Response to the editorial feature: Decolonise Plan S, South African academics hear

Cape Town | The mission of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC)  is to improve the health of the country’s population, through research, development and health innovation, so that South Africans can enjoy a better quality of life.  The SAMRC is largely funded from South African tax payers through the South African government.

The SAMRC believes that the best way to improve the health of the nation is to facilitate a move in which all the world’s research is freely available and accessible at the time of publication and licensed in ways that encourages others to build on this knowledge. This ambition however, will only be realised if funding agencies – in partnership with others – work together.  As such, the SAMRC has agreed to align its open access policy with Plan S and join the global coalition of research funders - cOAlition S. We recognise that there are significant challenges in bringing about this global change, but by working collaboratively these can be addressed. 

The article in Research Professional News[i] suggests that moving to a fully OA world will be more expensive.  This argument however, fails to consider the huge investment which is already being made in paying for journal subscriptions. Globally the annual revenues generated from English-language STM journal publishing are estimated at about $10 billion in 2017.[ii] Around 3 million articles are published each year, which suggests that the average revenue per article is more than $3,300. 

Despite this investment, which in the main, comes from the public purse, around 76% of articles are pay walled on publication. [iii]  This results in an additional payment for subscriptions to access and read the articles. South Africa pays between R500m and R600m per annum.  Plan S, a partnership supported by initiatives like OA2020, [iv]  aims to transform the business model from one based on dual payment i.e. payment for publishing and again for access through subscription, to one in which publishers are remunerated at a ‘fair price’ for open access publishing services[v] - on a cost neutral basis, i.e. it will not cost the research system more.

The article unfortunately paints a world where researchers are limited to where they can publish, if they are working under a Plan S mandate.  Again, this reductionist view ignores the fact that, there are multiple routes in which researchers can make their work open access, many of which do not incur article processing charges.  The so called “green” model, whereby researchers can archive a copy of the accepted manuscript in a repository is one approach, as is supporting community initiatives such as the Open Library for Humanities where all costs are met via library consortia.

It is also stated that Plan S researchers will no longer be protected by copyright.  This is simply wrong as Plan S explicitly protects the rights of the author/s to retain copyright ownership, unlike the current business models, which require authors to sign over copy to the publisher.

Finally, the article also calls for Plan S to be “decolonised”.  However, the current business model restricts access through the enforcement of a paywall.  Through Open Access the research enterprise will gain access to a plethora of journals and databases thus creating meaningful equity of access which will finally decolonise the system. Open Access means that researchers wherever they are, can freely read research wherever it comes from, a shift that will democratise research, enhance access, remove barriers and create a much more equitable global research community.

If we are to address the huge global challenges we now face, such as climate change, epidemic preparedness, and antimicrobial resistance – it is imperative that we support the democratisation of knowledge through open access. Working collaboratively with OA2020, cOAlition S and Plan S, we will work to help make this goal become a reality.

Professor Glenda Gray
President & CEO: South African Medical Research Council

Professor Glenda Gray is the President and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council, a National Research Foundation A1 rated scientist, qualified paediatrician, co-founder of the Perinatal HIV Research Unit, Director of International Programmes for the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, Chairperson of the Board of the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases, and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, USA.

 Press release: SAMRC - making open access to research publications a reality

Release date: 
Monday, November 4, 2019 - 14:23
Dr Alfred Thutloa
Contact: Dr Alfred Thutloa

Head of Corporate Communications
Tel: + 27 21 938 0274