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ERC’s Decision to Abandon Plan S Hurts Open Science

It was with great apprehension and concern that we, at United Academics, received the news that the European Research Council (ERC) will no longer support Plan S, the science publishing plan that mandates that state-funded researchers publish their work in open access platforms.  

As an agency that aims to encourage new ideas and talents and promote competitive funding schemes for researchers, it is puzzling to see ERC discard the major open access initiative for the next years in the European Union. It is even more so when ERC has been actively involved and supportive of cOAlition S, a consortium of funding agencies that is drawing the backbone of Plan S.

While in May 2019 ERC expressed its support for Plan S and “acknowledged the excellent job that (…) the taskforce had done in such a short time”, the organization is now taking a step back, claiming to be paying closer attention to the “underestimated needs of researchers”.

ERC gave particular emphasis to the fact that, under Plan S, researchers who publish their work in the so-called hybrid journals will not be complying with open access principles and therefore will not be eligible for publication costs funding.

The argument that this measure will harm early career researchers is, in our opinion, narrow. It has now become clear that hybrid journals are being used as a tool to capture APC fees to the benefit of big publisher houses.

Publication in full open access has wide support amongst researchers, particularly younger ones, who have grasped the advantages in terms of references, citations and engagement when their work is not hidden behind a paywall.

Besides being evidently beneficial for researchers, open access to scientific publications has become mandatory for beneficiaries of the European Commission’s (EC) funding. Article 29 of Horizon 2020 (H2020) Grant Agreements, the EC Funding Framework for Research and Innovation in place from 2014 until 2020, states that “each beneficiary must ensure open access to all peer-reviewed scientific publications relating to its results”. The EC is currently planning a pilot project to help grant receivers to be compliant with article 29 and thus avoiding possible penalties and even future exclusion from grants.

Plan S, as the logical extension of Europe’s research funding policies into the realm of national funding policies, also ensures that research results become accessible to everyone. To pull out of this path, as ERC did, is “a slap in the face to those who support the initiative”, as Robert-Jan Smits, former director of Research and Innovation at the EC and one of the main engineers of Plan S, told Science Business.

Today, with the onslaught stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic it becomes more and more obvious that solutions can only be found in Open Access when scientists are expected to work fast and share their results even faster, without any barriers. The “slap in the face” now becomes more of an old fashioned uppercut, flooring the aspirations of societies to handle Covid-19.

We fear that what we are really seeing with ERC’s withdrawal from cOAlition S is a step back from wide, universal open access for scientific publications. Instead of walking away from a decisive plan for the future of scholarly publication, we expected concrete alternatives and support for open access. We still expect clarification from this withdrawal statement.

United Academics stands with researchers and open access advocates. We will work hard to ensure that knowledge can be spread and build upon, so we can help to connect science and society. 

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