Robert-Jan Smits Sets New Bar for Open with Bold Plan S

Open Access   ·   Open Data

Robert-Jan Smits, DG

In early 2018, Robert-Jan Smits found himself in the right place at the right time. Open Access had garnered widespread support in Europe and the moment had come to capitalize on it. The transition needed to be accelerated and Smits was uniquely qualified to broker a deal.

The long serving policy manager and advocate of science took the job of Open Access Envoy of the EC last March. Smits says he relished the opportunity to devote himself to one issue for one full year.
“Open is something we desperately need,” says the 60-year-old from the Netherlands. “Science has no borders. It’s important that we share.”

Smits was a leading force behind the creation of Plan S, an initiative for open-access science publishing that requires scientists and researchers who benefit from state-funded research organizations and institutions to publish their work in open repositories or in journals that are available to all by 2020. It was launched in September by Science Europe as an initiative of cOAltion S, a consortium developed by the European Research Council and major national research agencies and funders.

For his contributions to promoting Open Access, SPARC has honored Smits with its January 2019 Innovator Award.

“Plan S represents a sea change in the standards for the Open Access policies of research funders,” says Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC. “The push for immediate access combined with full reuse rights is a tremendous signal that funders have grown impatient with embargoes and read-only research articles. Smits willingness to step up and champion that move sets a new bar for the global research community, and drives home the fact that Open Access is here to stay.”

Right person for the job
Prior to taking on his current position, Smits served as Director-General of DG Research and Innovation at the European Commission for eight years, and oversaw EU policy and programs in research and innovation. He is credited as one of the main architects and negotiators of Horizon 2020, the current 80 billion euro EU program for science and innovation.

Commissioner Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research and Innovation, says free and open access to scientific publications from publicly funded research should be a right of citizens and Plan S is about doing this together with research funders.

“Robert-Jan Smits was really the right person for this job,” Moedas said in a statement. “Robert-Jan was able to convene key players and stir a lot of interesting ideas and discussions around this topic. His longstanding leadership in science and innovation meant he had the credibility and the network to do it very fast. Now Europe has a clear roadmap to get this done and lead the way.”

Bold, yet simple
Part of the strategy to garner support and move quickly was to propose an innovative, but straightforward, simple policy, says Smits. Plan S is structured around 10 principles:

1. Authors should retain copyright on their publications, which must be published under an open license such as Creative Commons;
2. Members of the coalition should establish robust criteria and requirements for compliant open access journals and platforms;
3. Funders should also provide incentives for the creation of compliant open access journals and platforms if they do not yet exist;
4. Publication fees should be covered by the funders or universities, not individual researchers;
5. Open-access publication fees should be standardized and capped;
6. Universities, research organizations, and libraries should align their policies and strategies;
7. The timeline for books and monographs may be extended beyond 2020;
8. Open archives and repositories are acknowledged for their importance;
9. The hybrid model of open-access publishing is not compliant with the key principle; and
10. Members of the coalition should monitor and sanction non-compliance.

Smits says a bold measure was needed. “No guts, no glory. We had to take a radical approach,” says Smits. He knew Plan S would be met with opposition — disrupting a $15 billion publishing market — but that didn’t deter him. “As the French say, ‘You can only to make an omelet if you crush a couple of eggs,’” says Smits. “If we want to really accelerate pace, this is the only way forward.”

Some researchers, such as Gerard Meijer, director of the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin, Germany, were surprised by the boldness of the plan, but welcomed the fundamental requirement that authors retain copyright of their works.

“It puts pressure on publishers to finally change things,” says Meijer, who applauds the overarching themes of Plan S, although notes there are still many details to be worked out. “If a funder tells you what to do, it’s a completely different situation than if a colleague tells you it’s a good idea to use Open Access.”

Personal diplomacy
Smits was particularly effective in getting support for the proposal because he is a science politician who is also highly respected in the research community, says Meijer. Smits has degrees from Utrecht University in The Netherlands, the Institut Universitaire d’Hautes Etudes Internationales in Switzerland, and the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy from Tufts University in Massachusetts.
“He is a person who is very direct and goal oriented,” says Meijer of Smits. “[Open Access] is something he really felt strongly about personally. It only works if you really believe in it and really want to change things. When Robert-Jan got this position in March, I told my colleagues: Now, really something is going to happen.”

Smits met one-on-one with funders, to get them on board with Plan S. He pled with foundations to be courageous and lead the way. Using his personal skills of diplomacy, Smits got about a dozen major players to sign on to the proposal, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.

The Gates Foundation announced it will update its Open Access policy – which is already broadly in line with the principles of Plan S – over the next 12 months.

Trevor Mundel, president of Global Health at the foundation said in a statement: “We are excited to announce our support for the principles of Plan S. We believe that free, immediate and unrestricted access to research is essential to accelerating innovation, helping to reduce global inequality and empowering the world’s poorest to transform their own lives.”

Robert Kiley, head of Open Research at the Wellcome Trust in London, said his organization had published a new open-access policy that will become effective in January of 2020 fully aligned with the principles of Plan S and is active in moving the coalition of supporters forward.

“There have been a number of attempts to get the default to open and individually some of the OA policies have been successful,” says Kiley. “What we all realize is that if we are really  going to tackle some of the significant problems that we as a species face — global warming or epidemic preparedness – we need to make sure the research that underpins this work can be accessed. It’s not enough for Wellcome research to be open, we want all research to be open.”

Six months after taking on the role of OA Envoy, Plan S was announced with little fanfare — no press conference or big roll out. “Then things went berserk. It went viral,” recalls Smits who said there were 70,000 tweets on the day of the launch and 120,000 the following. “I never expected that from all over the world there would be so much attention to this proposal.”

More than the volume, Smits says he was touched by the outreach from individual scientists, including a young researcher from India at an underfunded university who was constantly hitting pay walls and hoped Plan S would become a reality and give him broader access articles.
Plan S has attracted support from institutions and funders in Europe and beyond — including China and Africa.

“The science community is fed up with big publishers and universities were losing trust,” says Smits, who thinks the plan will prompt innovation and new platforms. “It was the perfect moment to come up with something that would be a game changer.”

Power in numbers
While the Research Council of Norway already had a strong open-access policy, John-Arne Røttingen says the organization was encouraged by Smits’ ambition to more collectively send common signals from funders.

“Plan S provided a much more coherent mechanism for taking this stronger and tougher move together,” says Røttingen, chief executive. “I saw this as an opportunity to go that one step further we could not have done individually as one funder. I don’t see Plan S only as just setting requirements from the funder side. It’s a mechanism to provide strong signal for transition of the overall scientific publishing business. So Plan S is an instrument for change where its requirements on researchers will be read and felt differently after the systemic change.”

Smits has been the person to usher the proposal through because of his experience that serves as a bridge between scientists and institutional policymakers. “He is seen as a thoughtful leader who listens. He has a good way of trying to capture the voices and interests of those he meets,” says Røttingen.

Marcel Swart, a chemist, Director of Institut de Química Computacional in Spain and outgoing chair of the Young Academy of Europe, is supportive of Plan S — with some reservations regarding the use of hybrid journals. “It will be a bumpy road ahead, but it will move forward,” says Swart, who says Smits ceased a golden opportunity to push the proposal forward using his practical political skills.

For the past year, Smits says he’s been working non-stop on Plan S.

“If I don’t keep talking to press and going to conferences, it might lose some momentum,” says Smits, who will step down on March 1 from his appointment as envoy. “It’s been completely crazy and at the same time rewarding.”

As he moves to being university president at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands next, Smits hopes the work will continue to advance Plan S and Open Access. “We’ve been surfing on a wave. We can’t let it go now.”

-by Caralee Adams

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