Germany's Journey Towards Open Access of Scientific Publications

An Interview with Prof. Dr. Gerard Meijer

December 15, 2023

The scientific community in Germany is resolutely pursuing the goal of transforming the academic publishing system from a subscription-based system, in which publications are locked behind a paywall, to a system where there is Open Access (OA) to scientific publications. In a conversation with Prof. Dr. Gerard Meijer, Director of the Department of Molecular Physics at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society, member of the German Council of Science and Humanities ("Wissenschaftsrat") and vice-speaker of the DEAL-consortium, the significance of Open Access and of the recently signed agreements between the DEAL consortium and the major publishers Elsevier, Wiley and Springer Nature are discussed.

1. Why Open Access?

Prof. Meijer emphasizes that „openly accessible publications can be read, reviewed and used more widely by other researchers. This increases the quality of research and accelerates scientific progress. OA makes scientific knowledge more widely available outside of the scientific community and lowers the threshold for various transfer activities. This increases the social effectiveness of (publicly funded) research. There is no question anymore: OA is the future, and there is increased pressure from funding agencies and from social-political sources, to make OA publishing of research results the standard practice. This is exactly how it has also been formulated in the current German government coalition agreement."

2. What is DEAL?

DEAL is the german abbreviation for the "German Alliance for Licenses" that was established about a decade ago to negotiate nationwide licensing agreements with major publishers. Prof. Meijer explains: „DEAL has been set up by the German Alliance of Research Organisations, which consists of ten members, amongst which the MPG, the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the German Rectors' Conference (HRK). The goal of the DEAL-project was to negotiate contracts with the major publishers to get reading access for all german academic institutions to all published content at reduced and transparent cost and to transform to an OA publishing system. To handle the nation-wide contracts, a „DEAL operating entity" (MPDL Services gGmbH) was newly founded. This is a daughter company of the Max Planck Digital Library (MPDL), that shares and builds on the expertise available at the MPDL. This exemplifies the crucial support of the MPG for the DEAL-project, fully in line with the internationally leading role that the MPG has taken to make OA become a reality." 

3. Benefits for Researchers?

OA increases the visibility of the published research, which is of direct benefit to the researchers as they want their research findings to be widely known and acknowledged. A key advantage of Open Access publishing is that the copyright remains with the authors. Prof. Meijer states, „copyrights now stay where these belong, namely with the authors. In hindsight, it is really strange that researchers always transferred these copyrights to the publishers in the subscription system. Publishers strictly demanded this, it was the bedrock on which their business was based, and scientists obeyed, because the threat was that the article would otherwise not be published."

4. Considerations in Open Access?

As the reader does no longer have to pay to get access to the scientific publications, the costs of publishing need to be covered otherwise, either by the author, i.e. by their employer or their funding agency, or by a third party. Prof. Meijer quotes a statement from the German Council of Science and Humanities, namely that „dissemination of scientific results of a research project is an integral part of that research project, and those who fund the research should also fund the publication." He then explains that „in Germany, publications account for approximately 1-2% of research costs, which thus need to be part of the research funding. It is important, however, that finance streams are organized such, that Open Access does not mean an extra (financial) burden for the authors; library budgets used in the subscription era to pay for reading access need to be repurposed to pay for the costs of publications in the OA era. Within the MPG, the costs of OA publications are centrally covered in exactly this way, and this has been an important blue-print for the DEAL agreements."

5. Your Role as a Member of the Science Council for the Fritz-Haber-Institut?

Prof. Meijer has been a member of the Science Council since 2018. He emphasizes that his role on the Science Council is entirely independent of his position as Director at the FHI. He says that he has most likely been nominated for the Science Council based on his (international) experience as president of the Radboud University in Nijmegen, in the 2012-2016 period. The MPG is typically represented in the Science Council by two of its scientific members, often former section-chairs or vice-presidents. In the Science Council, Prof. Meijer was instrumental in getting the topic of Open Access on the agenda and he chaired the working group who prepared the recommendations on the transformation of the academic publishing system towards Open Access. .

6. Your Hopes for the Future of Open Access?

In concluding the interview, Prof. Meijer expresses the hope that the leadership of academic institutions take their responsibility to make the transition to OA a reality, very serious. „Too often", Prof. Meijer explains, „this is considered to be a task only for the librarians, but as this involves also reallocating research funds, this task is really bigger than this, and it needs to be taken up and coordinated by the academic leadership. Scientific institutions need to set up an Information Budget, as they have the responsibility to ensure that all researchers are provided with sufficient resources to be able to publish their results adequately and in a quality-assured manner." Under the three new agreements now in place, more than 150.000 scientific articles from Germany are anticipated to be published Open Access in the coming five years, thereby increasing visibility of German research worldwide. With about 95% of their scientific output being openly available, the Max Planck Society is leading in this area, and the hope is, says Prof. Meijer, „that many other institutions, both nationally and internationally will catch up soon."

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