Plan S: Provoking Discussion, Driving Change

During the first quarter of 2019, there was heightened discussion between stakeholders in the information community, discussions driven in large part by announcements and events tied to Plan S, a European initiative intended to force broader dissemination of publicly funded research into the hands of the public by the beginning of 2020. Launched in the fall of 2018, Plan S was developed by 11 European Union national funding bodies with the following statement as their mission: “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.”  In February and March of 2019, a host of stakeholders responded to the implementation guidelines initially put forward by cOAlition S.

Those reading Plan S can quickly grasp that the intention of the founders was a unified approach intended to shift a European population of researchers towards a new pay-to-publish model of dissemination. As always, the devil proved to be in the details of implementation.

Librarian Lisa Hinchliffe, a contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog, reviewed the more than 400 responses to Plan S and the guidelines for implementation and provided her impressions of the significant common themes appearing in those responses. Some of those included in her post were:

  • The complexity of establishing an equitable form of article processing charges (APCs) in a pay-to-publish system as well as the potentially adverse effects of such a system on the Global South;
  • A concern that researchers in the humanities and social sciences would be adversely impacted by Plan S as those disciplines communicate findings in ways that differ dramatically from the ways employed in the STEM communities;
  • The unintended consequences to small, independent, and society publishers in forcing a transition to full open access (OA) publishing;
  • A lack of feasible implementation timelines and poorly articulated technical requirements for repositories and platforms.

A  February 22 article generated by the Times Higher Education noted the objections put forward to Plan S by open access advocates in Australia and New Zealand, where institutional repositories serve as the primary mechanism for ensuring access to research outputs.

 The Council of Australian University Librarians and the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group jointly noted that requirements for full text stored in XML in NISO JATS standard (or its equivalent) as well as a requirement for open APIs had the potential to disrupt the current momentum in those countries towards open access publication. In the context of institutional repositories, such technical requirements created a barrier for educational institutions. (To be fair, this was not the intention of cOAlition S. Their foundational principles specifically recognize the importance of institutional repositories as both necessary and useful to their objective of moving to open access.) Equally difficult for those operating in higher education was the lack of clarity as to who would bear the burden of the costs of such implementation, whether it be the institutions or the funders.

Springer Nature reiterated concern over such costs in its 66-page response to the formulators of Plan S, writing that “All stakeholders need to take an active role and play their part. Neither publishers nor funders and libraries can be expected to pick up the whole bill, but all members of the community need to participate and share the costs and risks. This needs to apply across countries, disciplines, stakeholders, and especially across first movers as well as latecomers who currently benefit from the first movers’ progress.”

Driving home the disruption of implementing open access in North America, the University of California announced in February that they were ending negotiations with Elsevier for licensed access to the commercial publisher’s stable of publications, a step so sweeping in its potential impact that mainstream publication The Atlantic wrote the following explanation for its readers, “The University of California…went in with the goal of making all research from UC authors open access by default. The university wanted one contract to cover both the cost of publishing open-access articles and the cost of journal subscriptions...But the two sides couldn’t agree on specifics or a number. On one hand, this is a dispute about library fees. On the other, this is a dispute about the future of how knowledge is disseminated.” The University also offered an extended Frequently Asked Questions document to explain the reasoning in ending the negotiations.

Elsevier’s response to the announcement was muted by comparison, tweeting out the following brief comment about what had been offered to the University, specifically:

“… a unique model that supports CDL’s multi-payer open access request. It provides a clear path allowing every researcher to publish for free or open access and provides a scaled path to reduce the costs for each campus library.

“The proposal also provides every UC student and researcher with access to all journal articles published by Elsevier — articles they download nearly a million times every month. It is disappointing that the California Digital Library has broken off negotiations unilaterally, but we hope we can bridge this divide with them soon.”

The University of California has long been an advocate for transitioning to open access. Its own Office for Scholarly Communication offers a Guide to Transitioning Journals to Open Access and a convenient Checklist for Consultations About Transitioning Journals to OA.

As Hinchliffe noted in her Scholarly Kitchen post, others were concerned that Plan S would present a particular kind of challenge to those working in the humanities. Because so much of the discussion associated with open access has centered on the journal article and its costly role in STEM communication, less attention has been given to the challenges of open access monographs, the format that dominates in the humanities and social sciences (HSS).

In the context of discussing Plan S and the move by the University of California, Judy Ruttenberg, Program Director for the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), pointed out the critical role of universities in subsidizing monographs. “Universities fund a much higher percentage of research in the humanities and social sciences, where open access increases reach, readership, and impact in critical arenas such as policy and civic society.

In partnership with the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Association of University Presses (AUPresses), ARL is leading a five-year pilot project to flip the financing of humanities and social science… monographs.” Ruttenberg is referencing the TOME (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem) project, which is a collaborative funding effort between libraries and university press publishers in support of ensuring accessible publication of long-form content.

The Plan S founding principles do indicate that the costs of publication would be borne by funders or universities, rather than by the individual researchers. The principles also specifically note that the shift of moving monographs and books to an open access model would likely extend beyond the proposed date of January 1, 2020.The challenge lies in working out how best to migrate an existing ecosystem for book publication to an open access model.

Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and the Executive Director for SocArXiv, a key preprint server for the discipline, published a working draft of his guide to scholarly communication in sociology. A primer intended for early-career researchers, the guide offers a clear explanation of how open access publishing operates in this specific discipline. The author acknowledges that the field of sociology may lag practically behind other disciplines but notes the role that the community itself might play in formulating good policy for incentivizing open access. As revealing as his text is, the fact is that Cohen is specifically using the PubPub platform housed at the Knowledge Futures Group, MIT University Press to open his draft for review. PubPub is an open-source community publishing platform that supports an iterative, collaborative process for documenting and disseminating scholarship in a variety of outputs. Cohen’s contribution becomes even more influential in the context of a recent article on publishing expectations for those working in the field of sociology (One Discipline’s Soaring Publishing Expectations, Inside Higher Ed, March 27, 2019).

Other stakeholders signaled their willingness to collaborate. Highwire Press held a gathering of publishers in January 2019 to work through options for small and mid-sized not-for-profit publishers and societies. The results of those discussions resulted in four options that seemed to those participants to have the greatest chance for success. Highwire’s white paper, Plan S: The Options for Publishers, supplies a greater in-depth discussion of the four options, but for readers of IO, the options are as follows:

  • Green OA. This option usually involves some period of embargo to protect the publisher investment, but there might be a work-around if Plan S authors were to be allowed to deposit in an acceptable repository either their post-peer reviewed “author accepted manuscript” (AAM) or a “version of record” (VOR) in an acceptable repository without an embargo and under a CC-BY license
  • Deposit to an existing compliant server or repository. Although criteria have not been established for certifying a “compliant server”, publishers might then be able to automatically deposit articles to those repositories as well as on their own platforms as part of the normal workflow.
  • Post final author accepted manuscript without embargo and under a CC-BY License. The Highwire authors note that there is little difference between this option and the one immediately above, except insofar as the journal publishing platform is perceived as satisfying the need for deposit to a repository.
  • Continue on as before, until specifics surrounding feasible requirements for compliance are made clear.  

A team of experienced data-wranglers at Clarivate Analytics offered additional insights as to the impact of Plan S on these same publishers. Based on data taken from the Web of Science, the report, The Plan S Footprint: Implications for the Scholarly Publishing Landscape, noted "Plan S funded outputs make up less than 7% of global papers but they are well cited, published in high impact journals and, often, in journals from major publishing houses. They will influence the publishing landscape. Some 90,000 Plan S papers published as part of Hybrid or Subscription journals will need to be 'rehoused' if the journals do not change to fully OA. There are few Hybrid journals with a medium to high percentage of OA that might readily change. This implies challenging business decisions."

With regard to resources, one of the final conclusions in the report reads, "The cost of publishing will shift, ex post, from the reader or their library, typically via a subscription charge, to an ex ante obligation on the author or their institutional proxy to pay via an APC. This would require a redirection of around €150 million. Meeting these costs will fall on research funders. It is not evident whether marginal resources are available to support all affected authors."

Read worldwide, the eminent New England Journal of Medicine published their thinking about Plan S in late March. Entitled No Free Lunch – What Price Plan S For Scientific Publishing?, the article acknowledges the importance of providing expanded access for scientists as well as the general public but questions the need for a forced transition to a single model of publication, given the broad spectrum of concerns expressed across all sectors about Plan S. Does this plan represent the best approach of ensuring the desired outcome?

What is evident from these discussions between stakeholders is the need for collaboration in developing models of open access publishing that can be sensibly implemented with minimal disruption to the work of researchers and their parent institutions. To move towards the future envisioned by cOAlition S requires work by many parties and cooperation across sectors.  With the approved membership merger of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) and the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS), there will be numerous opportunities of bringing stakeholders together to build exactly the solutions needed.

NISO NOTE: The preceding article notes activities by the following Voting and Library Standards Alliance members of NISO:

Association of Research Libraries
California Digital Library
Clarivate Analytics
Highwire Press
New England Journal of Medicine
Springer Nature