China backs bold plan to tear down journal paywalls

By Quirin Schiermeier

The audience at OpenAccess 2020 in the Harnack House of the Max Planck Society in Berlin

The OpenAccess 2020 in Berlin heard that China supports the Plan S open-access policy.Credit: Georg Botz, Max Planck Society

In a huge boost to the open-access movement, librarians and funders in China have said that they intend to make results of publicly funded research free to read immediately on publication.

The move, announced at an open-access meeting this week in Berlin, includes a pledge of support for Plan S, a bold initiative launched in September by a group of European funders to ensure that, by 2020, their scientists make papers immediately open.

It is not yet clear when Chinese organizations will begin implementing new policies, or whether they will exactly adopt Plan S’s details, but Robert-Jan Smits, the chief architect of Plan S, says the new stance is a ringing endorsement for his initiative. “This is a crucial step forward for the global open access movement,” he says. “We knew China was reflecting to join us — but that it would join as so soon and unambiguously is an enormous surprise.”

In three position papers, seen by Nature, China’s National Science Library (NSL), its National Science and Technology Library (NSTL) and its Natural Science Foundation, a major research funder, all said that they “support the request of the OA2020 initiative and Plan S to transform, as soon as possible, research papers from publicly funded projects into immediate open access after publication, and we support a wide range of flexible and inclusive measures to achieve this goal.”

“… We demand that publishers should not increase their subscription prices on the grounds of the transformation from subscription journals to open access publishing,” the papers say.

The government will now urge Chinese funders, research organizations and academic libraries to make the outcome of publicly funded research free to reach and share as soon as possible, says Xiaolin Zhang, chair of the Strategic Planning Committee of the National Science and Technology Library (NSTL) at the Ministry of Science and Technology in Beijing. He told the meeting that the NSFC, NSTL and NSL will all support the government’s request to make research papers open immediately after publishing, and that implementation policies should follow soon. He says he expects that funders will now push all researchers in China to follow suit.

Zhang also told the Open Access2020 conference, convened by Germany’s Max Planck Society, that any notion that open access has little traction in China is misleading. Funders and research institutions in China have since 2014 encouraged — and funded — scientists to publish their papers in open-access formats, and to archive manuscripts openly online.

But, he added, much of China’s scientific output is still locked behind paywalls. “NSFC funds about 70% of Chinese research articles published in international journals, but China has to buy these back with full and high prices,“ he says. “This is simply wrong — economically and politically.”

He called on publishers at the meeting to start negotiating without delay transformative deals with Chinese library consortia. Such ‘read and publish’ agreements, which have been struck by a number of European national library consortia, and which the University of California system is also hoping to negotiate, cover the subscription costs of paywalled journals, but also allow corresponding authors at eligible institutions to publish their work open access.

Clear signal

China’s commitment to ending subscription publishing took publishers at the meeting by surprise. “This is the first clear signal I received from China on this matter,” Daniel Ropers, chief executive officer of Springer Nature, said following a heated question and answer session on the second day of the conference. “We were under the impression that open access isn’t quite as urgent an issue in China as it is in Europe and the United States. If it is indeed, we are more than happy to engage.”

Springer Nature, he says, already offers a broad range of open-access journals and would consider developing the portfolio further in all disciplines of science. But he says a viable solution is still needed for highly selective subscription journals, including Nature, to satisfy Plan S. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its publisher Springer Nature.)

As it stands, the plan would bar scientists from publishing their work behind a paywall after 2020, unless they can also archive their accepted manuscript immediately online with a liberal publishing licence (which few subscription journals currently permit). Many subscription journals do now offer an open-access option, but Plan S will only fund publishing papers via that ‘hybrid’ route in some cases, and will review this policy in 2023.

Two other non-European countries are expected to sign up to the plan in the coming weeks, said Smits. Smits is also seeking support among public science funders in the United States, where the private health-sciences charity the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is currently the only funding body to have signed Plan S.

Some scientists at the meeting said they were anxious about what the changes might mean for the evaluation of science and, ultimately, for their careers. “We’re very much in favour of open science,” says Koen Vermeir, a Dutch historian of science who heads the Global Young Academy in Halle, Germany. “But then, publishing in high-quality journals is crucial for our careers. If we can’t publish in Nature or Science anymore it would totally change the equation for us.”

Nature is seeking comment from other publishers on the announcement.