading research universities in Europe – why the European Union couldn’t simply build up its own open publishing platform instead of buying the service from the private market?

Deketelaere said: “Cleary, it is not the job of the European Commission to be a publisher. The European Commission’s job is to make sure that the massive amount of research they fund is published fast and cheaply and is freely accessible to everyone. There is no problem in contracting an external service provider for that since the European Commission does not have the means to do it.”

He said the introduction of this tool has been well prepared by the EC’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation under Smits’ lead, and after the obligation to publish open access in Horizon 2020, this is the next major step of the EC in open access publishing of the research they fund.

“If researchers see the fast, easy and cheap opportunity to do that, many will make use of this. In due course, it should become a brand.”

He stressed that the initiative from the EC is not the final solution for all open access problems in Europe, since most research in the EU is funded by the national governments through national research councils and institutions.

Deketelaere said: “We now see more and more initiatives at national level to stimulate or oblige open access publishing (as a condition for funding), in the first place in the UK with its different funding councils and institutions.

“That is why I say we should not really bother anymore about the big publishers like Elsevier: they will continue to go for the last euro until the last moment they can. Instead we have to focus on the national research funders; they have to change the rules of the game, like we have seen at EU level and in the UK, that is, no funding if publications are not open access.”

Deketelaere said if national funders change the rules, “the commercial publishers will have to follow, end of story. Unfortunately, we see that it remains very difficult for national research funders to join forces in organisations like Science Europe to make this happen”.

He said universities or alliances of universities can also create their own open access publisher, like University College London has done very successfully.

“We have been thinking about a LERU open access publisher which should become a competitive brand for all those expensive journals with high article processing charges. Of course, this approach should go hand in hand with a different recruitment and promotion policy within universities,” he said.

Is there a risk that traditional private publishers will once again gain control over scholarly publishing by this contract? Deketelaere thinks not because the terms of reference, soon to be revealed, should prevent that.

“It would be ironic to launch an initiative like this and then end up with the same commercial players as we have now, who are primarily interested in blocking instead of supporting open access,” he said.

“Imagine that Elsevier would win this bid; this would be quite crazy,” he said.

“I am quite at ease with this tender. This has been well prepared and thought through and can be a major breakthrough in open access publishing.”

‘Corrupt’ method of policy-making

Jon Tennant, an open access expert who has just finished his PhD degree at Imperial College London, is not so confident in the process. He said there is a much bigger issue at hand that puts the open access issues in context.

“We currently have a situation in the EC where commercial publishers are being allowed to contribute to advising public policy that they will directly benefit from financially. It's an incredibly corrupt and profoundly anti-democratic method of policy-making – like having Shell advise your national energy policy, or McDonald's on healthy eating and nutrition,” he told University World News.

This concern was underlined in an open letter to members of the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, written by an international coalition representing European academic, library, education, research and digital rights communities, including the European University Association. The letter, first published in September, last month also gained the backing of the European Educational Research Association.

The letter expressed alarm at the way EU copyright reform is being drafted. It said the text of the draft Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market would create “burdensome and harmful restrictions on access to scientific research and data, as well as on the fundamental rights of freedom of information, directly contradicting the EU’s own ambitions in the field of open access and open science”.

Under Article 11 of the draft, links to news and the use of titles, headlines and fragments of information could now become subject to licensing, making the past two decades of news less accessible to researchers and the public.

The extension of this proposal to academic publications, as proposed by the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy would provide academic publishers with additional legal tools to restrict access, going against the increasingly widely accepted practice of sharing research.

This could force researchers and students to seek permission or pay fees to the publisher for including short quotes in scientific publications, seriously hampering the spread of knowledge, the coalition says.

Under Article 13, the accessibility of scientific articles, publications and research data made available by more than 1,250 repositories managed by European non-profit institutions and academic communities would be threatened because additional costs associated with new filtering technology, the cost of managing the risks of intermediary liability, and the cost of policing content could leave many of them facing closure, the coalition argues.

Some researchers are asking if involving market mechanisms and players in the publishing market in open access to science is contradictory and could substantially damage science, simply because the market works by exclusion, competition, closedness, on every level in the scientific process.

Tennant said it looks like someone like F1000 will ultimately get the EC’s open access platform contract, due to their recent successes with the Wellcome Trust and Gates Foundation.

This could contribute to the death of small archives and communication services like GitHub with the obligation of upload filters. The point is that in the case of the open access platform, the EU, in funding the proposed archive, may pay F1000 at the expense of GitHub or small archives, with the result that F1000 gets the market share instead.

“Whether [someone like F1000 landing the contract] is so bad depends on what you see as the ultimate goal for open access,” Tennant says.

“The EC though is now in a position, as a body with substantial funding, to create its own scholarly publishing infrastructure for the EU that enables rapid, low-cost scholarly communication, with control in the hands of the research community. That's a rare opportunity with an enormous potential impact, and it is a shame that it seems that they'll end up squandering it.”

Pål Magnus Lykkja works as an academic librarian at the University of Oslo Library, Norway. Jan Petter Myklebust is shareholder of and Scandinavian correspondent for University World News.