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The Knowledge-Sharing Platform

01 Mar 2018

Science|Business: EU research chief’s next act: changing the future of academic publishing

Science|Business article, by Éanna Kelly

On his last day in one of the most powerful research seats in Europe, Robert-Jan Smits talks about his legacy and the future.

Robert-Jan Smits, one of Europe’s most powerful figures in research, has been appointed as a special envoy on open science at the European Commission, to help push efforts to make all publicly funded research in Europe freely available by 2020.

Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker proposed Smits, the outgoing director-general of research and innovation, for the role on Wednesday.

“I will be the ice-breaker for open access publications,” Smits said in an interview to mark his last day in his current post, which he has held for eight years.

Clutching a letter sent in the morning by Juncker informing him of his new position, Smits explained how he would be working alongside member states and research funders to change the world of academic publishing. His official title will be senior advisor on open access within the European Political Strategy Centre, the Commission’s in-house think tank.

“I’m very happy with the mission I’ve been given because it’s extremely focused,” said Smits, who last week discovered it was his time to be rotated out of DG Research. “I didn’t want something general. I need something concrete, with deliverables; something I can deliver on.”

His task will be to help accelerate momentum towards making publicly funded scientific papers and data freely available by 2020 – a target set by the Dutch government, and agreed upon by the other 27 member states, back in 2016.

Academic institutions pay millions for subscriptions to publishers’ products, and in recent years, the skyrocketing cost of journal subscriptions has severely strained library budgets around Europe. The most recent flashpoint in the open access dispute is in Germany, where more than 150 German libraries, universities, and research institutes have banded together to pressure publishers to change their business models.

The current model sees libraries pay between €3,800 and €5,000 per paper, according to an estimate by the Max Planck Society. Many German universities say they won't renew their subscriptions to Elsevier, the world’s biggest scientific publisher.

Smits sees an “inherent resistance” within the academic world to switch to open access. Progress is either elusive or extremely slow, he said, and comes with “a lot of lip service.” Publishers erect barriers, but there’s also ingrained ideas around the source of science to fight against. There are well-respected open-access journals, like those under the umbrella of the Public Library of Science, with standards as high as traditional ones, but still the dream for most scientists is to publish in a high-impact journal like Nature or The Lancet, Smits added.

His job will be to draw up an open access roadmap for action before the summer, outlining steps to demolish scholarly journals’ paywalls. By the end of the year, he will set down policy recommendations.

As a Dutchman, does he feel uneasy about a possible clash with his country’s leading publisher, Elsevier? “I don’t work for the Dutch, I work for European science,” he said.

To read the full Science|Business article, please click here.

Photo: Robert-Jan Smits, by Science|Business

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