OA advocacy organizations are inherently interesting because they posit openness and transparency, yet sometimes fail to live up to their own exhortations of others. SPARC — a persistent advocate of transparency and openness — is the starkest example I’ve seen yet:
- It became part of a large “dark money” political non-profit in 2014
- Its Executive Director developed a major, undisclosed conflict of interest with a funder
- Its fiscal sponsor may have contracted with the Executive Director personally, making SPARC a one-person show with only trappings of oversight (see below for some speculation on what this might mean)
- It consistently fails to answer questions, issue annual reports, or divulge its grants or funders
- It deflects and stonewalls when asked basic functional questions, like “Who did your fiscal sponsor contract with in 2014?” despite sharing other organization’s contracts willfully
Based on its advocacy of open access and open science, cOAlition S may also be expected to be transparent and open. After all, that’s what they want everyone else to be, so why not hold them to a standard they accept and even advocate?
They are perhaps edging toward it, after getting funding in what was originally a confusing and opaque setup.
The cOAlition S story started 2+ years ago, but this phase of its story starts with a question posed last week on Twitter by Rick Anderson:
Despite this question coming on the heels of a lengthy back-and-forth with David Sweeney, Executive Chair of Research England, a council of UKRI (which is a cOAlition S member organization), there was no answer to Rick’s question. The answer came only after cOAlition S was asked directly. It turns out that cOAlition S does not require a formal agreement, but to be a research funding organization (RFO) and to commit publicly to implementing Plan S via a roadmap. So, kudos to cOAlition S, but there was a whiff of secrecy coming off an exchange with a leader from one of its member organizations.
This may be due to a long-standing set of practices at cOAlition S, which has not been forthcoming. More than two years ago, requests went out for a budget and accountability for grants awarded, only to be met with another stone wall.
But now, a budget for cOAlition S may also be pending. Richard Poynder asked about it two years ago, and just last week apparently received a response:
Once that is shared, we’ll know how committed to transparency and openness cOAlition S has become.
A budget doesn’t address the question of governance, which remains a bit opaque. Who “owns” the work product and strategy of cOAlition S? Its members? Or a larger entity? What contracts exist defining wages, employment, and disposition of assets? These things could also be shared transparently.
After all, cOAlition S’ parent organization has committed to public transparency.
The European Science Foundation (ESF) sponsors cOAlition S in a manner reminiscent of how the New Venture Fund (NVF) sponsors SPARC. There isn’t a for-profit parent, and ESF doesn’t appear to be a “dark money” political philanthropy machine, but there are similarities, as well.
ESF is registered in France, and is listed in the EU’s Transparency Register, a register for lobbyist organizations. Whether that term has the same connotations in the EU as it does in the US is unclear. It is listed on LobbyFacts.eu as having annual lobbying expenditures between 800,000-899,999€. Who funds ESF isn’t entirely clear, and I couldn’t locate financial reporting beyond this topline numbers. Like NVF is for SPARC, ESF also seems to be the employer of cOAlition S staff, with Nora Papp listed as “cOAlition S Programme Manager at European Science Foundation” on her LinkedIn page.
The EU’s Transparency Register has a Code of Conduct, which ESF by default has adopted, with one relevant section reading:
External transparency: Apart from the obligation for lobbyists to disclose the information required for being registered (including regular reports), the code should further require lobbyists to make information about clients (in the case of consultancy firms) and sources of funding available in between reporting dates on their website or upon request by the public. This avoids cases where information on potential new clients and funding sources only becomes available when it is not relevant any more.
ESF was founded in 1974, with FNRS one of the 42 academies and research councils participating. After 2015, ESF rebranded itself as a “services-based organisation” under the rubric “Science Connect,” making all its prior outputs archival. This took effect in 2017, and like the Science Philanthropy Alliance (SPA) project of NVF, Science Connect promotes itself as supporting organizations in their grant evaluation processes. Whether this is a euphemism for taking a fee for helping to generate and secure grants is unclear, but other language on their landing page suggests this may well be the case.
Will we find out the budget for cOAlition S in the coming weeks? How open and transparent will it be? Will they do more than report top-line numbers?
We’re keeping an eye peeled to see if they live up to their rhetoric. SPARC clearly does not, and that’s a useful point of comparison.
SPARC’s Surpluses and Its Executive Director
I’ve become convinced that SPARC’s contract with its fiscal sponsor is actually a contract with Heather Joseph, SPARC’s Executive Director, individually. I’ve floated this idea a few times, and have asked to be corrected, yet the assertion has gone unchallenged. A direct request to review the contract on background has also gone unanswered. The lack of a board, the presence of only an advisory “Steering Committee,” and the lack of a registered business entity otherwise identified with SPARC makes this a highly likely scenario.
If we enter “follow the money” mode, this raises some interesting possibilities.
When asked what happens to any surpluses SPARC may generate in her interview with Richard Poynder, Joseph responded in the following manner:
Any annual surpluses, typically from carried-over grant funds, are held by NVF in restricted funds designated only for SPARC’s use.
The use of all SPARC funds is at the sole discretion of SPARC’s leadership, the SPARC Steering Committee (i.e. group of elected SPARC members), and the Executive Director, and are subject to SPARC’s Use of Funds Policy, which is posted here.
When you visit that Use of Funds Policy, it’s surprising (or not) how much power devolves to the Executive Director, which seems to confirm indirectly that Joseph holds nearly all the cards (or is sharing only those she needs to for the game to look legitimate).
Whether the Executive Director can dissolve the Steering Committee is unknown.
It all raises the question of what might happen to SPARC funds if and when Joseph retires or decides to wind SPARC down, which she may be able to do unilaterally. If there is no SPARC, there is no Steering Committee, and whatever is in SPARC’s surplus reserves at the time may simply be hers to keep.
It’s a very odd situation.
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