Opening up access with Plan S

Like everyone else connected with journals publishing, we’ve been following the literature on Plan S with interest. With updated guidance on its implementation due this spring, it’s a good time to pause and take stock of how things currently stand.

Plan S requires that, from 1 January 2020, the results of research funded by members of cOAlition S must be published in open access (OA) journals or repositories. This is a simple principle, and the aim of opening up research is not in itself particularly controversial. But the issues that need addressing in order to achieve that aim are more complex – particularly when the views of the various stakeholders (researchers, funders, academic institutions and publishers) come into play.

Business models: Plan S doesn’t favour specific business models, and publishers are considering various options, ranging from making preprints available on open platforms to ‘flipping’ complete journals from subscription to OA. More guidance would be welcome on which of these options will be acceptable – certain approaches, such as ‘twigged’ journals (two versions of a title, sharing an editorial team, but one containing OA articles and one non-OA articles), have already been disallowed by Plan S.

Funding the transition: One of the headline benefits of Plan S is that it will prevent research being locked away behind subscription paywalls, and this is important at a time of shrinking library budgets. However, the picture often presented of rich publishers with high profit margins is an over-simplification. While the largest publishers should be able to absorb the costs of transitioning to new business models, scholarly societies may struggle – and it’s worth remembering that their publishing profits go back into supporting researchers in other ways.

Setting Article Processing Charges (APCs): Plan S recognises that publishers should receive ‘fair compensation’ for preparing articles for publication, while pointing out that some costs (such as typesetting, layout, printing and distribution) are no longer so relevant in the digital world. So how should ‘fair compensation’ be determined? The availability of self-publication options makes it easy to overlook the value added by professionals – see Kent Anderson’s list of 102 things journal publishers do. Society publishers in particular, lacking the economies of scale enjoyed by larger publishers, may need higher APCs, but if APCs are to be standard and capped will they have to offer less in order to cut editorial costs?

Paying APCs: Although Plan S is clear that individual researchers shouldn’t have to pay APCs, there is some concern that new researchers might end up in a catch-22 situation, where they need funding to publish but can’t get funding until they have published. Will institutions be willing to pay APCs for these researchers? The problem is that not all research will be covered by Plan S, so the need to pay subscriptions to traditional journals won’t disappear overnight in order to free up money for APCs.

Evaluating research: Should researchers have the choice to pay a higher APC to publish in a more selective journal, with a high-quality peer-review system? Or is the current system of judging research according to where it’s published antiquated? There’s certainly support for revising the academic reward system to judge research on its own merits, in line with the principles of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). The question is how long it will take to change ingrained ways of thinking – in the meantime, is there a risk of encouraging quantity rather than quality of output?

Global coverage: The funding bodies that have so far signed up to Plan S come from just 13 countries. There is some concern among researchers that this will discourage international collaboration, or indeed that researchers will be drawn to work in countries without restrictions. But others predict that if Europe takes the lead, the rest of the world will follow – and there are funders from other countries who have endorsed the plan but not yet signed up. More may take that plunge once the implementation details are clearer.

Subject coverage: With subject coverage also limited at present, publishers are faced with decisions over how many journals need to be moved over to new business models. This in turn leaves researchers fearing they’ll be unable to publish in the best journal (in terms of subject and/or quality). The ‘one size fits all’ approach also worries some – for example, APCs are already common in science, technology, engineering and medicine, but not often seen in the humanities and social sciences.

Timescales: A number of publishers, researchers and funders have expressed the opinion that the timescales are too short to allow the emergence of fully developed business models, the setting up of new journals and platforms, or a change to the academic reward system. It’s not yet clear how much flexibility there will be over transformative agreements to support transition to OA systems.

Putting the dissemination of knowledge before profit is a good principle – and one that even many critics of Plan S would agree with. But there’s still a way to go before everything is in place to make this happen – we look forward to seeing how the revised implementation plan addresses the questions above in order to move towards that goal.