Plan S ‘could prove fatal’ for learned societies

Members say professional organisations dependent on income from subscription-model journals face ‘existential’ threat from landmark open access policy

October 19, 2018
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A European initiative to make publicly funded research immediately available in open access format could have disastrous consequences for learned and professional societies, it has been warned.

Plan S, announced by Science Europe in September, has so far received backing from funding agencies in 13 countries and is set to come into effect in January 2020.

While the project has been lauded by many, concerns have been expressed about the impact such a move would have on smaller publishers and on learned and professional societies, many of which rely on income from subscription-based journals. These titles would be off-limits to publicly funded researchers after the implementation of Plan S, which also aims to introduce a cap on article processing charges associated with open access titles.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Peter Richardson, interim joint chief executive of the UK’s Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, said that some societies could “disappear altogether” if their concerns were not heeded.

“If Plan S results in article processing charges being capped, that would have a marked effect on those organisations,” he explained. “It’s important that the conversation about implementation isn’t dominated by the larger commercial publishers.”

A major sticking point is the relatively short time frame, given the amount of time that it takes for a new journal to become known and reputable. Mr Richardson suggested that it would not be possible for existing society publishers to make the shift by opening new open access platforms in that time. “I think what we would hope for is a transition period to be put in place to give [us] more time to adjust,” he said.

Feedback from ALPSP members confirmed the prevalence of these fears. One anonymous executive director of a learned society said half of their group’s annual budget came from three journals.

The prospect of losing any of that income “scares me to death”, they said. “That revenue subsidises all our other programmes: membership, certification, conference, and online learning.”

“Over time, this could erode our source of editors, reviewers, and editorial board members...I doubt that we would be able to keep our journals afloat, and I doubt whether our publisher could remain in business either.”

Others suggest that such a view may be short-sighted, however. Stephen Eglen, reader in computational neuroscience at the University of Cambridge said that “excuses” about it being expensive to run a journal were becoming “increasingly hard to justify”.

“My suggestion for learned societies would be that if you can’t survive in a Plan S world, maybe look long and hard at the production costs and [take journals] to one of the many open access publishers who seem to be doing quite well,” Dr Eglen said.

Niamh O’Connor, journals publishing director at open access platform Plos, stressed that, while the majority of learned society members were “behind open science”, they needed to remain a part of the conversation around implementation of the proposals.

“It is undoubtedly the case for a lot of learned societies that this will have a very big impact,” said Dr O’Connor, speaking in her capacity as treasurer of ALPSP. “Societies are reimagining their publications, some with open access journals, [but] there is a danger that some of the societies might not last.

“Within that, there would be a question of what would happen to the journals and who would end up owning them.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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