Plos strikes California deal as big publishers drop paywalls

Goal is to help subscription-free pioneers survive as their idea gains wide adoption

February 19, 2020
Source: Reuters

The Public Library of Science has struck a deal with the University of California system designed to sustain the open-access publisher’s subscription-free journals and cover the cost of article processing charges.

The two-year agreement, which will use a combination of California library payments and researcher grant support to cover article processing charges for California research published by Plos journals, is designed to protect Plos periodicals at a time when they face a potential threat from the transition of traditional subscription-based publishers to “read-and-publish” deals in which universities pay publication fees up front in return for the removal of paywalls.

Plos – which publishes titles including the megajournal Plos One – arose in 2000 from a petition of leading voices in US academic research who demanded an alternative to the dominant subscription-based models they saw as unfairly and unwisely limiting the sharing of publicly financed science.

As more subscription publishers move towards open access, and sign deals to cover the cost of publication fees, Plos faces the danger that its author-pays tradition – running to about $1,600 (£1,200) per article – could drive away researchers who can get their work distributed in other no-paywall formats for less.

But Sara Rouhi, director of strategic partnerships at Plos, said that author-paid fees were only meant to be an interim solution to help academic publishing move away from subscription barriers.

“What UC is doing, by choosing to put Plos as one of their first deals, is really meant to be a signal to the broader library community that these are the publishers that pioneered this model and have been on the right side of history from day one, and we can’t leave them on the sidelines,” she said.

The California system has been at the forefront of the open-access battle in the US, cancelling its deal with the giant publisher Elsevier last year after failing to strike a deal on making its research openly available. After striking agreements with open-access terms with several other publishers, including Cambridge University Press and the Association for Computing Machinery, California said last month that it would renew negotiations with Elsevier and that it was in continuing discussions with two other major publishers, Wiley and Springer Nature.

Jeff MacKie-Mason, the university librarian at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the California system’s lead negotiators with publishers, said that the new contract was driven not by wanting to save Plos for reasons of sentimentality or altruism, but by campuses wanting to serve their own researchers who may prefer Plos.

“What we’re trying to do, as an institution, is create a level playing field for scholarly publishing,” Dr MacKie-Mason said, so that authors are not limiited by financial factors when they decide where to submit an article.

The agreement with Plos envisages researchers paying a share of the author fee to Plos when they have sufficient grant funds to cover it, and universities paying the entire author fee when the researchers don’t have that money.

The importance to Plos of that precedent is reflected in the California system’s status as the producer of nearly 10 per cent of all US academic publishing. Another gain for Plos, Ms Rouhi said, was the possibility that scientists in lower-revenue academic fields might now find Plos affordable.

Yet the change also raised the obvious possibility of pressure building over time for funding agencies to stop including money for author fees in grants, Dr MacKie-Mason acknowledged.

For that problem, he said, the solution must eventually require consultations among a broad cross-section of journals, funding agencies and universities to gain agreement on a common long-term set of cost-sharing norms.

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