More clarity is needed over hybrid journals’ Plan S compliance

Recent confusion over The Lancet’s stance on green open access highlights the difficulty for support staff in preparing researchers for the new rules, says Alice Gibson

July 9, 2019
Hybrid fruit

As someone responsible for helping prepare academics for the implementation of Plan S at the beginning of 2021, I follow the evolution of publishers’ open access policies very carefully. As things stand, however, it is not always easy to provide academics with answers about which journals will be compliant with the new demands on open access.

A case in point is the Elsevier journal The Lancet, arguably the most prestigious in the medical field, which is a subscription journal with an open access option: a so-called hybrid journal.

In an editorial published on 8 June, the journal quoted Plan S as requiring that “the content be made freely available at the point of publication either in the form of the Author-Accepted Manuscript (AAM) or Version of Record (VoR)”, and goes on to say that “The Lancet Group’s hybrid journals will be fully compliant with this requirement”.

In a letter of response published by the journal on 19 June, Robert Kiley, head of open research at the Wellcome Trust and interim cOAlition S coordinator, celebrated this announcement, which he, among many others, understood as meaning that The Lancet will permit green open access, at no cost, with no embargo. After all, article processing charges include the cost of Creative Commons licences, which allow the immediate sharing and reuse of published works. So it is a given that gold open access articles can be legally uploaded to open access repositories with no embargo; it would make no sense to declare as a change of position something that has been true for a long time.

When, nevertheless, some commentators were hesitant to believe Kiley’s interpretation, he reaffirmed it. However, Gemma Hersh, vice-president for global policy at Elsevier, intervened on Twitter, describing this understanding as “not correct”, and several statements from The Lancet’s public Twitter account have since clarified that the editorial is referring only to gold open access articles.

“Our current policy,” one tweet read, “is that authors publishing gold open access in our hybrid titles can make their VOR [version of record] immediately and openly available in an open-access repository…by doing so authors will be Plan S compliant”.

In the vast majority of cases, however, this cannot be true because the eighth principle of Plan S is that its signatory funders “do not support the ‘hybrid’ model of publishing” unless the journal in question is on a “transitional pathway towards full open access”, which The Lancet is not.

When questioned, Kiley, observed on Twitter that a disagreement between the editors of The Lancet and Elsevier seemed to be occurring. “I think if [my] letter had misrepresented The Lancet's position, it would not have been published,” he said.

Feedback on the draft implementation guidance of Plan S expressed concern about the lack of clarity concerning how researchers can make their work compliant with Plan S via the green open access route, which revolves around the repositories that many universities have invested heavily in establishing. After all, while the gold model may work for biomedicine, it may not be suitable for humanities scholars, who have responded to the challenges underpinned by their lesser funding to develop excellent green projects such as Humanities Commons, and by establishing and autonomously running their own open access journals.

The Plan S signatories, known as cOAlition S, responded to that feedback by elucidating that “authors publish in a subscription journal and make either the final published version (Version of Record, VoR) or the Author’s Accepted Manuscript (AAM) openly available in a repository”. But this statement could be further strengthened by explicitly stating that publishers cannot be compliant simply by allowing the self-archiving of paid-for articles within hybrid journals.

Alternatively, the coalition could clarify when this would be successful, such as, perhaps, when the APC was paid out of residual departmental funds, rather than out of funders’ grants. This, however, would be a very unusual scenario, and administering such funds would require the training of university departmental staff who are already under significant pressure, or else the wasteful scattering of established, specialised teams of open access staff, currently gathered within university libraries and research offices, out to individual departments.

Decisions on whether to pay APCs which, in The Lancet’s case amount to $5,000 (£3,996) should not be based on assumptions that may be false; such an amount could pay the fees of a PhD student in the humanities for a whole year, after all. I would urge all publishers to alter their policies in line with what appears to be the intended meaning of Plan S: that open access embargo periods should be abolished for all articles, not just those for which an APC has been paid.

If such issues aren’t resolved promptly, they have the capacity not only to see funding misdirected. They could also undermine the good relationships that university research support staff such as myself have worked hard to establish with our academics.

Alice Gibson is research publications officer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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