What’s ‘unethical’ about Plan S?

In a recent blog post, my co-authors and I refer to Plan S as ‘unethical’. Doing so has upset Marc Schiltz, President of Science Europe.

Schiltz claims that disagreeing with some, or even many, aspects of Plan S does not in itself justify calling Plan S ‘unethical’. I completely agree. To justify calling Plan S ‘unethical’ would require more than simply disagreeing with some aspect of Plan S.

What more would be required? Calling Plan S ‘unethical’ would require an argument that shows that Plan S has violated some sort of ethical norm or crossed some sort of ethical line. Insofar as Plan S impinges on academic freedom, it has done just that.

Academic freedom is a contentious topic in and of itself, but particularly so when engaging in discussions about Open Access (OA). Part of the reason for the heightened tension surrounding academic freedom and OA is the perception that for-profit publishers have appealed to academic freedom to pummel OA advocates, portraying them as invaders of academics’ territory and themselves as defenders of academic freedom. As a result, anyone who appeals to academic freedom in an OA discussion runs the risk of being dismissed by OA advocates as an enemy in league with the publishers.

It’s also the case that academic freedom means different things in different contexts. In some countries, such as the UK and Germany, academic freedom is written into laws. In the US, the AAUP is the main source people use to define academic freedom. I’m a philosopher and an ethicist, not a lawyer. I’m also an American working at an American university, so my own conception of academic freedom is influenced by — but not exactly the same as — the AAUP definition. In short, I approach academic freedom as expressing an ethical norm of academia, rather than in terms of a legal framework. No doubt there are good reasons for such laws in different contexts; but academic freedom would be a thing — an ethical thing — even if there were no laws about it.

I won’t rehash the whole argument from our original post here. I direct interested parties to the sections of the blog under the sub-heading, “The problem of violating academic freedom.” If I had it to do over again, I would suggest to my coauthors altering some of the language in that section; but the bottom line remains the same — Plan S violates academic freedom. Insofar as Plan S violates academic freedom, it violates an ethical norm of academia. Hence, Plan S is unethical.

This is not to say that OA is unethical or necessarily violates academic freedom. I have argued in the past that OA need not violate academic freedom. In the recent flurry of discussion of Plan S on Twitter, Peter Suber pointed me to the carefully crafted Harvard OA policy’s answer to the academic freedom question. That policy meticulously avoids violating academic freedom (and would therefore count, for me, as an ethical OA policy).

To say that Plan S is unethical is simply to say that some aspects of it violate academic freedom. Some are an easy fix. Take, for instance, Principle #1.

Authors retain copyright of their publication with no
restrictions. All publications must be published under
an open license, preferably the Creative Commons
Attribution Licence CC BY. In all cases, the license
applied should fulfil the requirements defined by the
Berlin Declaration;

The violation of academic freedom in Principle #1 is contained in the last clause: “In all cases, the license applied should fulfil [sic] the requirements defined by the Berlin Declaration.” Because the Berlin Declaration actually requires an equivalent of the CC-BY license, that clause totally undermines the “preferably” in the previous clause. If Plan S merely expressed a strong preference for CC-BY or the equivalent, but allowed researchers to choose from among more restrictive licenses on a case by case basis, Principle #1 would not violate academic freedom. The simple fix is to remove the last clause of Principle #1.

Other issues are less easily fixed. In particular, I have in mind Schiltz’s Preamble to Plan S. There, Schiltz argues as follows.

We recognise that researchers need to be given a maximum
of freedom to choose the proper venue for publishing
their results and that in some jurisdictions this freedom
may be covered by a legal or constitutional protection.
However, our collective duty of care is for the science system
as a whole, and researchers must realise that they are
doing a gross disservice to the institution of science if they
continue to report their outcomes in publications that will
be locked behind paywalls.

I won’t rehash here the same argument my co-authors and I put forth in our initial blog post. Instead, I have a couple of other things to say here about Schiltz’s position, as expressed in this quote.

First, I have absolutely no objection on academic freedom grounds to making all of my research freely available (gratis) and removing paywalls. I agree that researchers have a duty to make their work freely available, if possible. Insofar as Plan S allows researchers to retain their copyrights and enables gratis OA, it’s a good thing, even an enhancer of academic freedom. The sticking point is mandating a CC-BY or equivalent license, which unethically limits the freedom of academics to choose from a broad range of possible licenses (libre is not a single license, but a range of possible ones). Fix Principle #1, and this particular violation of academic freedom disappears.

Second, there’s a trickier issue concerning individual freedom and group obligations. I discussed the issue in greater detail here. But the crux of the matter is that Schiltz here displays a marked preference for the rights of the group (or even of the impersonal “science system as a whole”) over the rights of individual members of the group. That position may be ethically defensible, but Schiltz here simply asserts that the duty to science overrides concerns for academic freedom. Simply asserting that one duty trumps another does a good job of communicating where someone stands on the issue. However, it provides absolutely no support for their position.

Insofar as Plan S is designed on the basis of an undefended assertion that our collective duty to the science system as a whole outweighs our right as individuals to academic freedom, Plan S impinges on academic freedom. In doing so, Plan S violates an ethical norm of academia. Therefore, Plan S, as written, is unethical.

9 thoughts on “What’s ‘unethical’ about Plan S?

  1. Dear Britt,

    Thank you for these detailed explanations. Your point seems to be that, by imposing a certain type of license, funders are restricting the choice of researchers and hence violate their academic freedom and thus, Plan S is unethical.

    May I remind you what the current situation in academic publishing is: in subscription journals (still constituting the vast majority of scholar publishing venues), authors are requested to assign exclusive rights to a publisher in an irrevocable way (copyright transfer or exclusive copyright license). This means that, to publish in a subscription journal, a researcher must hand the effective ownership of his work entirely over to a publisher (often a commercial publisher), who then holds exclusive rights on their work and can do and publish under whatever license and conditions they wish, without ever having to ask the authors (who effectively own no rights any longer, apart from the nominal authorship). That is the current reality of subscription-based scholar publishing and this is what is happening with papers published in subscription journals (still the large majority of research papers). Now, how massive a violation of academic freedom do you consider this? In the light of this, prescribing a CC-BY license (as Plan S does) seems like a minute detail, hardly sufficient to stigmatise the entire Plan S as unethical.

    Lest you apply double standards, you and your co-authors should at least openly proclaim that that current mainstream system of subscription-based publishing, by forcing researchers to hand over the effective ownership of their work, is violating academic freedom on a massive scale and is therefore highly unethical. At least there would be some convergence in our respective views, namely that the current subscription-based model of publishing should be terminated (although we would arrive to this conclusion by different sets of arguments).

    In contrast, Plan S explicitly prescribes that “authors retain copyright without restriction”. So, at least you could acknowledge that Plan S is enforcing some protection of intellectual ownership and is therefore maybe “less unethical” than the current system.

    Kamerlin et al. state that
    Several authors of this article, for moral reasons, are strong proponents of CC-BY-NC rather than CC-BY licenses on their work, in order to restrict for-profit commercial exploitation of publicly funded research.
    I must say that I really find this an extravagant statement, when some of the authors have themselves published their past research in subscription journals run by for-profit commercial publishers to whom they have assigned exclusive ownership rights over their work. Where were the morale reservations in those cases?

    And this is where I complain about the use of the qualifier “unethical” in the title of your contribution. In every plan that prescribes rules (as does Plan S), you can always find some norms that some may find too restrictive or even unethical. But it would have been fairer to compare Plan S with the current real situation in academic publishing. I wish that the yardstick that was applied to judge the “ethics” of Plan S would also wave been applied to the current system of academic publishing or, indeed, also to some of the 4 alternatives that are proposed (because some of them are more restrictive on intellectual ownership and academic freedom than is Plan S).

    I notice for instance, that in your alternative (1), you advocate embargo periods. Now, I am asking the question: isn’t the right to decide WHEN to publish part of the academic freedom to the same extent than would be their choice of WHERE to publish? Many scientists in the areas of health and medical research find embargo periods unethical because important research results are being unnecessarily withheld from those who may be in most need of them (e.g. patients and patient associations and medical staff, especially in less economically developed countries). Have you thought of this when proposing option (1) ? It is always easier to stigmatise what other propose as “unethical”.

    And it is of course always easy to demonstrate that something is unethical in an abstract philosophical sense. But armchair philosophy is sometimes far removed from real life.

    I am looking forward for what promises to become an interesting discussion tomorrow.

    With regards.

    Marc Schiltz

  2. Dear Marc,

    Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed reply. Many of your points are well-taken. I’m hopeful we will find that our areas of agreement extend further than our areas of disagreement.

    I do, in fact, consider publishers requiring authors to transfer their copyrights to be unethical. It’s something akin to extortion; and as you have pointed out, it is most definitely tied to the current reward structure of academe. One of my favorite aspects of Plan S is that it requires authors to retain their copyrights. Of course, this gets a bit strange, since by requiring CC-BY or the equivalent, Plan S also asks authors to allow everyone essentially all those rights. So, it sort of gives with one hand and takes with the other. It does succeed in not handing over exclusive rights to a single publisher and in allowing the author to retain her rights. I agree that’s not as bad as the current system that requires authors to transfer all their rights to a single publisher.

    That said, I’m not sure “Plan S — Less Unethical than Publishers!” is a title for a blog post that anyone thinks is very good.

    I am also quite sympathetic to the idea that Plan S is aimed at disrupting the current — and, we agree, unethical — publication system, and that this motivation should earn it some moral credit. I’m really quite in favor of that, perhaps more so than my coauthors. I believe that they tend to publish in more “disciplinary” journals than I do. Since I’m actually not much of an armchair philosopher, I only have one publication in a traditional, disciplinary philosophy journal. I spend most of my time trying to engage policy makers, scientists, and engineers. So, I try to publish in venues where they will read my work. Were I to depend on traditional disciplinary outlets, however, I might view Plan S as more of a threat to me professionally.

    I resist, however, portraying everything as totally black and white; and perhaps this is part of your dislike for the label ‘unethical’ as used in our title. It’s as if we’ve declared the whole thing unethical, rather than focusing on what we like and don’t like about it. I think this criticism cuts both ways — not all publishers are equally evil. Even the evil ones do some good things. Maybe blowing the whole thing up isn’t the best solution?

    The original blog post was a collaborative effort of many authors. I feel more strongly about some of the things we said than about others. I won’t now pretend or presume to speak for my coauthors. Let me say that a more nuanced view, one that doesn’t throw out all the good things about Plan S, is quite attractive to me. I like that the funding bodies are flexing their muscles with the publishers. I don’t like at all that the funding bodies are either flexing their muscles with the research community or ignoring our concerns.

    One other point before I board the plane. One reason we didn’t engage the publishers directly is that, unlike the publishers, the funders announcing Plan S represents an opportunity for conversation — or so we hope. Unlike with the publishers, who’ve long enjoyed being able to extort our copyrights, the funders are in the process of making a policy, which means that there is still opportunity for input in the policy making process! This, at least, is my hope and why I’ve consistently asked you and the European Commission to provide a venue for discussion of Plan S with the research community and other stakeholders. I never invoked academic freedom as a way to forestall conversation, but rather as a way to spark it. Thanks again for replying, and I look forward to speaking tomorrow!


  3. Dear Marc,
    as you prefer not to engage with myself (or Prof Kamerlin) on Twitter, I will try it here.
    Just because the current system is bad, it doesn’t mean it should be replaced with another bad system. Many millions were spent by the EU to come up with ideas, and we got Plan S, something a drunk OA activist at a booze-up after a publisher-sponsored OA conference would have scribbled on a beer mat. Like in the Soviet Union, scientists will be held in an iron fist and denied the opportunity to send their manuscripts to “western” journals.
    We all know what the reality of Plan S will be. “Important” scientists will still publish in Nature and Cell, and cOAlition S will make quiet exceptions for them. Oh yes they will, Marc, and you know it. Bad but well-connected scientists will finally be able to turn their incompetent junk science, salami-sliced leftovers and blog posts into many “peer-reviewed” Frontiers publications, and get positively evaluated, also because Frontiers has nice impact factors. It will be the “normal”, pedestrian scientists who will lose out big time. They cannot publish in any of the good journals, because Plan S forbids them this, and quality Gold OA is too expensive. What will Gold OA EMBO Journal charge? €5k? More?
    These decent scientist can do all Open Science they want, with preprints, open data, open peer review, etc, but nobody will recognise that. Because you and RJ Smits decreed that Open Science means publishing in Frontiers.

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  5. Following up after meeting with Marc and Robert-Jan Smits, I want to be sure to make something as clear as I possibly can: in saying Plan S was ‘unethical’, I was speaking as a philosopher and using the term in a technical sense. I see now that they both interpreted the term ‘unethical’ in a colloquial — and personal — sense that I did not intend. I never meant to insult anyone or to suggest that they or anyone else involved in putting forth Plan S is an unethical person. I have absolutely no evidence that anything unethical in this colloquial sense is happening with regard to Plan S, and I never intended to imply anything other than the technical violation of academic freedom by using that term.

    In fact, I am sure that they are motivated by a desire to do good things for science and for society.

    I very much appreciate that both Marc and Robert-Jan took the time to meet with me and discuss these issues. In hindsight, I should not have suggested to my co-authors that we use the term ‘unethical’ in the title. I take full responsibility for using the term, and I am very sorry for causing any offence by doing so.

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