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South Africa looks likely to back Plan S

South African funders could soon throw their weight behind Plan S, the European open-access push that aims to make as much research freely available as possible from 2020.

A deputy director-general of the country’s Department of Science and Technology dropped a strong hint about South Africa’s support for the plan at a national science conference in Pretoria last month.

“I would be very surprised if we don’t see support for [Plan S] principles forthcoming in the very near future,” Thomas Auf der Heyde told a panel discussion on open-access publishing at Science Forum South Africa on 14 December 2018. He then acknowledged DST director-general Phil Mjwara in the audience by saying, “I see my boss has nodded.”

South Africa’s researchers produce the most research on the continent, and its government agencies joining Coalition S—the group of funders backing the plan—would be a coup for Plan S architect Robert-Jan Smits. 

Smits, the European Commission’s open-access envoy, kicked off the panel discussion by urging Africa to join. “If Plan S is intended for one continent, it is Africa,” he said. “Countries like Germany and France can still finance the bills of the expensive subscription journals. But many countries in Africa don’t have this possibility.” 

study published in January 2018 found that countries including Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania published a higher proportion of their research through open-access licence routes than scholars in many richer nations, partly because their access to subscription journals is limited.

Auf der Heyde said the DST had looked into how much money the country spends on journal subscriptions, and that a few years ago it had been about 550 million rand ($40m) per year. The rand has weakened since, meaning that the figure has increased.

DST had considered approaching the big academic publishers to negotiate a bulk national deal, he said. This would make access more equitable across the country’s research institutions, as historically white universities currently have better journal access than historically black ones. But Plan S has overtaken these discussions, said Auf der Heyde. 

Global push

If South Africa joins funders including the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Coalition S, that will eventually mean no government-funded research can be published in paywalled journals. The money saved on journal subscriptions could be redirected to pay article-processing charges to open-access journals. 

In South Africa, Auf der Heyde said, this would require in-depth negotiations between the DST, which is in charge of research funding, and the Department of Higher Education and Training, which funds journal subscriptions. 

But some worry Plan S might harm homegrown South African research publishing, especially small journals that are already struggling to stay afloat in a world dominated by big publishing houses. “Plan S just seems to move the problem from access to publications to access to being published,” said Robin Crewe, a senior South African entomologist who attended the panel discussion.

Susan Veldsman, an open-access advocate for the Academy of Sciences of South Africa and a former academic librarian, said that South Africa published 320 journals, and that maintaining their quality is a problem. “Our system is extremely frail,” she said. “It’s a challenge.”

If South Africa does join Coalition S soon, it would be the second African country to do so, after Zambia.

“I hope that very soon many other countries will join from this continent, which is at the moment not at all benefiting from the current system,” said Smits. He added that countries such as India, and even European nations including Bulgaria and Romania, are in the same boat.

“There’s a lot of people left behind. There should be no one left behind and publicly funded research should be available to the public free and immediately.”

Linda Nordling moderated the panel at which Auf der Heyde, Veldsman and Smits spoke.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe