The Sciences

Interview: 'Everyone Wants Change as Long as It Doesn’t Happen'

K. VijayRaghavan is the principal scientific adviser to the Government of India.

K. VijayRaghavan is the principal scientific adviser to the Government of India. On October 25, he delivered a talk at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, on the need for and importance of open-access (OA) publishing, and what the government is doing to improve access to the scientific literature to Indians. Vasudevan Mukunth from The Wire met him after for an interview, the full text of which is presented below.

Based on one of your responses during the Q&A, it seems the Government of India is still committed to Plan S. There has been no explicit confirmation otherwise. You announced your support in a tweet over a year ago but there has been no word since…

We are not joining Plan S. Plan S is itself evolving, and the terms that we are trying to push is something that we will ask Plan S to push for in their format.

[I asked him in a follow-up email to clarify this point; his reply follows:] Since February 2018, some water has flowed under the bridge. We have done substantial work here and had consultations with government, individual scientists and the academies. Our directions now and the next steps are what I spoke about in my lecture. Plan-S has also taken its steps and moved in some new directions. We are in touch with Plan-S, at present, to the extent that they have presented their current directions at our meeting by video and responded to clarifications we asked.

As we move along, I expect there will be overlap in our directions to open-access. However, our directions will be entirely determined by the interests of Indian academia and of India, for which our understanding of and collaboration internationally with groups such as Plan-S is important.

So the discussions and meetings that you are a part of is a nationally oriented parallel effort?

Yeah, we’re not formally working with them in any manner. We’re just making sure that we know what they’re doing.

What are we doing?

This is a critical issue which needs to be addressed. Plan S has done a great job by highlighting the importance of the issue. It is by definition a Eurocentric approach. There would be, because of the size of the European enterprise, a lot to learn from them and their approach. We will work with them to learn about what they’re doing. What we do will be what we think is best for our context. That may or may not be the same as Plan S; there may or may not be substantial overlap.

By context you mean scientists and publishers?

By our context, I mean principally 1) our people and their access to global knowledge; 2) how that can be most effective in our environment (there are a lot of redundancies in payments, etc.); and 3) how we can work with global publishers to make this more reasonable than it is.

Again, as a separate matter from all of this, which simultaneously must be addressed at its full level for this to be effective, is how we must evaluate individuals, groups of individuals, institutions and research in general. Unless that undergoes a sea-change globally, all of this will be cosmetic.

There was a meeting on October 14 as part of these discussions, where I heard that there were also publishers present. What happened at the meeting?

The meeting basically stated what I said about what we want to do and we agreed on the direction to pursue it.

What are the next steps?

We are close to the end of this financial year, and that gets us time as well as puts us under pressure if we want to get something done by the next financial year. Between now and then, we must formally discuss with publishers, learned societies and OA journals to come forth with a policy, and negotiate with them. There, Plan S and others are useful because they have the Excel sheet of different companies, what their back-end is like, what they make and so on, and they will share those things with us. That doesn’t mean that we listen to them or they listen to us.

Has this invitation been issued? If not, when will be issued?

No. It will be issued soon but how soon, I don’t know.

You mentioned at the beginning of your talk that subscriptions cost India about Rs 1,500 crore a year and APCs are expected to cost Rs 150-200 crore a year. Where did you get the APCs figure from?

Actually, I’m very puzzled. All the attempts at finding them out find that they’re much, much lower. I instinctively thought they would be higher.

Much, much lower than than Rs 200 crore?

No, they’re about that range, around Rs 150-200 crore.

How did you arrive at that figure?

I must ask the team which did that. The Indian academies did that, and we also independently arrived at that number, I suspect by looking at the articles published and estimating what they would cost.

Based on a back-of-the-envelope calculation, I arrived at a figure of about Rs 600 crore, based on conservative assumptions about the number of articles published, the government’s share of this bill, and low-end estimates of how much OA journals charge…

I have no idea which number is legitimate. Many people also ask for exemptions, and the Rs 150-200 crore figure is based on looking at the actual papers. I don’t know how robust it is.

Most conversations on moving to OA publishing assume the antagonists (using the term loosely) are large subscription-based prestige titles like Nature, Science, Cell, etc. Are there any issues related to small journals that may not be ready to move to OA publishing?

My fundamental point is that small journals, big journals and so on are consequences of one’s view of where one wants to go – what our goal is, in terms of access to literature – and are not about how we will keep small publishers alive or how we will negotiate. Those are all practical aspects. They will be consequential. What is our fundamental principle and how would we go about it? I’m sure whether you’re a small publisher or a big publisher, you’ll find a way to deal with it. If you are running horse carriages, and you have other modes of transport coming up, you’ll deal with it in different ways if you’re a big horse-carriage company or a small company or an individual owner… that’s an aspect which needs to be addressed from social, political, economic points of view.

You’re saying that’s further down the line?

That’s further down the line.

You’ve pitched this move towards OA publishing as the resolution of a cost problem and of an ‘access to knowledge’ problem. Do you think these efforts will at any point address the culture problem – where scientists want to publish in high-IF journals whereas you want to move them towards OA journals with a lower IF, or even as preprints, and have that considered for evaluation? How would you address this cultural issue?

Publishers and access are important components but the fundamental issue is what we think is the purpose of science and what the metrics of scientific success are. We are chasing false gods, and as long as we do that, we will be constantly battling these kinds of–

On principle I agree with you.

No question our institutions must change.

But do you think a top-down directive will be effective?

Everyone wants change as long as it doesn’t happen. Everyone wants autonomy but whenever there is a complex problem, they upwardly delegate it, saying, “Please solve this problem, and until you solve, I can’t proceed.” There is nothing to stop any institution from changing. Zilch. And if they don’t change, a broad-brush top-down approach will come, which will try to fit all things to all people and people will then say, “This doesn’t work.” I think we should get off and be connected; it doesn’t help if you want solutions but don’t want to be part of them.

Do these negotiations also include social sciences and humanities research?

In theory, yes. In practice also yes, since the Ministry of Human Resource Development was also involved in our discussions with the science funding agencies. But we need to formally include them.