Plan S may ‘consolidate power of big publishers’, academy warns

London Book Fair hears claims European open access push may aid big publishers rather than reduce their power

March 15, 2019
how to get published academic paper journal
Source: iStock

The world’s largest commercial publishers may see their dominant market position enhanced by a European initiative to make publicly funded research immediately available in open access format, it has been warned.

Advocates of Plan S have claimed the shift to open access will rein in the power and profits enjoyed by large academic publishers, including Elsevier, which last month posted profits of nearly £1 billion in 2018.

Critics have, however, questioned whether the project may actually strengthen the hand of multinational publishers at the expense of smaller publishers, including those run by learned 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 was announced by Science Europe in September and received backing from funding agencies in 14 countries, as well as the European Commission.

Speaking at London Book Fair, James Rivington, head of publications at the British Academy which funds humanities and social science research, said many journals run by learned societies may struggle to adapt to Plan S rules (which come into effect in January 2020) and may seek commercial alliances to survive.

“The people who are most able to comply [with the changes] are big publishers and learned societies may be required to establish larger connections to these big publishers,” said Mr Rivington, who added that “it might be that the position of big publishers is embedded further”.

Mr Rivington also questioned the impact of Plan S on the humanities and social science scholars as the “vast majority do not receive grant funding that allow for the large [article] processing costs” that are paid under open access models.

“It is interesting to hear how scholars working without [grant] support…should turn to their university for that money” for processing costs, added Mr Rivington, who said that, in many cases, “where [these university-provided funds] do exist, they are not enough and scholars have not always been successful in getting this money”.

Destroying the subscription-based model could limit the ability of smaller publishers to edit and disseminate journal articles written by scholars, the conference also heard.

“The amount [of work] we put in to help shape articles is far beyond peer review and it comes with a cost – we also put in a huge amount of work to market that content,” explained Julia Mortimer, journals director at Bristol University Press.

However, David Sweeney, executive director of Research England and co-chair of the Plan S implementation committee, said that “there has to be some discussion about whether these services are wanted” in light of concerns over the cost of some subscription journals.

Mr Sweeney also rejected claims from some publishers that Research England’s umbrella body UK Research and Innovation, which spends about £6 billion on research annually, was using its financial clout to drive the Plan S reforms.

“It is not an economic actor because it does not deal with publishers,” insisted Mr Sweeney, who said it was up to universities to cut their own deals with publishers.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (3)

It would have been useful if the article had clarified Mr Sweeney's comment “there has to be some discussion about whether these services are wanted”. It appears to refer to the costs of the editorial process referred to in the previous paragraph mentioned by Julia Mortimer. As a journal editor, I entirely agree with her. The editorial process is not something that just happens, and yet there has been, through the debates over open access, a refusal to accept the role of journals in shaping (and in many cases nurturing) the work of contributors. Mr Sweeney doubtless feel that just placing ill-written, often ill-thought through papers in a university repository is enough. He may be right, but if so, I conclude that he doesn't believe in quality, merely volume. This may do with largely technical papers reporting results in the STEM subjects, but will not work in the Humanities and Social Sciences. The overall argument is largely correct though: once Mr Sweeney has put the learned societies out of business, they will be a greater recourse to the conglomerate publishers. Richard Hoyle Editor, Agricultural History Review
Plan S is a sledgehammer aimed at commercial publishers who basically exploit the academic community who both pay to publish their Open Access articles, while providing editorial and reviewing services free of charge. However, Plan S will also have serious impacts on learned societies for whom publishing is a key part of their charitable function and who use any surplus from their publishing activities to support their academic and the wider community. The learned societies that I have been heavily involved with contribute to the public awareness of issues such antibiotic resistance and global warming, provide grants for early career researchers, and run summer schools, congresses and focused meetings. Learned society subscription-based journal also provide a cost-free vehicle for publishing research funded by small charities and developing countries while still providing an Open Access option for those who require it. The catch all Plan S risks "throwing the baby out with the bath water". It will also not solve the underlying issue – you only have to look at the cost of Open Access publishing in the so-called Discovery Journals.
Apart from the impact on learned societies in Humanities and Social Sciences, and I fully sympathise with the editors and publishers of such journals who can clearly see the shortcomings of Plan S, there is also an impact on retired academics in HSS, many of whom continue to research and wish to publish. There is no-one to pay article publication fees for them. Are they to be excluded from professional discussion?