Earlier this week, The Fonds de Rercherche du Québec, the Province’s main science funding body, released, with not quite enough fanfare, its open access (OA) policy. Like Plan S, the policy is a small step in the right direction, but it could be much better.

The Fonds has three branches covering health (FRQS), technology and natural sciences (FRQNT) and social sciences and humanities (FRQSC). In 2018, it invested about 202 million CDN in research, which is considerable for a jurisdiction the size of Québec.

I can testify first hand to the impact of that investment. As graduate student, I received a stipend that allowed me to complete my degree. As an Assistant Professor, I received an early career grant that really got me started. In mid-career, I was part of a vibrant FQRSC funded research network.

Today, I am happy to continue participating from afar as a grant reviewer, committee member, and sometimes Chair. The Fonds is not only important in Québec. It has an impact on research in the Francophonie, both inside and outside Canada.

Beyond its impact on career researchers and on the research enterprise, it is important for publicly funded research to have a public impact. It is important for publicly funded research to be available to the public. I am glad that the FRQ now has an open access policy, and I am glad that it explicitly recognizes the importance of public access to publicly funded research.

The policy requires funded researchers to ensure that any peer reviewed publication is OA. It provides two options: 1) contributions can be put in an institutional or disciplinary repository at most 12 months after publication, or 2) they can be published in an open access journal.

Under option 1, the language makes it clear that what must be deposited in the repository is the final, peer reviewed document, which I think they intend to mean a literal PDF from the journal. It leaves me wondering whether even author proofs would be compliant.

Under option 2, author processing charges (APC) are allowable expenses. In other words, The Québec government has just declared that it is willing to fund the business model of for-profit academic journals. This funneling of resources into APC will, of course, reduce the amount of money available to actually do research, and therefore, in the long term, the impact of the council’s investment.

Unlike in Plan S, there is no mention of hybrid journals, so these are presumably acceptable. However, the policy does specify that any OA journal must allow immediate public access to be compliant, and it cautions researchers to be aware of journal policies and copyright agreements.

An interesting addition that I have not seen in other such policies, is that FRQ grant evaluation committees will be instructed to give weight to open access publication in their scores. Beyond that, the policy does not require, or even encourage, any sort of change to academic publishing.

Unfortunately, the policy merely encourages researchers to make their “other” (i.e. non-peer reviewed) contributions OA. Any potentially significant contribution should be available to the public, and the policy misses an important opportunity here to make a philosophical commitment to OA and the importance of public access to publicly funded research, no matter what venue and form it appears in. In a sense, only career-relevant publications, as currently and conventionally conceived, are covered by the policy. The policy should cover all contributions relevant to the public, not just those important to researchers.

The policy, as written, clearly focuses on pre-publication peer-review in conventional journals. Technically, a repository that uses post-publication peer review would not be compliant, but then again, publishing on a publish-and-review platform would not require the contribution to be OA, since it wouldn’t be a peer-reviewed publication as envisaged by the policy! Let’s just say that there are still a few consistency issues with this version of the policy.

A stronger and simpler policy, along the lines of Plan U, would require any contribution to be made available in a public repository, full stop. Rather than merely mandating OA within the existing academic publishing landscape, and specifying which platforms are OA, a good policy should define what an OA platform is, and let them grow and emerge within those constraints (archiving and sustainability plans, etc).

Overall, the FRQ’s policy is a baby step. It assumes the status quo of for-profit academic publishing. It doesn’t close itself off to alternatives, but it certainly doesn’t imagine or anticipate them.

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