Open access to scientific publications must become a reality by 2020 – Robert-Jan Smits

A lot of lip service is being paid to making scientific papers free to access but when it comes to action there is a lot of hypocrisy, according to Robert-Jan Smits, the EU’s outgoing director-general for research, science and innovation. He has recently been appointed the EU’s special envoy on open access, tasked with helping make all publicly funded research in Europe freely available by 2020.

Making scientific publications free to read is a big change in a world dominated by subscription journals. Why is it so important that science publications become open access?

‘At the moment we are putting a lot of public money at national, European and global level into science. But we don’t have free access to the published results of the research we fund because this is locked behind paywalls. We have to spend an enormous amount of money each year on subscriptions to journals where scientific articles are published and on making these results immediately available in open access. Imagine if all the billions we are now putting into these expensive subscription journals could be put into research. That’s also why in the 3 O’s policy of Commissioner Moedas (the EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation), open access is mentioned explicitly as a top priority within the open science agenda.

‘Open access to research results will help to have more and faster innovations, to have quicker solutions to the problems we are facing and to allow further research to be carried out.

‘There is with regard to open access also another dimension, to which we don’t pay a lot of attention. If we want to see that also in the developing countries a science base is being built, we should give these countries easy and low-cost access to scientific publications because these countries just cannot afford to pay for these expensive subscription journals.’

Why does open access need a special envoy?

‘In 2016 a (European) Council conclusion was adopted unanimously by all the 28 (EU) science ministers stating that there should be full open access to scientific publications by 2020. But that is of course easier said than done. The topic has in the meantime gotten a bit off the political agenda. The assignment which I have been given by President Juncker is to make concrete policy recommendations by October so that we can really deliver to what we committed ourselves to – full and immediate open access to scientific publications by 2020.’

It sounds like a straightforward goal – what are the sticking points?

‘What makes things complex is that there are multiple stakeholders, each with their own vested interests. Take the publishers. They have a big commercial interest because the journals which they publish bring in a lot of cash since they are extremely expensive (high subscription fees). That’s why they are not keen to change their business model. Yet, I want to reach out to them to convince them to join the open access movement, partner with us and build an open access future in partnership with us.

‘Other key stakeholders are the researchers and their institutions. For them the situation is also complex, notably because we have put ourselves into kind of a very dangerous cobweb. Although researchers all say that they are supporting open access, their dream is still to publish in the most prestigious journals with the highest impact factor, which are often subscription journals. And the universities are obsessed by the traditional rankings using mainly one metric – number of publications in high impact journals. The libraries are also an interesting stakeholder. They want to preserve the money and power they have to finance the subscriptions to the prestigious journals. They fear that if they don’t have this money anymore, their role will be less important.

‘That’s why I often say that there is a lot of lip service being paid to open access, there is a lot of hypocrisy in the system as it is a perfect example of a catch-22. People talk a lot about it but when it comes to question, “Are you really willing to stick out your neck and go for it 100%?” there are a lot who will leave the room and there are only a few who walk the talk.’

‘What should not be important is where you publish, but what you publish.’

Robert-Jan Smits, EU special envoy on open access

How do you overcome that?

‘It requires that we don’t just look at the open access issue in isolation. It is part of a more general transition towards open science on which our colleagues at DG RTD (the EU’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation) are doing impressive work. Take for instance the ranking (of) universities. This should not just be based on the sole metrics of publications in high impact journals. Universities can also be ranked with regard to their contribution to the local economy, or to the economy in general, with regard to cooperation agreements they have with industry, outreach they do towards citizens. So we should get away from this obsession that there is only one metric according to which we should rank universities.

‘And it also requires that reward systems in universities are modernised and, most importantly, becoming multi-dimensional – away from only the high impact factor. At the moment if you want to make a career as a researcher inside your university, you have to publish in these high impact journals. Why not reward people if they file a patent, which for me is as important as three publications in a subscription journal. Or if they share a data set? Why not reward people if they do outstanding education? Why not reward people if they work with the local authorities to solve a problem in the local community?

‘So the recommendations that I will present in autumn will not just focus on open access to scientific publications, but will touch upon the  ecosystem around it that needs to change because else we will not reach the 2020 target.’

We’ve seen some of the problems that the free-to-read model has caused with the media, in terms of lack of quality and fake news. Is there a similar danger here?

‘If we go to full open access, we have of course to make sure that the quality and the reputation is upheld. We cannot afford a situation whereby we have created a fragmented market with thousands of magazines which are of low quality and therefore will not do any justice to the science system as a whole. But let’s not forget that there are today some first-class open access journals. In other words, open access journal does not mean lower quality journal.

‘Furthermore, it should not be important where you publish, but what you publish. And the citations should not be based on a journal, it should be based on your own publication, how often is your article being cited. Statistics have shown that publications in open access journals are often more cited than publications in the traditional subscription journals.’

Horizon 2020 already requires scientists to publish in open access journals. How much further can you go in the assignment you received from President Juncker?

‘The remit of my assignment as open access envoy is much broader than Horizon 2020. Don’t forget that 90 % of the public funding for research in Europe is allocated through the national funding agencies. This makes an organisation like Science Europe so important, because they represent these funding bodies. In others words, what I am asked to do is not just for Horizon 2020, it is for the benefit of the European research area in its totality.

‘I am still surprised that the transition to open access to publications takes such a long time. Look at the open software movement. If all these national funding agencies would say as a bloc, from now if you get a grant from any of us, you can only publish in open access journals, the transition is a fact. That’s what the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust are doing. We should learn from them.’

Compliance in Horizon 2020 is around 67% – how can you increase that?

‘The last letter I signed in my capacity as director general at DG Research was addressed to those hundreds of contractors who are not respecting the compliance with open access. In this letter I remind them that there might be financial penalties. So it is important to do effective monitoring, but also not being afraid of applying sanctions.’

Can the EU with Horizon 2020 really make a difference here?

‘(Around) 25 or 30 years ago, we were a marginal player. But with the €10 billion a year we invest in science and innovation, attracting the best of the best to our programme, we can be more courageous and demanding. We have become such a strong player that we can also set the rules of the game and become game changers. And that is probably something that will be another one of my recommendations in October – let’s lead by example, which means being courageous and setting new rules of the game.’

You mention 25 years ago, which is when you began your career with DG RTD. How has EU science and innovation changed during that time?

‘When I started at DG Research, we were stuck in our silo. We had hardly any connection with any other parts of the (European) Commission. Our main objective in those days was to work as a funding agency, meaning spending money. Over the years we came to the conclusion that we could do much more for science and innovation in Europe for instance by developing framework conditions which are conductive for science and innovation. I call this the second phase of our development. This led to project ERA (European Research Area), with actions to abolish the barriers to the mobility of researchers, and to the Innovation Union flagship, with concrete actions to speed up the standardisation process, to develop a European patent, to enable innovative public procurement.

‘The third phase was to put science and innovation at the heart of policy making and, as such, putting science and innovation high on the political agenda. At EU level we have succeeded by making it clear that there cannot be an Energy Union without science and innovation, no Digital Single Market without science and innovation, and that science diplomacy can play a key role to strengthen Europe’s position as a global actor.’

Have we succeeded?

‘I am convinced of this. The beginning of 2018 started with a big conference on the next (EU long-term budget). Several of Europe’s top politicians were there and they all talked about science and innovation. I’d never seen this before. That was for me the proof that we’ve made it to the heart of policymaking.

‘This means that now is the time to harvest. Pascal Lamy has made in his report the case that the next research funding programme should have a budget of €160 billion. The European Parliament talks about a budget of €120 billion. In other words, we are in pole position and I would be very disappointed if we go below €120 billion.’

Where does Europe sit in the world in terms of science and innovation?

‘Our continent, with 7 % of the world population, still produces one third of the world’s knowledge. I find this really amazing. But if you look at what’s going on in the Far East, we cannot afford being complacent. During the last decade, China has increased its spending on research by 22% per year, and last year China even surpassed Europe in terms of investment in science and innovation.

‘It shows that China knows what they want to be – no longer the producers of cheap material and toys. They want to build a knowledge economy and be the world leader in all new technologies, whether that is artificial intelligence, automated driving, in aeronautics or in plant-breeding technology. That could be really at the detriment of Europe if we’re not careful.’

Is that kind of ambition lacking in Europe?

‘Yes. In Europe we talk a lot about science and innovation but I don’t see enough real commitment. But there are, however, good examples. Take Germany, with its very impressive policy and now aiming to invest 3.5% of its GDP in science and innovation. Take Switzerland or Israel. Take the Scandinavian countries. It cannot be a coincidence that these are at the same time the most competitive countries in Europe.’

Horizon 2020 is the largest EU research funding programme to date and was notable for focusing on solving societal challenges and cutting red tape. If you could do it again what would you do differently?

‘We succeeded in increasing the budget in a period of austerity. There was an economic crisis and even in the crisis we went from €50 to €80 billion. The programme is a big revolution compared to FP7 (the previous programme) with its three pillars and radical simplification.

‘So what would I have done different? I think, although it was mission impossible, we should have perhaps tried to get a bit more flexibility inside the programme. In the negotiations, notably the (European) Parliament wanted to nail every euro cent down. We should have tried to get a bit more liberty to be able to divert funds to new priorities which are emerging, which is certainly necessary in the field of research.’

If you had one bit of advice for your successor as director-general of DG research, what would it be?

‘Keep on smiling! The job of Director-General of DG RTD is extremely rewarding, but also extremely demanding. Every hour of the day is planned and decisions have to be taken constantly on key issues. The buck stops in the office of the DG. The staff of RTD is, however, first class, motivated and dedicated. Give them your trust and let them trust you.’

Originally published on Horizon

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