Plan S: where are we now?

Back in March we took stock of the current status of Plan S, and reviewed the issues standing in the way of movement towards open access (OA). Now that revised implementation guidelines have been published, we revisit those issues and assess the extent to which they’ve been addressed.

Business models: The new guidelines make it clear that publication in an OA journal/on an OA platform is not the only route to OA. Green OA (where the article is published in a subscription journal but also made openly available in a repository) is deemed acceptable if funders aren’t required to contribute to publication fees, and funders are allowed (although not obliged) to contribute financially to OA publication in a subscription journal under a transformative arrangement. A tool is also promised to help researchers work out whether their chosen route fulfils Plan S requirements.

Funding the transition: In recognition that transformative agreements may be difficult for scholarly publishers, who are not large enough to negotiate directly with institutions, alternative transition options are laid out: model contracts for transformative agreements, and transformative journals (with a clear plan for gradually increasing the OA content). This still feels a bit vague – a joint project is underway by Wellcome, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) to address the issues specific to scholarly societies, but ALPSP has expressed concern that timescales are tight given the work still to be done.

Setting Article Processing Charges (APCs): The question of how to determine ‘fair compensation’ for publishing services is effectively shelved for the time being: the guidelines require full transparency of publication costs and fees, which cOAlition S will monitor. There are currently no caps, but the understanding is that these may be implemented later if prices don’t appear commensurate with the services being provided.

Paying APCs: The difficulty some researchers (e.g. those new to the field) may encounter in getting funding to support publication is recognised, and publishers are required to provide waivers or discounts in cases of demonstrable need, while ensuring that ability to pay APCs does not affect the editorial decision-making process. Presumably the number of waivers granted will affect the level of APCs for funded authors, so it’s to be hoped that this will be taken into account when prices are monitored.

Evaluating research: There’s now a specific commitment for funders to assess research on its own merit rather than according to where it is published, in line with the principles of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). This is a step in the right direction, although changing ingrained attitudes across the whole of the scholarly community may take some time.

Global coverage: By addressing some of the issues raised by non-members (e.g. by requiring waivers for low-income countries), cOAlition S hope to encourage more funders to sign up. As yet it’s early days, so it remains to be seen how this strategy will pan out.

Subject coverage: One significant change is that CC BY-ND licences, which exclude adaptation of the work and are regarded as more acceptable to humanities and social science researchers, are now permitted on a case-by-case basis. Since non-APC models are important in these disciplines, the clarification of the repository compliance route is also helpful. On a more general level, an analysis of gaps in OA provision is promised, with accompanying incentives for establishing OA journals and platforms or flipping existing ones, although details of how these will work are still unclear.

Timescales: The deadline for compliance has been extended by a year to 1 January 2021, with funding for transformative agreements to end by 31 December 2024. This is a welcome delay, although some publishers have expressed concerns that the timescales are still too tight.

The new guidelines still contain some woolly areas, particularly around provisions for scholarly publishers and for the humanities and social sciences. But cOAlition S have certainly listened to feedback and are showing a willingness to be flexible. If they continue to monitor progress and respond to issues, then the world of scholarly publishing will be making progress towards the ultimate goal of open dissemination of knowledge – even if that’s not fully achieved within the specified timescales.