Plan S and the Cobra Effect

Sergio Della Sala on 'open access' journal publishing; and his poetic offering.

At the time of British-ruled India, an apocryphal anecdote circulated about the colonial government offering a bounty to clean the street of Delhi from the numerous snakes roaming free. The initiative was successful. However, liking the easy cash, people began to breed cobras in their backyards, killed them and asked for the reward. The authorities, displeased by this mocking, stopped the programme. The cobras, now worthless, were freed, resulting in more serpents than before, slithering the streets of Delhi. This story, dubbed the Cobra Effect, exemplifies the unforeseen consequences of an apparently good proposal, advanced with the best intentions (and it inspired my poetic effort below).
The unpredicted ramifications of the journal publishing Open Access initiative resonate with the Cobra Effect.

The founding principle of Open Access was to make freely available scientific papers reporting studies funded by public money, rather than by subscription only. Naively, it was suggested that the publishing costs would be covered by generous international agencies. It soon became clear that the researchers themselves had to sustain most of such expenses. The outcome was that publishing houses increased their dominance on the market as well as their income, at the same time selling subscriptions and getting paid by the authors to publish. 

The most harmful outcome of Open Access, however, has been to open the doors to myriad of predatory publishers, infecting the dissemination of science. The model is that of vanity press, pay-to-publish. Anything gets published in thousands of journals operating at below par integrity standards; too many researchers take their bait with contempt for serious science. Given the economic benefits, several respectable publishers joined the band wagon, launching their own pay-to-publish outlets, making the identification and even the definition of ‘predatory’ challenging. The scientific community should dissuade scientists to publish in these outlets by making it disadvantageous for their career and prestige. Instead Plan S was concocted; more snakes! 

Plan S establishes that, rather than paying for each manuscript, researchers, their institutions or agencies funding their work, will have to strike package deals with individual publishers to publish a determined number of papers per year. These papers will be freely available.
Yet, this policy has severe consequences: 

- Researchers have to bear part of the cost, creating a disparity across disciplines;

- Researchers working in poorer institutions will find it hard to publish their work;

- It will be difficult to publish studies not funded by grants, like clinical observations, serendipitous findings, discussions or commentaries;

- Younger researchers with less access to financial support will be penalised, forcing them to accept honorary authorship by influential seniors; 

- Publishing will depend on economic considerations rather than quality, bending the concept of merit. Ultimately, in a money-dominated market, who will have interest in guaranteeing rigour and quality in scientific publications? Not the publishers, as the more they publish the more they gain; not the institutions which can pre-determine the budget they devote to publications; not the researchers who may enjoy easy publications; and not the readers who have free access to journals previously hidden by paywalls, even if the material reported has not been properly vetted. 

Fortunately, good journals do exist, like those managed by learned societies, or by respectable publishing companies, as well as new formats promoting thorough science, like pre-registrations. However, to avoid seeing more cobras around, the scientific community should put their hubris aside and do careful re-thinking. 

A (rather utopical) proposal would be that universities recall control of scientific publishing, managing their own journals in Open Access. The difference is that nobody would pay, not the readers nor the authors. Editors would be academics whose work for the journals would count towards their workload. The role of the reviewers would remain as it is, only their work will be acknowledged as part of their duties. To avoid conflicts, researchers will not be allowed to publish in their institution’s journals. The running costs borne by the institutions would be far cheaper than in the current regime. There will be no economic incentives to publish more, which will guarantee quality control. In sum, more good science, fewer cobras. 

Sergio Della Sala 

Human Cognitive Neuroscience, Psychology,
University of Edinburgh

‘I am a neuroscientist, never published a poem, nor do I intend to; but I read poetry and admire works done with words not sentiments. Also, I keep sharing my compositions via WhatsApp with my five daughters, who acknowledge receipt with subtle hints of exasperation. This one fits with the British Psychological Society’s Senate-voted theme of tackling class-based inequality, expressing my aggravation with the foreseeable consequences of Open Access policy now spawning into Plan S, which will grossly disadvantage less wealthy institutions and younger researchers, favouring finance over quality.’

They exploit us and all.

Behind massive paywalls 

Our papers they put

The astute pussyfoot.

Enough is enough

Science is no chuff

The public who pay

Shouldn’t be kept at bay.

Free and open be access

Learn is not for possess

Down go the heads

Ahead with the threats.

 

More money though flows

Exactly in the claws

Of the greedy predators

Esurient pseudeditors.

Alas! Were we fool

Blind we, and they cruel.

As the India of the Rajas

When cobras went jajas;

Kill them, and we hey 

Will give money away. 

The peasants were thrilled 

So many they killed.

No cobras in the ditch

Nobody gets rich.

Henc’in backyards

The cobras did hatch.

Do you think I’m a clown?

Soon shouted the Crown,

“Rupias will now stop

We’re not a gift shop”

Hence the poors freed 

The serps in the street 

More cobras than ever 

Went roaming, oh clever! 

We fail to foresee 

When covered in glee!

Didn’t see the upshot

The out-turns that we got.

Yet we don’t repent

Do kill the serpent!

Reconsider we don’t

Much hubris, no honte

‘nother pig in the poke

We academic bespoke.

 

And so conjure up

Another plan as back-up

Who cares the inequality,

Unfairness, disparity.

The skin of the vermin

By law we determine

And here is Plan esse

Let’s go to the press! 

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