Most ‘transformative’ journals miss Plan S open access targets

Big publishers finding switch away from paywalls challenging, says European-led coalition

June 23, 2022

Less than half of transformative journals are on course to make their transition to open-access publishing under the Plan S agreement, according to new analysis that has revealed the slow progress towards free-to-read research at many leading publishers.

In an update on the first year of Plan S, the European-led Coalition S group revealed that 56 per cent of the 2,240 academic titles deemed “transformative journals” by the project failed to meet their targets for 2021.

That would have required them to demonstrate an annual increase in the proportion of open access research content of at least 5 percentage points in absolute terms and at least 15 per cent in relative terms, year-on-year, under the Plan S scheme that came into effect at the start of 2021.

Those titles that did not meet their first-year target can only remain in the scheme if they hit their 2022 targets, which must be recalculated as if the Year 1 target had been achieved.

Any title that misses its 2022 open access target will be removed from the programme, which requires journal papers to be made free at the point of publication if their authors are supported by any of the 17 funding agencies and six foundations now signed up to Plan S.

Robert Kiley, head of strategy for Plan S, says that the failure of so many journals to hit their targets is “perhaps understandable as the transformative journal model is new and may take some time to be fully established”.

That said, many transformative journals would find it “challenging” to make the long-term transition to fully open access required by Plan S, adds Mr Kiley in an introduction to the report.

He believed that an open access rate of at least 25 per cent was a useful indicator on which journals are “more likely to make the transition to full open access”.

However, according to this analysis, Springer Nature was the only major publisher likely to flip a significant proportion of its journals to significantly higher levels of open access, with 622 of its 1,714 transformative journals currently publishing at least 25 per cent of their output as free-to-read.

Thirty of Cambridge University Press’s 233 transformative journals published 25 per cent or more open access, while just three of Elsevier’s 133 transformative journals had hit this mark by the end of 2021.

Overall, 730 of Springer Nature’s transformative titles hit their year one Plan S targets – more than double the total number of titles from all other publishers combined, the analysis finds.

However, the Springer Nature portfolio also “includes 545 titles (32 per cent) whose open access penetration rate is 10 per cent or less, including 85 journals (5 per cent) that have not made a single research article open access with a CC BY licence,” comments Mr Kiley, suggesting that these titles may be harder to retain as part of the Plan S scheme.

Steven Inchcoombe, Springer Nature’s chief publishing officer, said that the company’s success on this front, with more than 41,000 open-access articles due to be published this year as part of transformative deals agreed with governments and institutions, reflected the “bold commitment” it made in 2020 when it “signed up the overwhelming majority of our hybrid journals to be recognised by Coalition S as transformative journals.”

“I am delighted that the data shows we were right to do so and am very proud of the progress these journals are making in supporting the transition to a fully OA world,” added Mr Inchcoombe, who said that the higher download rates for open-access journals demonstrated the value of full open access without embargoes.

“We are however not complacent and, working together with Coalition S and non-Coalition S funders, we believe we can build on this in 2022 by collectively make the case for gold OA,” he concluded.

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