Science has succumbed to cult of big stars and number of citations. Research has lost its sense of community

European universities have a new Open Science strategy. Published by the European University Association (EUA) in early February, it focuses on the latest priorities for Open Science such as Open Access publishing, work with research data and research assessment. A more detailed document, so called action plan, will be prepared for early summer.

Read the interview in Czech translation here.

Traditional models of publishing in scientific journals behind paywalls issued by big publishers, the management and preparation of research data which has grown enormously, and the system of research assessment itself are changing, and Europe is increasingly moving towards the Open Science model.

However, in addition to benefits, this shift also brings certain risks. A new document issued by the European University Association (EUA) in early February addresses all aspects of these.

“While we are true believers in and strong supporters of the idea of open science – because its openness, emphasis on sharing and community is its very essence – we should not be naïve, and we must not ignore the risks associated with Open Science. The landscape in which we are present today is changing constantly and rapidly. The situation we are in now is completely different from the one we were in a few years ago. And universities need to respond, to embrace the opportunities of Open Science and proactively address the challenges that come with it,” says Vinciane Gaillard, Deputy Director for Research and Innovation at the EUA who coordinates the team which prepared the EUA’s new Open Science strategy.

According to Gaillard, Open Science is a very broad area. It is not just about publication of scientific texts in open access; it is also about FAIR research data, data management plans, and allocation of funds for data management. And it is delivering change in research assessment itself.

“We want to offer universities a basic framework and what needs to be focused on in the next three years,” adds Gaillard. The strategy is based on an extensive Open Science survey of EUA members, in which 272 institutions from 35 European countries, among them 25 Czech universities, participated, and whose three detailed reports have been published recently.

When we talk about a changing landscape, a big part of the discussion is scholarly publishing. The contract between big publishers issuing journals behind paywalls and researchers is no longer the only game in town. How is this reflected in the new strategy?
It is important to consider, and not to forget, that the landscape of open access in scholarly communication and publishing is now more diversified than ever. A few years ago, as you said, we had what we call the legacy of big commercial publishers, the oligopoly, which is still in some way present. As a researcher you needed them to take care of the publication process for the paper to be published. Then with the coming of the digital era, everything changed, and things started to move faster than ever. Universities initially were a bit surprised by these rapid changes. But after a while, they understood that they needed to react and got together in consortia to have their voices heard in negotiations with publishers. In the meantime, the idea of open access came, and it has changed the whole system.

The situation now is that you still have traditional journals, available both in paper form and digitally, and those that are just behind paywalls. You also find ones representing the gold open access, where researchers pay additional fees to have their articles published openly, and I agree that this so-called double dipping, where the publisher gets the money twice, is definitely not something we should support. But we have open access in many other different ways too. You have fully open access publishers, then more transitional ones called Transformative agreements – known also as read-and-publish agreements, and also the green open access, where an article already published in a journal is saved to the repository of the author’s home institution, where it is freely accessible online to all users. Besides these, there is also a diamond open access, a model where scholarly publishing comes from the community and for the community, which means journals and platforms that are free to both authors and readers, and you as an institution pay only the cost of the work and not the high margin profits. This means that costs are paid by the community and not by an individual researcher. It is something like a subscription that you pay as an institution.

So you would say that the last model you mention is the ideal one?
The first thing I would like to say is that we as the EUA cannot and would not like to prescribe what universities should do or tell them where and how to publish their research. We will support universities as they consider diverse routes to open access publishing. We will also support the rights retention strategy – using the tools that are available to universities and researchers to gain, reclaim and retain their authorship and their rights. And yes, we also try to explain to institutions how to develop alternative publishing models, which are not for profit and are owned by the community. This is what we call the diamond open access model.

But at the same time, we understand that it is not just all black and white, not “one size fits all”. We need to provide a range of possibilities so that people can take what is fit for purpose in their own context.

We can also observe changes in the behaviour of traditional publishers like Wiley or Elsevier, who are changing the core of their business models towards information/data provision, because they understand that things are moving in the area of open access of publications. They use information they get from the download of articles, and they use search keywords for research assessment and citations. They have prepared metrics as new products and paid services to help and support universities and research funders do their assessment. They use data we provide them with to give their whole service yet another layer of business model, and so get new benefits and profits. We need to think of Open Science as a system of many parts, and we must collaborate with all of its actors – including publishers, to whom our concerns and requests are transferred as another actor in the system.

Do you think it is the only way for the universities to regain their strong position?
I mean that all publishers (i.e. native open access publishers or not, for-profit and not-for-profit publishers) are part of the scholarly publishing ecosystem, as service providers. Universities and other research-performing organisations are clients, and as such they expect high-quality services for a fair and transparent price that reflects actual costs.

You have done extensive studies over the last six years. What is the perception of the open access idea, and how prepared are EUA members for it?
Going back to the data of a very comprehensive and extensive Open Science study we published in July 2021, what we see is a proportion of universities that are not preparing to comply with Plan S. 41% of survey respondents indicated that preparations are underway, but 38% noted that they are not engaged in such a process. In countries where the main research funders have adopted Plan S, a significant majority of institutions (68%) are indeed preparing for its implementation and only 17% are not. Conversely, in countries where the main research funders have not yet adopted Plan S (including the Czech Republic), only 24% are preparing for its implementation, whereas 51% of institutions are not. The level of preparedness is higher in institutions where at national level their Agencies have signed up for Plan S.

But in the end all universities and researchers will have to comply with Plan S, because the Commission has included it in the provisions of Horizon Europe. If as a university you wish to be competitive in Horizon Europe, your researchers need to comply with Plan S whether they like it or not, regardless of whether your national funding agency has signed up for it.

The foreword of the strategy makes clear that openness can lead to misuse, and the COVID-19 pandemic has starkly revealed various risks associated with the misuse of Open Science. Were you thinking of predatory publishing in particular?
Yes, that is a major unfortunate consequence of what is going on now, and we must know how to fight against it. It is necessary to raise awareness of the fact that if you want to publish open access, you need to publish in a fair and legitimate way. To do that, you can use tools that are already available - the DOAJ (Directory of Open Access Journals), for instance. If you don’t find the journal there, just don't publish there, it is just a trick.

What other risks and challenges are connected with misuse of Open Science?
The rise of preprint servers, for instance. This is yet another model where you publish your article before it is reviewed by peers, which presents both opportunities for the dissemination of knowledge and challenges related to quality assurance. It is also a problem because mass media do not know the difference between a regularly peer-reviewed article in a traditional journal, let’s say, and results that are published on a preprint server that have not been peer-reviewed, which means that the legitimacy of these resources is still not proven, checked, and assessed. This causes a lot of confusion.

Another challenge is author’s rights. When you publish a paper, you basically relinquish your author’s rights to the publisher. There is now a strong recommendation from Plan S, which we in the EUA totally support, that says: Don’t do it, don't sign off your author’s rights to those publishers, it is your work, it is your copyright. Again, there are already specific tools that authors, their universities, and libraries are encouraged to use – a short sentence saying that you want to retain your rights if the manuscript is published, which you add when you submit the paper, for instance. If the publishers accept the paper with that, then they cannot go back on it.

We have focused on publishing a lot, but I would like to make clear that from our point of view it is very important that Open Science should be addressed holistically, comprehensively. It is not only about publishing; the three priorities we describe in the strategy are highly interconnected. This means that we cannot address Open Science if we don’t conclude that data should be openly accessible to be reused. For that, they need to be fair, and for that we need to have fair assessment of researchers and research in general.

Different possibilities for open publishing, data management, making data management plans, and finding money for all these areas of Open Science: hasn’t consideration of all this become too much of a burden (administratively and otherwise)?
Of course, the time required of researchers to place their publications in Open Access, and to have their data FAIR, is not such a good incentive. It is easier to say: I’ll do it the way we did it ten, fifteen years ago, because it requires less effort. But if you think long term, for the greater good of science and benefit to society, it is better to think about different ways. This will not come in a second. It takes time to get acquainted with new ways, and the time we dedicate to the effort should be rewarded.

Do universities have no choice but to change their point of view and adapt to these changes?
Yes. And it is important to change the still-common view that a person who has published in a high-level journal is more important for the university than one who has prepared open-source software that will be used by hundreds of people. At the end of the day, if there is only one way to measure and assess researchers' performance and if things do not change on that front, there is no way we will get to enter Open Science in general. Because people will prioritise their career, they will prioritise publishing in high-level journals, and the rest will just think: Well, I will do it later. And I understand this, because I was a researcher, it is not easy. Open Science should not be viewed as an additional burden, yet another box to be ticked, but as an integral part of a research cycle.

It is the evaluation based on impact factor you criticise in the strategy. Does the EUA have a preferred new system in mind?
This is not an easy question to answer. Again, we are not here to prescribe anything. You will never hear us at the EUA saying: You should do this and that. Another thing is the use of the impact factor as a metric for assessing individual performance. Everybody tells you that it is just nonsense. Impact factor has been created to measure the impact of journals, not individual people. It doesn't make sense to measure the capability and quality of research performance of an individual by the journal the person is publishing in. There are many other metrics you could use – number of citations, number of papers, the H-index… But scientists are not just numbers. It is important not to forget qualitative assessment, criteria as contribution to society etc. In a nutshell, the research assessment has to be comprehensive, diversified and fit for purpose, adapted to the context.

The EUA has been invited to participate in a European Commission initiative on reform of research assessment. The context we work in explores how we can advance Open Science. What is clear from current discussions is that we all need to reform research assessment, but we cannot just get rid of everything we have now; in the end we need to assess, we need some indicators. The idea is to provide responsible use of these indicators based on context.

For instance?
What field you work in, if you are a junior researcher, a doctoral candidate, a more advanced or fully established researcher. In private companies, when they do assessment of their staff, they never use the same criteria to assess the CEO and someone who is an intern. We should apply the same common sense to assessment of research performance.

Another important aspect is that researchers should be strongly engaged in and associated with the reform of research assessment. If researchers are not engaged in the discussion, we can keep talking for twenty years, because the researchers won’t have any sense of ownership. 

Aren’t we forgetting excellence in the new system? Is it possible that suppression of excellence could be an unintended consequence of progress in Open Science?
I would come back to you with another question. What is excellence? Excellence has many definitions. But I understand what you mean. Let’s talk about terms of excellence in general. We have to accept the fact that the landscape is very diverse. We now have excellent teams, researchers who are excellent in ways that we all understand, but that does not mean that others do not contribute. We have to shift from a kind of star system very much related to prestige and reputation to something that gives credit for collective efforts.

To place a nice paper in a big traditional journal, you may have had the support of someone who is a research software engineer, who is a part of the lab but whose name is not even mentioned, or if it is, only at the end in the form of an acknowledgement, if the person is lucky. But shouldn’t this person be a co-author? Had they not done anything to support the group, the work would not have been done, not have been published. We need to understand that there are many ways to contribute to excellence, and that it is certainly not something based on individual people. Behind those stars of the system is a full staff. It is time to give credit to everyone who contributes. We have to get back to what we have forgotten in the race for reputation. Science is a collective effort. It is about collaboration. It is about sharing.