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Hindawi congratulates the Royal Society

Opinion
Hindawi congratulates the Royal Society

Catriona MacCallum, Hindawi’s Director of Open Science, discusses a historic milestone for scientific publishing.


The Royal Society, who created the very first and now longest running scientific journal, has announced its intention to flip four of their key hybrid research journals to Open Access, including their flagship biology journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. They will do this when the proportion of each journal reaches 75% open access, whether this is through transformative read and publish deals or by other means.

Moreover, Stuart Taylor, the Royal Society’s Publishing Director, has committed the Society to publicly report the rate of conversion towards this target for each journal on an annual basis. The full transition of these journals to Open Access may take several years but the public commitment, transparent target and roadmap will ensure the Society is held accountable to its commitment. It is this promise of public accountability that distinguishes this announcement from those of the many publishers of hybrid journals who have announced public support for Open Access but not detailed openly how they will transition.

Once these four titles have flipped, six of the ten peer-reviewed journals they publish will be fully Open Access. The remaining four, which rely largely on commissioned content (and one also publishes research articles in the humanities) have distinct challenges in moving to Open Access, and are not yet included in this commitment. These journals would make a fascinating discussion in itself on how we can move all journals to Open Access but it’s not one I’ll address here.

The Royal Society has a unique place in both science and the history of publishing due to its prominence and legacy. Consequently, the signal of commitment this announcement sends to the world of scholarly communication – and to scholarly publishers in particular –  is of huge significance.

On behalf of Hindawi, I would therefore like to extend our heartfelt congratulations to all the fellows and publishing staff of the Royal Society for taking this landmark step and making such a public commitment.

The Royal Society is also unique in being not just a scholarly society and a very successful independent publisher, but also a funder of research and the UK’s national academy of science – with more than 1600 current fellows and a line-up of some of the most famous scientists of the past. The contribution of the Society to scientific knowledge and innovation is truly awe-inspiring.

Like many scholarly societies, their mission has always been to progress science and benefit humanity: “The Society’s fundamental purpose, reflected in its founding Charters of the 1660s, is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.”

But with Open Access and Open Science now recognized as a way to speed up and achieve the 17 sustainable development goals by 2030, the Society’s mission, like that of many other societies, has increasingly come into conflict with the business strategy of their publishing operation. Surpluses from ‘renting out’ academic articles and journals to support other valued activities of the Society could perhaps be justified in a print-based world because print inherently limits distribution. But the digital technology to globally and openly share such knowledge has already long been available and as a result the cost to distribute this knowledge globally has plummeted. The tradeoff therefore between the commercial interests of an individual scholarly society and the cost to humanity is no longer tenable. 

Some might argue that the Royal Society should have done this years ago, for example when there was the initial pushback by fellows in 2005 (as Stuart also noted in his blog post) against the Society’s then public and unsubstantiated announcement of the dangers of Open Access for all of science. But the Royal Society is actually now one of the most radical traditional publishers I know of, in regard to their approach to Open Access and supporting Open Science.

Since 2018, I have been privileged to be a member of their Publishing Board (including Fellows who are also Editors of all the journals). I have therefore witnessed first-hand the personal commitment to Open Access of Stuart and the board of publishing staff and fellows, chaired and championed by Dame Wendy Hall, FRS. They have been charting a course in which the Society could viably transition to Open Access as fast as possible but without creating barriers and further inequity for their international authors – either because these authors don’t have access to funds for article processing charges or because they are subject to local policies that do not support, or even indirectly penalize, Open Access publishing.  

The debate on Open Access in the Royal Society started raging back in 2005, and still rages in some societies and disciplines, especially the humanities. But the shift in the Royal Society’s official position from one of antagonism to one that is now leading the charge was relatively swift and really started to take off in 2010. Launching new Open Access journals and committing to Open Access (in principle and without specific targets) has been done in the interim by many publishers. However, the Royal Society has now publicly committed to a specific criteria and roadmap. It has also been quietly putting in place some of the pieces that will create the much larger cultural and political shift to Open Science. In relation to publishing, these include the following:

  • Since 2011 the Royal Society has been growing its Open Access content rapidly, on average by 30% per year. This is a conversion/transition rate that is much higher than most other traditional/subscription publishers. This growth has included the launch of new journals and the conversion of as much of their subscription/hybrid content to OA as they could encourage.  

  • From 2014-2017, they retrospectively digitized all the back issues of their journals, from 1665 onwards! Alongside this, in their Science in the Making platform they also digitized all the hitherto unpublished referee reports, editorial correspondence and other materials relating to those articles and added all 14,828 of them to the archive

  • They make their entire corpus available for text and data mining purposes to those with legal access, without commercial restrictions. This is significant because many subscription publishers retain commercial rights to text and data mining, even if a commercial organization has paid for a subscription and has the legal right to ‘manually’ read and mine the information. This gives the publisher an additional revenue stream but prohibits the use of artificial intelligence tools by e.g. public-private partnerships for pre-competitive discovery and innovation (of the type we have see so successfully employed during the COVID pandemic)

  • They permit all authors to immediately archive the final accepted version of their manuscript in a repository of their choice with a CC BY license.

  • The Royal Society was an early endorser of the Initiative for Open Citations (I4OC) launched in 2016 (along with Hindawi) , and made the reference lists of their research articles publicly available as open metadata via Crossref.

  • The Royal Society is a founding member (along with Hindawi) of the Initiative for Open Abstracts (I40A) launched during the pandemic last year, going from a position where they submitted no abstracts to Crossref to one where they submitted all the abstracts available in a matter of weeks.

  • They are willing to innovate, experiment and take risks that other publishers are less willing to make (e.g. in case it puts authors off submitting). 

    • They were the first publisher to make ORCID IDs mandatory for authors. 

    • On three of their major journals, publication of peer review information (anonymous by default) is now mandatory. 

    • They have a strict data sharing policy for all authors of research articles about their underlying data – they have integrated and financially support DRYAD, and have more content on figshare than Elsevier does. 

    • They have enthusiastically supported the adoption of preprints and even have a dedicated team of editors to scout the servers for ones that might be of particular interest to their readers. 

    • They participated in a publishing coalition (alongside Hindawi, PLOS, eLife, F1000 and others) to help speed up the review and publication of COVID papers. Importantly, as part of this, they have been willing to take an evidence-informed approach and share data on the initiative with independent researchers at the Research on Research Institute  (RORi). (Reports on the outcomes will be published over the next few months).

  • During the pandemic, the Royal Society not only made its COVID research papers freely available, but made its entire corpus available so that no researcher anywhere in the world would be disadvantaged.

  • One of their publications, Biographical Memoirs, which does not publish research articles but contains thought provoking and often very personal memoirs about the scientific achievements of fellows, written by fellows, is completely free to read online and has been since its launch. This is an important historical resource.

  • Not least, in 2018 they, alongside a couple of other society publishers, helped form the Society Publishers Coalition. The Coalition are committed to Open Access and Open Scholarship and to collaborating to make it happen. It now consists of more than 90 members.

Open Access to articles is a fundamental step to enabling discovery,  dissemination and reuse but is just the tip of the iceberg. What’s at stake is the entire health of the system of research practice and the communication of scholarly knowledge, including its associated infrastructure. As part of its Open Access strategy, the Royal Society is also helping to build the more fundamental changes that are needed to reform, improve and enhance the system of scholarly publishing.

We at Hindawi have long been champions of helping bring about this more open and equitable future for scholarly research and so look forward to a new era of collaboration and co-creation with the Royal Society and other stakeholders in taking an innovative and evidence-informed approach to scholarly publishing.


This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.