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Decolonise Plan S, South African academics hear

Scientists warned against ‘apartheidisation’ of research and spiralling costs

Plan S—the controversial open-access publishing plan that has the backing of some research funders around the world—needs to be “seriously decolonised”, a group of South African academics heard last week. 

The sentiment was expressed by Robin Crewe, a former head of the Academy of Science of South Africa, and echoed by others at a roundtable on open access publishing organised by the academy at Stellenbosch University of 24 October. 

Crewe, a noted critic of the plan which mandates that all publicly funded research be published on open access platforms from 2021, said the country’s National Research Foundation and government would make “a serious mistake” if they endorse Plan S—which according to him and others at the meeting will be more expensive than current publishing models.

His warning came only days after the South African Medical Research Council endorsed the plan, which president Glenda Gray called “a commitment to even-wider access to health and science information”.  

Plan S, the brainchild of the European Union and mostly Europe-based funders, mandates that all publicly funded research must be published on open access platforms. For four years after 2021, these can be hybrid journals that still charge some form of subscription fees, however after that all research needs to be published in free-to-read journals. 

This does not mean that publication is free. Many open access platforms make authors pay for article processing costs instead of making readers pay for purchasing or reading an article. This makes open access publishing difficult for South African researchers, Crewe said. “Even now scholars are not able to publish in their preferred journals because they can’t afford it,” he said, calling it “once again the marginalisation of authors from the Global South”. 

He did not think this difficulty would change under Plan S, which he accused of “straightjacketing” researchers to publish in certain journals as a precondition for funding. He said academic publishers and major funders discussing Plan S were like “two elephants dancing in the room” with researchers the eventual victims. 

Plan S will be funded, its now retired chief architect Robert-Jan Smits said when visiting South Africa earlier this year, by research organisations repurposing the money they spend on subscriptions to academic journals towards article processing fees. Some journals may also give African scientists discounts on APCs—although South Africa may be excluded from such waivers. 

But Crewe said that South Africa’s NRF has demonstrated that it understands little about the implications should it endorse Plan S. The NRF supports open access publishing, he said, but it “actually doesn’t put its money where its mouth is” by supporting the costs associated with open access publishing. 

Other funders do so, he said, mentioning the United Kingdom-based Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the United States, both Plan S signatories. But South African researchers must use their research funding to cover open access publishing costs, Crewe said. He warned that, while some donors like the Wellcome Trust believe publication costs for research are trivial, “it is not trivial for South African institutions”.

‘Apartheidisation of research’

Crewe’s sentiments were echoed by Keyan Tomaselli, a humanities professor from the University of Johannesburg and editor of two journals. He echoed the basic faultline: “In [traditional publishing] the reader pays. In open access it is the author, institution or funder that pays.” 

He said the plan will result in the “apartheidisation of research” and a “one-size fits all European approach”, since Plan S will disqualify 85 per cent of existing journals and divide the world into different research coalitions. 

Tomaselli said Plan S is premised on a set of false assumptions: that publishers are hoarding information and charging for it excessively, and that publishers add no value through methods such as intellectual integrity and copyright. He painted the plan as a power grab by funders, the “philanthropic arm of business”, who want to centralise power upwards. 

He also questioned the wisdom of aligning South Africa with Europe, a continent gripped by socio-political tensions. “Grants will be withdrawn if authors transgress the rules of ‘Science Europe’. Do we want to be beholden to ‘Science Europe’? Europe is imploding,” he said. 

Like Crewe, Tomaselli also discounted that Plan S will be cheaper for researchers. He said that an author paywall would be more expensive than the traditional reader paywall system. 

Thandi Matsha, founder of the Cardiometabolic Health Research Unit at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, said Plan S might leave South African researchers vulnerable to copyright abuse. She said researchers will keep their intellectual property from the public domain until they have fully exploited it: “Once you put it out there [under plan S], you will lose it.”

She also said Plan S could negatively affect international collaborations, which are crucial for health research, with partners chosen on condition of Plan S.

But Ellen Tise, the senior director of library and information services at Stellenbosch, said that the open access movement is already moving away from Plan S. She said research intensive universities will have to pay more for publishing under Plan S, but lower-intensity universities might pay less. 

South Africa should come up with its own alternative to Plan S, she said, with affordability the main thrust. “We cannot have Elsevier have that huge profit from our researchers’ work,” she said.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe