The European Union’s council of ministers has called for the bloc to implement a ‘no pay’ academic-publishing model that bears no cost to readers or authors. The recommendations, part of a set of principles on scholarly publishing adopted by the council on 23 May, are not legally binding and have been welcomed by some members of the academic community. But representatives of publishers say that the suggestion is unrealistic and that the council has not outlined crucial details, including how such a model would be funded.
The principles are outlined in a document on scholarly publishing produced by the Council of the European Union — a forum for ministers from each member state that negotiates and implements laws for the EU. Such documents, known as ‘conclusions’, are intended to set a policy direction across the bloc. Before they are adopted, conclusions of the council go through rounds of drafts and revisions, discussed at each stage by representatives from member states and European affairs ministers.
Following this process, the council has recommended that the European Commission and member states implement an open-access and not-for-profit model for research publishing.
Organizations including the German Research Federation (DFG) have welcomed the principles. In a statement, the DFG said that it supported the “landmark recommendations”. “Under no circumstances should a situation arise in which the availability of funds determines participation in academic discourse,” it said.
Such statements show “strong political support” for open-access publishing, says Vinciane Gaillard, deputy director for research and innovation at the European University Association (EUA) in Brussels, which represents more than 850 institutions.
However, representatives of the publishing industry say that the implications of the council’s recommendations haven’t been fully considered.
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The conclusions are concerning because they support a move that would abolish an industry, and propose building a new publishing system without clarification about how it would be paid for, says Caroline Sutton, the chief executive of the STM, a membership organization for the academic publishing industry headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands. One of the stated policy goals is cost reduction, yet “no proper economic analysis has been carried out”, she says. “It’s often presented as if this alternative is free.”
The STM is also concerned that the move would eliminate independent European publishing companies and usher in a state-defined system that could stymie academic freedom. It warns that the amount of public funds needed by member states or institutions to build repositories of academic research papers is hard to quantify.
Rob Johnson, a publishing consultant at Research Consulting in Loughborough, UK, agrees that the principles lack clarity as to how the no-pay model would be achieved in practice. “There’s a recognition that we need to move beyond the [article processing charge] APC,” says Johnson, “The question is: just how is that done?”
Focus on integrity
The conclusions also highlight the importance of research integrity in publications, and recommend that member states make efforts to tackle predatory journals and paper mills — companies or individuals that fabricate scientific manuscripts to order.
The emphasis on integrity is important, says Johnson. As more publishers have introduced article processing charges for open-access papers, “the concern is that the incentives are there for them just to publish more and more, and the quality and the checks aren’t necessarily in place”, he says. “There’s a lot in the conclusions about equity. There’s a lot in there about integrity, and trust. I think it’s important to see that these things do go hand in hand.”
The timescale of any resulting changes to EU policy is unclear from the document. “It changes the focus and the emphasis, and a number of things will start to shift,” Johnson says. He recalls the events that led to the implementation of Plan S, an initiative launched in 2018 by European national research funders, under which the results of any research they funded had to be published open access. Johnson says that this followed 2016 conclusions from the Council of the EU, which called for a move to immediate open access. Plan S ultimately prompted a shift towards open access in the publishing industry, but it took time. “You’re looking at a five-year time horizon for the council conclusions to start to have a material impact,” he says.