Plan S launches, but will it drive down publisher fees?

Announcement of hefty article processing charges by prestige titles challenges goals of open access mandate

January 13, 2021
Clear costings transparency is no panacea as ‘competition hasn’t resulted in Bentleys costing the same as Volkswagens’
Source: Getty
Clear costings transparency is no panacea as ‘competition hasn’t resulted in Bentleys costing the same as Volkswagens’

The road to the introduction of the Plan S open access mandate this month was not an entirely smooth one, with setbacks including a one-year delay and the refusal of some big publishers and funders to play ball, including last year’s withdrawal of the European Research Council.

But it was the recent announcement of hefty article processing charges (APCs) by prestigious titles, standing at about £8,000 for Nature and Cell, that raised some of the harshest questions about the European-led project, 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.

There is disappointment, and even anger, because Plan S had set itself the challenge of “contributing to the establishment of…fair and reasonable prices for publishing services”. Scientists have long raged against the huge profits racked up by publishing firms such as Elsevier, but they fear that if revenues are simply transferred from subscription fees to APCs, open access will do little to free academic communication from commercial control.

“I have received some strong reactions from scientists who are shocked by this high amount,” said Robert-Jan Smits, one of the architects of Plan S while he was director general of research and innovation at the European Commission.

Describing Nature’s fee as “outrageous”, Mr Smits said it “shows once more that my original idea of having a cap on APCs as part of Plan S should have been maintained as one of its key principles”. It was “always my fear that the introduction of Plan S could trigger an explosion of APCs”, added Mr Smits, now president of Eindhoven University of Technology.

He was more optimistic that a breakdown of journal costs, due to be published by Plan S-compliant journals by summer 2022, will help to reduce APCs by revealing, for example, a publisher’s profit margin or whether a journal selection model (Nature rejects more than 95 per cent of submitted articles) is contributing excessively to its APC. If high rejection rates are leading to exorbitant costs, “the question should be asked if this is a solid way of doing business, [because] it’s certainly not good business for the public purse”, Mr Smits said.

Johan Rooryck, executive director of Coalition S, the international consortium of funders behind Plan S, said he believed that the publication of journals’ APCs would kick off a more informed discussion about publishing costs that could lead to lower prices.

“These costs were buried in the unseen plumbing of library subscriptions, but there is a bit more of a realisation about what is going on at the publishers and the work they do,” said Professor Rooryck, who added that Plan S was “keen to control costs through our transparency frameworks, which we hope will rekindle competition”.

While Plan S has not ruled out a cap on APCs, such a move would be a “last resort”, he added, saying it could prompt publishers to push up their prices to any ceiling in the same way that UK universities flocked to charge the maximum tuition fee of £9,000 in 2012. “Journals might ask ‘Why are we leaving good money on the table?’ if they charge below the cap,” said Professor Rooryck.

Many Plan S advocates also hope that the increased number of journals offering APCs might shine a light on those charging high prices, with more choice of open access venue leading to an overall reduction of fees.

But Samuel Moore, a research fellow at Coventry University’s Centre for Postdigital Cultures, pointed out that higher prices were unlikely to deter many researchers from seeking publication in prestige titles.

“Researchers will, of course, pay these fees because they’re spending someone else’s money, so the idea of prices being impacted by a competitive market is fanciful at best,” said Dr Moore.

Rick Anderson, university librarian at Utah’s Brigham Young University-Provo, who has researched the business models of scholarly publishers, said he would be “surprised if Plan S has any real impact on APC prices”.

“Even in a competitive marketplace, you’re still going to have high-priced products,” said Mr Anderson, who remarked that “competition hasn’t resulted in Bentleys costing the same as Volkswagens”.

“As long as it’s more desirable to publish in some journals than in others,” he said, “competitive pressures will drive prices up for the desired ones.” Many top-tier journals have higher expenses in the form of salaries for full-time editors, for example, which means “business-cost pressures will drive up prices for those [titles]”, he continued. “Unfortunately for those who want to see APC prices fall, it’s often the high-prestige journals that are also the ones investing most in their publishing services,” Mr Anderson said.

Even price transparency might have a limited impact on what is a reasonable cost to publish, he added.

“I don’t think there will ever be a consensus on that question – one’s view on what constitutes ‘reasonable’ will be significantly shaped by your view of what publishers should and shouldn’t do, and of what is and isn’t morally acceptable in scholarly communication,” said Mr Anderson. “These are not views that are shaped entirely by reason or by economics; they have largely to do with values.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Hefty fees to publish take shine off Plan S launch

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