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Plan S: Challenges and Opportunities

Plan S: Challenges and Opportunities

scholarly journals

Following the September 4 announcement of Europe’s still-evolving Plan S, society publishers have been trying to gauge the new funding mandate’s potential effects on its journals. And while some are concerned about the economic implications for journals, many are looking for new opportunities that may result from the changes.

The plan is a mandate by several major European funding agencies to make research articles more widely available through open-access publication. Its main principle states: “By 2020 scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants provided by participating national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.”

As for what is meant by “compliant,” the initiative will, among other things, mandate publication in fully open-access journals—no hybrids allowed—as of Jan. 1, 2020. Other provisions include that research must be published under a CC BY license, that authors retain copyright and that article processing fees (APCs) will be capped, though the amount of that cap has not been specified.

The plan’s lack of detail has some wondering about its immutability, but Rob Johnson, Director of Research Consulting in Nottingham, UK, said it probably won’t change before going into effect.

“The plan, in the form of the 10 principles, is seemingly fixed,” he said, “and so doesn’t require any further approval by those who have already signed up to it. A timeline of the next 2-3 months has been mentioned for the implementation plan, but there’s no firm guarantee as to when it will appear.”

Nature reported that Plan S funding agencies were expected to “launch a public consultation on their implementation ideas” by December, but it is unclear whether that will result in changes.

New opportunities for scholarly publishers

Finding the bright spots in a plan that has been criticized for upending society revenue streams and threatening academic freedom might not be easy for many publishers, but Tasha Mellins-Cohen, Director of Publishing for the Microbiology Society in London, said analyzing data might reveal new opportunities. During a recent Copyright Clearance Center webinar on Plan S, she explained how she wrote a script to analyze author, funder, and institutional data to identify authors who are eligible for APCs but didn’t know it.

During a follow-up interview with Allen Press, she elaborated, “As well as opening the door to some radical new business models, we’re hoping that some of the less-discussed components of Plan S will help correct some of the imbalances in the system,” she said. “For example, the push towards DORA [the Declaration on Research Assessment] will help encourage assessment of researcher-centric metrics instead of journal-level indicators such as the impact factor.”

Similarly, Malavika Legge, acting Director of Publishing for the Biochemical Society, also from London, is willing to look at new business models. “We completely understand and can appreciate funder, institutional and researcher frustrations with this paywalled model,” she said. “Something that really excites me is the goal of paywall-free content alongside the possibility of seeking journal funding via new workflows or channels that could free up researchers (and potentially institutions and us, too) from the need for per-paper individual APC payments. Beyond ideology of paywall-free and open content, it’s good to be part of the conversation and effort working out how to feasibly and tangibly realize this goal.”

Many society publishers wonder if that goal can be achieved by “flipping” a journal from a subscription model to an author-pays APC model. Malavika has been down this path and found it treacherous. The Biochemical Society’s publishing subsidiary, Portland Press, flipped the journal Bioscience Reports in 2012 and it took six years to get back on track financially.

“To put it simply, initially the flip was a flop and copyflow in this journal was absolutely negligible,” she said. “We are delighted with where the journal stands today and after six years the journal is starting to turn a profit again and so financially contribute to the society. But I think partly the reason why this has worked is the breadth of this journal’s scope, and the fact that it was one title in the portfolio.”

As a journal publisher, Allen Press has not been involved in such a transition and would hesitate to recommend it to any of the societies we work with because the loss of subscription and licensing revenues would necessitate an APC so high that most authors could not afford to publish in the journal. That doesn’t mean that all of the societies we work with are universally opposed to Plan S. Reactions to the plan among editors and society officers we’ve spoken with range from feeling that the plan is good for science in general to concerns that the plan doesn’t take into account the true costs of publishing or may impose too many restrictions on authors.

Jeffrey Seminoff, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Chelonian Conservation and Biology, which is published in collaboration with Allen Press, said that the goal of making research available to the public is laudable but the plan as devised could harm independent journals. “I’m afraid the end result would be a homogenization of the scientific publishing world, resulting in fewer options for authors, and longer wait times for publication,” he said. “This lack of journal diversity may also make it more challenging for authors of divergent or unpopular research studies to find a suitable journal.”

“On the other hand,” Seminoff continued, “if authors are forced to pay for publication this would result in the gradual attrition of authorship from scholars with lesser institutional funding. Academic freedom would be diminished as would the diversity of authors and institutions whose research is featured in the pages of journals supported by larger publishing conglomerates.”

Sense of perspective

According to Delta Think, an industry consultant, about 3.3% of research worldwide is funded by agencies that support Plan S. But that estimate was published in late September 2018, when only 11 agencies had signed on. As of today, 15 agencies support the plan, including the recent additions of the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. Rob Johnson, of Research Consulting, said the number could keep growing.

“It is important to note that the European Commission’s Horizon Europe funding program, which is worth 100 million Euros over the period 2021-2027 (i.e., very significant), is still in development, and hasn’t formally adopted the Plan S principles,” Johnson said.

“The EC has indicated its support for Plan S, so the expectation is that the Plan S principles will be adopted by Horizon Europe as well, but this does remain subject to approval by the European Council and European Parliament.” According to Nature, the original 11 signatory agencies are responsible for 7.6 billion Euros in grant funding each year.

As for the rest of the world, journals published in China tend to be OA already, Johnson said, but researchers there are under pressure to publish in English-language journals. Other countries such as India and many in Latin America are wary of APC-based open access because it is simply not affordable.

Mellins-Cohen’s early estimates suggest that about 15% of the Microbiology Society’s author base is funded by a Plan S funder, with about 20% holding one or more affiliations in a Plan S country. “While I wouldn’t consider 20% to be a threshold for a flip to an APC model,” she said, “it is a significant proportion of our output.”

The situation at the Biochemical Society is similar, but as always the details make a difference. “At a portfolio level our exposure also happens to be very close to 20%,” said Legge. “However, it’s worth pointing out that for us there is in some cases a large difference on a journal-by-journal basis. Some journals will need little to no action, while the exposure for other titles is more significant.”

Mellins-Cohen and Legge said member response is mixed. “Our members have very different levels of knowledge about Plan S, depending on their institutional affiliations,” Mellins-Cohen said. “We are of course hearing concerns that members will be forced to publish in venues they may prefer not to use, given the ban on hybrid journals.”

Both said there are concerns, though, from society officers. “A key worry is threats to revenues and therefore sustainable returns to the society in order that it may continue its charitable work,” Legge said. “This is not purely member-focused work, but also work to promote and advance the molecular biosciences for all who practice or have an interest in the discipline. The society offers education and training programs, scientific meetings and provides grants and awards in addition to carrying out policy and public engagement work. Publishing makes up over 70% of the income that underpins and facilitates these activities.”

As more details become clear and more publishers, editors, and society officers weigh in, Allen Press will update its coverage of Plan S with more information. Return to our blog and follow us on social media to get the latest information.