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Should India adopt Plan S to realise Open Access to Public-funded Scientific Research?

Posted by Anubha Sinha at May 29, 2019 11:45 AM |
Timely and affordable access to scientific research remains a problem in this digital day and age. Around three decades ago, the radical response that emerged was making public-funded scientific research “open access”, i.e. publishing it on the Web without any legal, technical or financial barriers to access and use such research. Several Indian public research institutions also adopted open access mandates and built self-archiving digital tools, however, the efforts haven’t yielded much. Most countries including India, continue to struggle with implementing open access. The latest international initiative (created in Europe) to remedy this problem is Plan S. Plan S is has been positioned as a strategy to implement immediate open access to scientific publications from 2021 – which India is considering adopting. This article unpacks the disorderly growth of open access in India, and discusses the gap between the Plan's vision and current Indian scenario in some respects.

Note: This blog entry was first published on May 29, 2019, and later updated on June 5, 2019 to accommodate the revisions to Plan S (released on May 31, 2019 after their public feedback exercise).

Introduction

In 2017, scientific researchers in India produced 1.4 lakh pieces of peer-reviewed literature, of which approximately 27,000 were open access publications (SCImago 2018). This means that only 27,000 pieces were available to the public to freely read and share, despite the fact that Indian tax-payers had funded half of the annual expenditure on R&D that year. The remaining items were largely stuck behind expensive paywalls and subscription systems, doing a huge disservice to the scientific ecosystem as well as the public interest.

Open Access is a movement to make both scientific research and data accessible to everyone in society, and a key tenet of Open Science. It emerged in response to rising costs and barriers to timely access and sharing of research, as well as a crisis of epistemic injustice in science. With the advent of the Internet and World Wide Web, it was expected that costs of publishing and disseminating scholarly research would decrease leading to a more equitable research environment. The principal idea was “to make copies of all the papers they published in scholarly journals freely available on the internet.”(Harnad S 1995). Two principal ways of implementing OA that initially emerged were: publishing on online institutional repositories (of the research institute/ funder) and/or paying the journal to make the paper OA online (i.e. author pays upfront instead of public paying subscription charges to read that research).

Since Harnad’s first call, numerous international conventions, mandates, calls have been issued in support of OA. The latest international response to the problem is Plan S. With its origins in Europe, Plan S was initially positioned as a clarion call to provoke a global flip to OA, and then transformed to achieving the goal of  "scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants must be published in compliant Open Access journals or platforms" from 2021. Plan S invites research funding organisations to become members of cOAlition S, who in turn are expected to abide by the ten principles articulated under the Plan. Crucially, it holds funders responsible for enforcing OA policies and sanction non-compliance.

The Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA) to the Government of India announced in February 2019 that India will join Plan S. That could make India the second country in the global south to adopt Plan S (Zambia (via National Science and Technology Council of Zambia) was the first one). Although it must be noted that the announcement was made with respect to an earlier version of the current plan. It remains to be confirmed if India will still abide by its commitment. Even so, at first glance the key tenets underlying the plan remain the same to a large extent. Regardless it is a huge step for India, and perhaps bears the promise of pulling together the various strands of a diffused OA movement in India. Presently, cOAlition S is dominated by European entities. Majority of the entities provide marginal funding support to Indian scientific research, with the exception of two members - the UK based biomedical charity Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Wellcome Trust has been a longstanding global advocate of OA, and also played a crucial role in shaping a key institutional OA mandate in India. Apart from the European Commission and European Research Council, China’s largest funding agency has also made strong statements to support Plan S.

Plan S’ principles prescribe that research should be only published in those journals and on platforms which enable authors to publish articles under a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC- BY; alternatively, CC Attribution Share-alike or CC Public Domain licenses); authors should retain copyright in their articles; have a “solid system” in place for peer-review as per the standards in the relevant research discipline; provide subsidies/ waivers in Article Processing Charges (APCs); and do not operate under the hybrid model. More importantly, the Plan prioritises publishing in journals over institutional repositories (IRs) – and requires funding organisations to pay APCs. Further, all kinds of self-archiving platforms (including IRs) should also meet certain registration requirements.

Key aspects of Indian scientific research

Funding of research

Currently, scientific research is significantly funded by both government and private sector in India. During 2017-18, the national investment on R&D activities in scientific research was estimated to be approximately one lakh crores, with majority (45%) being met by central government, and approximately 38% from private sector industries (and 7% from state and 5% from public sector organisations). The highest R&D expenditure is incurred by Defence Research and Development Organisation at INR 13,000 crores, followed by Department of Space at 5000 crores, Department of Atomic Energy at under 4000 crores. Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), Council of Scientific and Agricultural Research (CSIR), Department of Science and Technology (DST) find themselves in the same bracket of 2000-4000 crores roughly, whereas Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) trail with under 1000 crores (Department of Science 2018). Of these institutions, only ICAR, CSIR, DST and DBT have OA mandates.

Indian institutional OA initiatives

The earliest OA efforts in India led to the creation of IRs to support self-archiving in scientific research institutions (Arunachalam 2004). Recommendations presented at the 93rd Indian Science Congress in 2006 said that an optimal national OA policy should mandate research papers produced either by partial or full government funding to be deposited into IRs immediately upon publication; encouraged such grant holders to retain copyright; and suggested that the government should commit to cover costs for publication in OA journals (i.e. cover APCs). These recommendations found support in a 2007 report by the erstwhile National Knowledge Commission, a high-level advisory body to the Prime Minister of India. The Commission envisaged a national academic OA portal for sharing research articles, and highlighted the need for the government to allocate funds for digitisation of books and periodicals in the public domain (material outside the scope of copyright protection). Additionally, it recognised the digital divide as an impediment to access to scientific knowledge. More importantly, it required the government and research institutions to bear the cost of publishing in OA journals, instead of passing the financial burden to authors/ scientists.

Soon key public-funded institutions such as the Council of Scientific and Agricultural Research (CSIR), Department of Science and Technology and Department of Biotechnology (DST-DBT), Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Institute of Mathematical Sciences adopted OA mandates. However, the thrust of all policies happened to be on IR deposits and not financial support for APCs. The concept of IRs took root to a considerable extent, although many IRs later ran into issues for various reasons and stopped functioning (Das 2014). A few initiatives such as the CSIR-URDIP (which developed a centralised IR to make OA journals discoverable across institutions funded by CSIR and DST-DBT) remain under-populated despite being stably maintained. This is either due to absence of or uneven implementation of OA mandates – for example, only some institutional beneficiaries (approximately 20) have implemented the DST-DBT mandate, and a meagre 3000 papers have been made open thus far in various IRs. Problems cited for under-populating of repositories include disinterest by administrators in implementing the mandates (DST Centre for Policy Research 2018).

Plan S' vision and current Indian scenario

Mandatory copyright retention by authors

If India signs up for Plan S, IRs under Indian OA mandates will be required to publish articles under Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY; alternatively CC BY SA or CC0, and CC BY ND in exceptional cases), wherein the copyright shall be retained by the author without any restrictions. Unfortunately, “copyright retention by authors” hardly finds support in Indian OA mandates as a fundamental principle. None of the institutions with OA mandates (mentioned previously) provide a clear stance on copyright retention, thereby implicitly leaving it to individual authors to negotiate their own arrangements with publishers. For example, the DST-DBT OA policy states that “It is not the intent of this policy to violate copyright or other agreements entered into by the researcher, institution or funding agency...” Individual arrangements largely take the shape of mandatory copyright transfers in favour of the publishers (with an embargo condition on author’s freedom to re-publish). Mandatory copyright transfers harm the agency of authors to publish/ share their works in other places of their choice. This is the primary reason for legacy works to remain locked up with the publishers until the copyright term expires; and in many cases even after the work has become a part of the public domain, publishers are loathe to release such works.

This happens despite two things: firstly, in most cases in India, authors’/ researchers’ institutional employment contracts require that all IP vests with the institutions; secondly, as per the applicable law - Indian Copyright Act, 1957, copyright in such works in ordinary circumstances vests with the employer. Thus, if public institutions so desired, they should be able to retain the copyright in the work produced under their aegis (and transfer it to the authors).

Removal of embargoes

Both OA and closed access journals routinely impose embargoes averaging a year for peer-reviewed outputs to be made open. Presently, most Indian OA mandates accommodate an embargo of six months to one year, and accept both post-prints and pre-prints (the two terms roughly refer to the version of author’s manuscripts before and after peer-review) for publication in IRs. Such conditions again run contrary to the Plan’s requirement of making the final peer-reviewed published version of articles (post-print version) to be made open immediately upon publication– i.e. without an embargo period.

Addressing the menace of predatory publishing

Separately, another thorn in the side of OA’s reputation has been the rise of predatory journals. Predatory journals are outfits that dress themselves as a genuine OA journal, often charging unsuspecting authors high APCs, but conduct abysmal peer-reviews and provide poor editorial services and exhibit such conduct amounting to fraud. Such outfits have irreparably damaged many researchers’ reputations and careers, especially for vulnerable authors in the global south, with their unchecked manuscripts getting published without requisite quality checks (Sinha 2016). While this is an issue that requires special immediate measures; Plan S can potentially check the growth of such journals since it requires all publication venues to be completely transparent about their editorial policies and editorial board members, and also prohibits them from using APCs as bait to guarantee publication. 

Publishing in 'prestigious venues' cannot be a criterion for evaluating scientific merit

The growth of OA has further been hindered due to a misguided tendency amongst authors to publish only in select prestigious journals, many of which are closed access. Such select journals have cultivated a brand of reputability and prestige over decades, they demonstrate as much by their high JIF (Journal Impact Factor) credentials. Traditionally, JIF has been the measure of a journal’s prestige – a proxy for the impact and influence of a journal’s publications. Despite having been discredited as wholly inaccurate (Kiermer 2016), many funding agencies continue to consider a publication’s worth in terms of the JIF of the journal it was published in, in hiring, promotional and other career advancement decisions. So long as we continue to judge the worth of research by the venue of its publication (assuming a uniform high quality of peer review and other checks) and not by its actual contribution to science, OA publishing is bound to be a less favourable option, because most OA journals are new and have not raked up a high impact factor score. Yet Indian funding agencies continue to use and promote JIF metrics, for a lack of awareness or wanton dis-interestedness in improving the system. Another reason for an immediate need to break the religiosity surrounding JIF is that many journals (both OA and closed access) in the global south enjoy good reputations but do not carry a high JIF as they are newer and their citation metric pales in comparison to their more dominant western counterparts. This disparity is starker for fields wholly situated in the global south. In this respect, the Plan clearly requires funders to only evaluate a publication on the basis of its intrinsic merit, and not factor in publication channels, impact factors or the publisher.

Recent steps by Indian government and agencies

Indian agencies’ approach to addressing these issues has been chequered, and does more harm than good. In 2017, the Universities Grants Commission (UGC) released a pre-determined list of journals that researchers should publish in, and linked researchers’ career advancement to publishing in the select listed journals (Pushkar 2016). This approved list contains approximately 39,000 journals that are indexed in Web of Science, SCOPUS and Indian Citation Index (Universities Grant Commission 2018). UGC’s step was seen as an attack on academic freedom with serious doubts about its competence to create a credible exclusionary list of journals in multiple disciplines – and it has indeed been shown that the procedure of making the list is flawed (Patwardhan et al. 2018). Separately, the Ministry of Human Resources and Development notified to National Institutes of Technology (NITs) that papers published in journals levying APCs will not earn career advancement credits (Mukunth 2017). MHRD’s notification dismisses all paid journals irrespective of their quality. This has the effect of placing genuine high-quality OA journals on the same pedestal as predatory journals, and ultimately dents the growth of OA business models looking for modest support via APCs that are helpful in covering operational costs (software platform and an editorial team), and do not come close to unreasonable APCs levied by the biggest commercial players in the field. The reality is that most OA journals charge authors to publish (Bastian 2018).

These steps led to much consternation amongst the Indian research community.  Another government central committee has proposed to award cash bonuses for publications (with a higher bonus for publishing in international journals over national journals). This has been criticised by Indian scientists on two grounds: firstly, that the scheme may lead to a spike in predatory or sub-standard journals; secondly, it devalues national journals, and reinforces the prestige factor to favour international journals (Vaidyanathan 2019). A 2011 study has shown that cash incentives appear to encourage submission of research that has low regard for quality (Franzoni et. al 2011). In fact in 2010, UGC introduced APIs (Academic Performance Indicators), which was essentially a system of reward points against number of publications for researchers and faculty members ostensibly to improve scientific publishing. However, this ended up triggering a race to publish poor quality research in fake journals (Pushkar 2016), and the UGC recently changed the scheme to in order to do damage-control.

Government will have to foot APC bill

Crucially, the Plan requires funding organisations to commit to funding APCs, in addition to research grants. The PSA in his announcement on Twitter (relating to Plan S) has said that, “We will negotiate for APCs normalised to India.” The Plan also emphasises on waivers and discounts for low and middle income countries. Studies show that Indian authors spend anywhere between INR 500 to 3 lakhs per article on APCs, and during 2010-14 the estimated payment to open access journals (the immediate OA kind) was INR 16 crores per year, on an average costing INR 76,000 per paper (Madhan et al. 2016). It has been estimated that Plan S will cost India INR 616.46 crores per year (Mukunth 2019). The estimate is more than half of the annual investment in public institutions such as DBT and ICMR.

Imperfect competition in the scholarly publishing market

Does the academic publishing market have any justifications for exorbitant APCs? A European University Association study highlighted the oligopolistic structure in this market sector, which functions with an absolute lack in pricing transparency (through strict confidentiality agreements with institutions), large profiteering through public funds and asymmetry in negotiating power (European Universities Association 2018). In 2015, five companies controlled more than half of the market for academic publishing: RELX (formerly Reed Elsevier, UK), Taylor and Francis (UK), Wiley-Blackwell (UK), Springer Nature (Germany), SAGE (US). Majority of the most important closed-access journals continue to be owned by these publishers (Larivière et. al 2015). It does not help that many of the top OA journals are also owned by the same publishers (who are responsible for charging the highest APCs). It will be interesting to see which journals will change their model to comply with Plan S requirements.

Conclusion

Nonetheless, after many years of piecemeal OA reforms within Indian institutions, the PSA’s announcement indicates a renewed interest in OA. Elimination of copyright transfer agreements and embargoes will give authors surely more control over their works – steps that should have been implemented and strictly enforced by Indian institutions long ago.

However, it makes little sense for developing countries to spend an enormous amount on APCs demanded by a foreign publishing oligopoly. Latin America continues to be opposed to Plan S as a matter of its principled position against APCs. If India signs up for Plan S, it is could be the case that we will find ourselves in a situation where our public institutions will be paying for subscriptions as well as APCs for a long time to come. One of the plan's principles does say that "... When Open Access publication fees are applied, they must be commensurate with the publication services delivered and the structure of such fees must be transparent to inform the market and funders potential standardisation and capping of payments of fees." Since the coalition is currently overwhelmingly Eurocentric, it remains to be seen how a fair and reasonable analysis will be worked out across geographies. In this sense, Plan S is not exactly a breakthrough plan for the global south as it does not sufficiently undercut the market power of the oligopoly.

There is plenty that can be done in the interim to realise the vision of OA, as we continue to ponder and debate the feasibility of Plan S in the global scheme of scientific publishing as well as India. For starters, it would be ideal to conduct a nationwide consultation with the research community in India. Strengthening the infrastructure underlying institutional repositories – in terms of developing more powerful search tools for IRs, linking IRs, making deposited articles more discoverable over the Web are steps that do not require relatively large funds (vis-à-vis APCs), yet stand to contribute to improving visibility of our research. The government must also look out for authors’ interests by actively negotiating stricter terms with publishers, so that authors aren’t coerced into signing away their copyright (or by fait accompli). Transparency of commercial agreements should become a non-negotiable principle in institutions’/ libraries’ dealings with publishers, which is also reiterated as a key principle of the Plan. Such steps may not result in an immediate shift to OA, if implemented strictly and uniformly can perhaps be more radical and fruitful than anything that the Indian research community has seen in decades. 

References

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