Plan S: a shock or a solution for academic publishing?

European funders’ shift away from subscription journals raises questions over the outlook for prestigious periodicals

September 7, 2018
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Ever since the announcement of “Plan S”, European research funders’ demand for publication of papers they supported on open-access platforms from January 2020, there has been much debate over what it stands for.

First, what the “S” means: according to Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s special envoy on open access, it could be “science”, “speed”, “solution” or “shock”; and, second, what the plan itself will accomplish – in particular, whether it will erode the cachet of publishing in prestigious subscription journals such as Nature and Science.

Plan S, unveiled last week by Science Europe with the support of 11 funding agencies, including UK Research and Innovation and the European Commission, is an unprecedented step and a undeniable victory for campaigners who have for decades argued the case for freely accessible science.

Collectively, the 11 funders spend about £6.8 billion on research annually, and fully open-access journals remain in the minority in the publishing world. Under Plan S, “hybrid” journals, which charge subscriptions but also make content freely available in return for a fee, would not be acceptable publishing outlets; and there is also a plan to standardise and cap the article processing charges associated with open-access titles.

Major publishers have, perhaps unsurprisingly, reacted badly. The International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers urged “caution”, suggesting that such a transition had the potential to create “limitations on academic freedoms” as well as limit “the overall viability and integrity of the scholarly record”.

A spokeswoman for Nature said that the removal of hybrid and subscription publishing options for researchers in Europe failed to take into account a “global view” and urged funding agencies to “align rather than act in small groups in ways that are incompatible with each other”.

Speaking to the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, Tom Reller, vice-president for global communications at Elsevier, put it more bluntly: “If you think information shouldn’t cost anything, go to Wikipedia.”

But some academics said that these reactions were missing the point. Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, argued that the move presented “a real opportunity for funders and institutions to get serious about research evaluation that focuses on the research and not journal names or impact factors”.

Many have already pledged their support in this way, he noted, by signing up to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, known as Dora. “But we still need more sharing of what constitutes best practice in the sector,” Professor Curry added. “People want practical and robust solutions.”

Frank Norman, head of library and information services at the Francis Crick Institute, said that major publishers should see Plan S as “an opportunity, or challenge, for them to engage more fully with open access”.

“Publishers are very adaptable, and I expect that they will find a way to work with [it],” he said. “The purpose of Plan S is to strengthen and extend open access to research literature – it is not about dismantling anything.”

Martin Eve, professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London, said that Plan S was significant in that it marks “the first time that we have seen a true pushback against the escalating costs of hybrid”.

“It would be nice to think that publishers would now finally make moves to transition to open access,” he added. “But I think that until we see the detail, they will prefer to sit tight.”

Open-access advocates may be ready for a wholesale move away from selective journals, but one question that has come into sharper focus in the wake of the Plan S announcement is whether the rest of academia is.

Stephen Davey, chief editor of Nature Reviews Chemistry, argued on Twitter that selective journals that operated behind a paywall provide a valuable service simply because “there is too much literature for any one person to read everything”.

“I'm not anti-open access,” he stressed, “[but] I would like it to be achieved in a sustainable way without harming a publishing ecosystem that I think in general does a pretty good job.”

Others claim that there are not enough high-quality open-access venues available to replace the need for traditionally respected brands. Jeroen Bosman, subject librarian for geosciences at Utrecht University, agreed that there were “bound to be some gaps” in the availability of open-access venues across some specific fields of research, although he added that there were “also some very good multidisciplinary options, some of which are already well established, [for instance] PeerJ, Plos One, [and] F1000 Research”.

Another big question is how such a move will affect the margins of the big publishers. Earlier this year, Elsevier reported a profit of more than £900 million for 2017, but financial experts pinpointed its subscription-based business model as a “principal risk” to the company’s future growth.

Dr Bosman pointed out that many publishing houses, “legacy [publishers] as well as new open-access publishers” already operate “broad suites of full open-access journals”. The key to their stability, he suggested, will be in how far they are willing to continue to adapt.


Print headline: Plan S: shock or solution?

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Reader's comments (2)

Don’t you just love Stephen Davey’s patronising comment. Essentially a select group of self no inated individuals can guide us as to what is worth reading!
Sic self-nominated