open access, publishing

‘Plan S’ and turmoil in scholarly publishing

Dan Croft ~


In early September 2018 a number of European national research funders – including our own UKRI – joined together into cOAlition S to announce a bold new set of Open Access requirements for how the research they fund must be published. This scheme, quickly branded ‘Plan S’ by commentators, started with 10 principles that were later expanded into Guidance on the Implementation of Plan S (to which cOAlition S invited feedback).

The arguments for Open Access per se are well established and compelling (particularly considering the proportion of academic research that is publicly funded):

Publication paywalls are withholding a substantial amount of research results from a large fraction of the scientific community and from society as a whole

Why Plan S?

As such, opposition to Plan S has typically agreed with the principle of Open Access and of Plan S in general, but criticised the particulars of the Plan S method. In response, commentators supportive of Plan S have countered that fundamental changes to the structure of scholarly publishing are long overdue (whilst sometimes also criticising the specifics of Plan S).

The contentious and sometimes partisan nature of these debates is demonstrated by an open letter signed by those opposing Plan S and, seemingly in response, an open letter signed by those supporting schemes like Plan S.

Meanwhile, since its launch, cOAlition S has been boosted by several major charitable research funders (e.g. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust) signing up to the coalition, whilst the possibility of the national research funders of China and even the United States of America throwing their considerable weight behind the scheme has also been mooted. On the other hand, even some European national research funders – notably Germany – are not full signatories of cOAlition S.

Unfortunately the debates and controversies around Plan S have not been helped by the vague language of the initial 10 principles and even much of the Guidance on the Implementation of Plan S, with the result that rational debate of the pros and cons of known consequences has been superseded by interpretation and counter-interpretation, prediction and prophecy.

The big debates

Viability:

  • Objection: compliance with the Plan S requirements simply cannot be achieved with the current scholarly publishing system.
  • Response: cOAlition S have always been explicit that their aim was to drive large changes in scholarly publishing rather than work with the existing model. On the other hand, Plan S comes into effect from January 2020 so the timeframe in which to “accelerate the transition” to immediate Open Access was always ambitious.

Proportionality:

  • Objection: the sweeping reforms of scholarly publishing implied by sector-wide compliance with Plan S are disproportionately large compared to the share of research projects directly funded by cOAlition S funders (hence the significance of whether or not China and the USA join cOAlition S). This is particularly because compliance with Plan S is not judged based on the actual output itself (e.g. the article, chapter, or book) but because it is judged on the journal or platform (i.e. the whole journal must be compliant for the article to meet the Plan S requirements).
  • Response: judging compliance by journal or platform is necessary to avoid what is known as ‘double dipping’ (often synonymous with the ‘hybrid’ journals that cOAlition S are particularly keen to discourage) whereby the research ecosystem pays the same journal for both the Open Access Fees to publish some articles and the subscription fees to read other articles. Also, publishers can choose not to become Plan S compliant, meaning that cOAlition S funded research would likely be published elsewhere (with cOAlition S funders having to accept the consequence of their own policy if that meant the research was published in a less respected or visible venue).

Quality:

  • Objection: implementing a ‘Pay-to-publish’ model (the ‘Gold’ Open Access Fee model) will incentivise publishers to publish quantity rather than quality and lead to a decline in the calibre of scholarly research.
  • Response: the current ‘Pay-to-read’ model (the subscription model) is already a recipe for unchecked commercial expansion and, as a result, has become an unsustainable drain on the research ecosystem know as ‘the serials crisis’. This situation is defined by ever increasing numbers of subscription journals (each one a monopoly) and year-on-year increases in subscription prices (that far outstrip the rates of inflation) with the industry dominated by a handful of corporations who leverage extraordinary profit margins. Plan S aims to address the serials crisis by encouraging authors and publishers to forego the subscription model whilst leaving open the possibility of capping Open Access Fees in order to control the costs of a Plan S compliant publishing landscape.

Inequality:

  • Objection: in attempting to drive scholarly publishing from a ‘Pay-to-read’ model to a ‘Pay-to-publish’ model Plan S will replace an inequality of readership (i.e. some researchers can’t afford subscriptions fees) with an inequality in authorship (i.e. some researchers can’t afford publication fees), particularly at institutions without the considerable resources needed to pay Open Access Fees for all of their researchers.
  • Response: Plan S includes the requirement that publishers must offer fee waivers or discounts for authors from low or middle income countries. Meanwhile, in high income countries the expenditure on journal subscriptions (which would be dramatically reduced in a Plan S compliant publishing landscape) could be ‘flipped’ to pay instead for Open Access Fees (and studies have been done which suggest there is enough funding in the system as a whole to change entirely from a ‘Pay-to-read’ to a ‘Pay-to-publish’ model). Of course there is no guarantee that individual institutions would ‘flip’ all their subscription costs to Open Access Fees and, either way, it would likely mean institutions appraising research quality prior to submission and rationing which research outputs they would pay to make ‘Gold’ Open Access (which – depending on your point of view – might be considered an opportunity to instigate a developmental process and a mechanism for improving research quality or a pernicious and administratively burdensome assault on academic freedom). One undoubted positive is that a predominately ‘Pay-to-publish’ model would address a fundamental problem in the current system:

Researchers’ selection of a publication channel is, on one hand, unduly influenced by a concern with rankings and, on the other hand, decoupled from the financial implications of their choice

Future of scholarly publishing and scholarly communication

Academic freedom:

  • Objection: having research funders like cOAlition S determining the conditions under which the research they fund is published is an unjustifiable attack on academic freedom.
  • Response: the definition and extent of academic freedom is contested whilst the freedom for researchers to publish behind paywalls limits the freedom of other researchers to read. Others take the view that it is the research funder’s prerogative to decide the conditions under which they award funding and that they have a responsibility to get the best value from the funding they provide (particularly if they are themselves funded by the general public through taxation).

Career progression:

  • Objection: not all publication venues would (or could) comply with Plan S requirements, leading to a bifurcation between those compliant with Plan S and those who are not, with only the former being regarded as reputable places to publish. This would damage the career prospects of Early Career Researchers, especially at less wealthy institutions, who may struggle to gain the funding (either directly from a research funder or from their institution) to publish in reputable venues and therefore not acquire the prestige to advance their careers.
  • Response: we already have system where the quality of research publications and, by extension, the career prospects of their authors are judged and determined primarily based upon the ‘brand’ of the journal or publisher where the research is published. It is common knowledge that publishing with Science or Nature can be a career defining success and that metrics such as the Journal Impact Factor are used as a proxy measure for the quality of any given article in a particular journal. This situation creates perverse incentives for researchers to research particular topics likely to attract the attention of prestigious publication venues and grants extraordinary power to particular publishers. Plan S directly addresses this by saying that members of cOAlitionS will sign and implement the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which specifically encourages funders, institutions, publishers, and individuals to change to a culture where research evaluation processes are transparent and focus upon the content of the actual research.

Learned societies:

  • Objection: Many learned societies channel income from the subscription journals they publish (often through a large commercial publisher) into a range of educational, training and support activities and services for their members.
  • Response: Robert Jan Smits – a key individual in cOAlition S – has reportedly questioned whether this is an appropriate funding model for learned societies (i.e. non-members financially supporting services for members), whilst the official Plan S response has been to initiate a consultation on how to support learned societies to move to business models that are compliant with Plan S.

Licensing:

The plot thickens

Despite the sheer amount of criticism (often in the form of an admonishing ‘open letter’), cOAlition S appeared to be robustly holding to their bold positions, but a few events have made understanding the implications of Plan S even more difficult for researchers and institutions trying to predict how they might comply with the requirements.

Firstly, nearly 700 German institutions negotiated and agreed an Open Access deal with the publisher Wiley that was reportedly claimed to be compliant with Plan S, despite seeming to contradict some important aspects of it. Also it appears that signatories of cOAlition S will choose how they implement the Plan S requirements in their own Open Access policies (potentially meaning each funder implements their own variation of Plan S rather than having a single unified policy).

Meanwhile, in the UK plans were already well advanced at a number of institutions to introduce a UK Scholarly Communication Licence (UKSCL) as an attempt to increase the pace of migration to a fully Open Access environment. Those involved continue to push for such a shift whilst working out how it can contribute to and dovetail with the ambitions of Plan S.

What this all means for researchers at Oxford Brookes is that the requirements we will have to comply with will not actually be Plan S or even UKSCL, but instead will be the UKRI open access policy that is currently being developed and is expected in late 2019. The UKRI policy will be informed by Plan S (as UKRI is a signatory) but it may not be identical and may even contain some significant differences.

Until the UKRI Open Access policy is released there is little Oxford Brookes can do except stay informed of the debates and hope that the outcome of Plan S works to improve scholarly publishing for authors, readers, editors, publishers, the public, librarians, funders, and every other stakeholder in the production of academic research.


For an insightful and even-handed article on Plan S please see Johnson, R. (2019) ‘From Coalition to Commons: Plan S and the Future of Scholarly Communication’. Insights, 32 (1): 5. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1629/uksg.453

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