Ministers’ call for free open science publishing backed

Publicly funded research outputs should be immediately and openly available to all without barriers such as subscription fees or paywalls, say European scientific community leaders who welcomed a recent 20-point plan agreed by the Council of the European Union to encourage open science.

The Council, as it is informally known, represents government ministers from the 27 EU member states and is one of the key European Union decision-making bodies, along with the European Parliament and the European Commission.

After years of deliberations, which continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council’s Competitiveness Council (Research) agreed the text for 20 conclusions to encourage high-quality, transparent, open, trustworthy and equitable scholarly publishing, including cracking down on unsustainable author fees that currently prop up open science publishing.

Default mode of publishing

The hope now is that the dream of free open access to research findings can be turned into reality by creating a scholarly publication ecosystem in which journals and platforms do not charge fees to either authors or readers, and open access journals and platforms are academic-led and owned and “equitable by nature and design”, said Lidia Borrell-Damián, secretary general of Science Europe.

The European University Association (EUA), which has 850 member institutions and represents universities and national rectors’ conferences in 49 European countries, welcomed the EU ministers’ call for open science to be made the “default mode for scientific publishing”.

It has been pushing hard for a new strategy and last year unveiled the EUA Open Science Agenda 2025 to advocate for “a just scholarly publishing ecosystem that is transparent, diverse, economically affordable and sustainable, technically interoperable, and steered by the research community”, as University World News reported.

Redirecting resources to a ‘community pot’

Dr Vinciane Gaillard, EUA deputy director of research and innovation, told University World News: “There is enough money in the system currently spent on commercial publishers. The idea is to redirect this money to a ‘community pot’, which will help universities, research performing organisations, researchers, research funders and national libraries regain academic sovereignty over the publishing process.”

She said these ideas are expanded upon in a joint response welcoming the Council conclusions in a paper titled “Advancing publicly owned and not-for-profit scholarly communication ecosystem based on the principles of open science”, which is backed by a number of Brussels-based major research organisations.

As well as the EUA, and Science Europe, which represents 41 national funding agencies and major research organisations in 30 European countries, the Association of European Research Libraries, European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, Association of European Research Council Grantees, Marie Curie Alumni Association, European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (Eurodoc), cOAlition S, OPERAS, and the French National Research Agency (ANR) are also signed up.

Call to step up efforts

Together they call on EU member states and institutions to step up their efforts through stakeholder engagement and with evidence-based reforms underpinned by the principles of open science, as defined by the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science which recommends that “open science services should be viewed as essential research infrastructures, governed and owned by the community and funded collectively by governments, funders and institutions reflecting the diverse interests and needs of the research community and society”.

The signatories of the joint response from the European scientific stakeholders suggest using upcoming opportunities for dialogue and reform, such as the European Research Area Policy Agenda 2025-27 and the EU’s post-2027 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, to push for progress and encourage national and regional authorities to support these efforts with their own funding schemes and regulatory frameworks.

“We need to swiftly complete the transition to full and immediate open access to scholar publications by establishing equitable scholarly publishing models with no costs for authors or readers, under the oversight of the research community. We are delighted to publish this joint statement together with our partners in the public research and innovation sector,” said Marc Schiltz, president of Science Europe.

Aligned policies

Among the key Council of the European Union conclusions is a call on EU member states and the European Commission to develop “aligned institutional and funding policies and strategies regarding not-for-profit open access multi-format scholarly publishing models in Europe with no costs for authors or readers” and significantly expand such publishing models.

The Council also wants to end unsustainable author fees that currently prop up open science publishing and instead use the digital transition “to create opportunities for new methods of efficient and effective scholarly publishing, such as online publishing tools, repositories and platforms”.

The Council says scholarly publishing should “support essential principles of academic freedom, research integrity and scientific excellence, as well as maximum accessibility and reusability of research results, while also supporting research communities and their transdisciplinary collaboration” and achieve “a publishing system responsive to the challenges of democratic, modern and digitalised societies”.

It wants immediate and unrestricted open access to be the norm in publishing research involving public funds.

Increasing costs

The Council notes that the current system of scholarly publishing is operated by various for-profit and not-for-profit organisations and expresses concern that “the increasing costs of paywalls for access to scientific publications and for scholarly publishing cause inequalities and are becoming unsustainable for public research funders and institutions accountable for the spending of public funds, decreasing funding available for research”.

Its report highlights the “importance of not-for-profit, scholarly open access publishing models that do not charge fees to authors or readers and where authors can publish their work without funding or institutional eligibility criteria”.

It wants to avoid situations where researchers are limited in their choice of publication channels due to financial capacities rather than quality criteria, and where access to research publications is restricted by paywalls, and welcomes coordination within the EU and with global partners to support equity in scholarly publishing, taking account of the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science.

Rigorous peer review

Also stressed is the need for rigorous peer review to continue to be essential to scholarly publishing, with researchers taking responsibility for peer review and providing expert advice on editorial boards, ensuring scientific standards, validity and quality of the research.

It is recognised that the peer review system is currently facing various challenges, such as increased numbers of submissions and reviewer fatigue and underlines “the need to promote transparency through open peer review practices, and to give recognition to and reward researchers for peer review”.

It also notes that the lack of data and trustworthy information on the state of scholarly publishing, including costs and bibliometric data, hinders the advancement of open access policy development, implementation and evaluation and weakens the position of member states and research organisations in negotiating with commercial publishers.

It calls on member states and the commission to reduce the fragmentation of monitoring initiatives, by including open science monitoring in the European Research Area (ERA) monitoring mechanism, and endeavour to ensure that the monitoring data adhere to the FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) principles.

“We need to make sure that researchers can make their findings available and re-usable and that high-quality scientific articles are openly accessible to anyone that needs to read them,” said Mats Persson, Swedish minister for education, who is the current Council presidency chair.

Time for concrete support

Responding to the Council conclusions and reaction from the science community, Robert-Jan Smits, president of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands and a founding father of Plan S in 2018, which kick-started a worldwide shift in attitude towards open access research, said it was time for more robust and concrete support measures.

Rather than more pilots of new publishing models and mutual learning exercises, Smits told Science|Business that if Europe’s science ministers “are really serious about open access, they should agree on measures that will finish the job for once and for all”.

He pointed out that open access publishing cannot be free and there is always a cost for editing, managing peer review, maintaining platforms and curating research findings. He said Plan S originally proposed to cap charges for up to two years to stabilise the market. “The time might have come to reconsider this,” Smits said.

That would support the goal of Plan S to complete the transition towards open science in 2024. “Commercial publishers have had enough time to adjust,” said Smits.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at