Last week cOAlition S released guidance on how they anticipate their open access (OA) mandate, Plan S to be implemented. While this implementation guidance provides many new details about the plan, it has not provided reassurance to anxious society publishers. The stated (and laudable) aim of Plan S is to achieve “full and immediate Open Access to publications from publicly funded research,” but the prohibition against publishing in hybrid journals is not needed to accomplish that aim. Any funder that wishes to can simply stipulate publication in gold (or platinum) OA or hybrid journals and the goal of full and immediate OA would be met. The primary objective of Plan S appears instead to be to achieve a “definitive shift towards new models of academic publishing.” To shift towards something means to shift away from something else. In this case the shift consists (as James Phimister has noted) of attempting to eliminate the commercial viability of subscription journal publishing (the prohibition against hybrid journals makes no sense in any other context). It is also clear that the cOAlition S vision of the future of scientific and scholarly publishing is at odds with the values and practices of most society publishers.

S curve in road
Is the “S” for “societies” or will society publishers get run over?

Scientific society publishers have, over a great many years, developed publishing models that work well for the communities of research, practice, and scholarship that they serve. These models are supportive of OA while recognizing that for many authors, an article processing charge (APC) is a barrier to publication. Therefore, society journals tend to publish hybrid titles, providing authors with a choice. For authors who wish to have their work immediately accessible via liberal reuse licenses, gold OA options are readily available. For those authors who cannot, or do not wish to pay an APC, society journals nearly all support green OA with embargo periods ranging from 3 to 24 months, depending on the field (the sciences usually have shorter embargo periods whereas humanities are typically longer). Often self-archiving of accepted manuscripts is possible even sooner. The green model not only provides author choice but aligns with federal policies in the US and much of the rest of the world.

Societies also tend toward a diversified approach to publishing that spreads the costs associated with journal publishing across a great many organizations. By continuing to offer subscriptions to hybrid journals, society journals can still collect subscription revenues from the many institutions that produce little or no research. These include corporations, community colleges, many liberal arts colleges, hospitals, health systems, government agencies, and various other entities. Subscription revenues from these sources — along with reprint and permissions revenues — allow societies to maintain lower subscription costs for academic libraries and to offer lower APCs to researchers and their funders. The Plan S vision of the future of publishing would eliminate all of these revenues and options, turning corporations, health systems, hospitals, community and liberal arts colleges, and government agencies into free riders. At the same time, Plan S favors a “one size fits all” model, shifting 100% of cost burden to APCs.

While in theory Plan S supports “diversity of models and non APC-based outlets,” in reality such models (other than the hybrid model which Plan S seeks to eliminate) are not presently available to society publishers. How is a society to continue to operate its journals with no subscription revenues, no permission and reprints revenues, and no APC revenues? Further, while Plan S technically supports green OA, the combination of a zero embargo and the mandated CC BY license is unsustainable for the vast majority of hybrid society journals.

This misalignment between Plan S and societies was evident — even to Robert Jan Smits, the principal architect of Plan S — before the release of the implementation guidance. What the implementation guidance makes clear is that Plan S (if widely adopted) will harm society publishers even more than commercial publishers. There are three reason for this:

Transformative Agreements. First and foremost, Plan S reinforces commercial publishing packages by supporting “transformative agreements,” which it explicitly defines to include the “read and publish” model. As I have discussed previously, the read and publish model is a publisher Big Deal that has become even bigger by including APCs as well as subscription journals. Society publishers, with only a few exceptions for the largest societies, simply do not have big enough publishing portfolios — or sufficient sales and marketing staff — to negotiate such deals. Such transformative agreements are complex deals that require a great deal of time and analysis to price and even more time to negotiate. Further, a consortium or institution is only going to be interested in portfolios of a certain size — if relatively few of their researchers publish in a particular society’s journal, what is the point of a read and publish deal?

It is true that cOAlition S intends for such deals to be of limited duration while a publisher transitions to an OA-oriented model; they are not meant to be a permanent state. But it also says that “contract negotiations [for read and publish deals] need to be concluded before the end of 2021, and contracts may not last for longer than three years.” Thus, publishers have until 2025 before journals in a read and publish deal may cease to be compliant with Plan S. Much can happen in seven years (including an extension or elimination of this deadline), and in the meantime the largest publishers will continue to solidify their market positions at the expense of smaller independent players.

Prohibiting Mirror Journals. Second, by prohibiting “mirror journals,” Plan S privileges publishers with large portfolios (we will leave aside for now the practical questions with regard to how one determines what is and what is not a mirror journal). A commercial publisher can offer authors a number of attractive alternatives in a broad editorial cascade. A society publisher is unlikely to have a broad portfolio and establishing new standalone journals is a much more expensive and time-consuming activity than establishing mirror journals, which can leverage the same editors and editorial board. Further, without a large editorial cascade (which commercial publishers, due to their scale, have in abundance), it is much more difficult to start a new gold OA journal as it is challenging to find a sufficient number of authors who are willing to pay to publish in a journal that has no track record and no impact factor.

APC Caps. Last, while the Plan S implementation guidance did not yet proffer an APC cap, it does indicate that one is coming:

To help inform the potential standardisation of fees and/or APC caps, cOAlition S will commission an independent study on Open Access publication costs and fees (including APCs).

A cap — or “standardization” — on APCs will lead inexorably to a homogenized market. The publishers that will thrive in such a market are those with economies of scale that publish a high volume of papers and, due to a broad editorial cascade, are able to publish a large percentage of the manuscripts they receive. Commercial publishers like Frontiers, for example (whose influence on the development of Plan S is the topic of some speculation), publish a high volume of papers and have relatively high acceptance rates. Society publishers, by contrast, are community-centric and tend to publish more selectively. Niche, selective portfolios with low acceptance rates do not have the economies of scale to thrive with “standardized” APCs as they are by definition non-standard journals. So the forthcoming standardization, if implemented, will further privilege commercial publishers.

If broadly adopted, the result of Plan S will be to drive more societies to seek publishing agreements with commercial publishers. Societies will seek publishing license agreements in order to gain access to publish and read deals, broader editorial cascades, start-up funding for new gold OA journals, and increased economies of scale — and to get some insulation from market risk. At the same time, publishers offering such agreements will be able to point (and rightly so) to market uncertainty and deteriorating prospects for the subscription business to offer societies diminished financial terms. Some societies will no doubt decide to pull up stakes entirely and sell their journals to commercial publishers — likely at a discount.

While I doubt that pushing more societies into relationships with commercial publishers is the intent of Plan S, it will (if broadly adopted) be the outcome. This further market consolidation is unlikely to serve the interests of the research community, which benefits from a variety of options and approaches. While a great many societies partner successfully with commercial publishers, it is a unique aspect of scientific and scholarly publishing (as compared with other media industries) that there are also many independent, not-for-profit alternatives. The question is whether the Plan S funders are willing to throw these independent societies under the bus in pursuit of the goal of undermining the commercial subscription business.

A simple change in implementation would better support scientific and scholarly societies: If Plan S can provide a carve-out for the “transformative” deals of commercial publishers, it can similarly provide a carve-out to support society-published hybrid journals (without instituting APC caps). This would also help refocus Plan S from (to paraphrase Bernd Pulverer’s cogent analysis) increasing the proportion of gold OA journals (which is ultimately an irrelevant measure) to increasing the proportion of OA articles.

Society leadership and society members are encouraged to provide feedback on Plan S and its impact on their society journal programs here:

Disclosure: Michael Clarke is the managing partner at Clarke & Esposito, a management consulting firm that works with (among other clients, primarily in the not-for-profit sector) scientific, professional, and scholarly societies — both those that independently publish and those that work with commercial or university press partners. Michael has previously served as an executive in the publishing division of two medical societies. His bio can be found here.

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke is the Managing Partner at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services.


32 Thoughts on "Plan S: Impact on Society Publishers"

Thank you for this insightful article, which of course raises some questions:
1. Would Self-publishing their journals as OA by societies be an option, provided their contracts with comm. publishers are about to expire? Thereby giving more business to self-publishing platform solutions?
2. As many societies finance their operations by revenues from journal royalties/remuneration, moving towards transformative agreements may to a large extent affect this cash flow. The financial burden would then fall towards increasing membership fees. Should this membership fee, coming from taxpayers again (in Europe at least), be standardised too?

Michael does indeed make assertions here, and (inevitably) behind those assertions are assumptions. The question is: are any of his assertions or assumptions mistaken? If so, can you tell us how?

Seems a pretty cogent analysis to me – David Sweeney has never been noted for his understanding of the role of learned societies and the fragile economics of their operation, or for his understanding of the SSH market. Desieditor is wrong, though, in thinking that society membership fees are mainly paid by taxpayers, other than in a very indirect sense. Certainly in the UK, and I think in most European countries, they are paid by members personally. To the extent that their salaries come from public funds, you might describe this as a charge on taxpayers but increases are experienced as a direct hit to members’ pockets. The present system is a significant subsidy from the entire research ecosystem to learned societies as independent agents – which is one of the reasons why universities and research funders are suspicious of them. Ultimately, they are member-controlled organizations that will take their own view on institutional and national or international planning and intellectual management. Plan S is less about opening access than about controlling science and scholarship.

Desieditor is also wrong in thinking that self-publishing is a viable option for most societies, especially in SSH. The overheads were making this uneconomic way before OA was ever dreamed of and there are good reasons why societies began giving this up as early as the 1990s. The movement online, and the associated costs, merely accelerated a process that was already under way.

Michael Clarke might also have made more about the way in which a diverse range of society journals sift and screen articles, massively reducing search costs for prospective users. If platform capitalism comes to academic publishing, users will lose the quality signals and curation associated with journal branding. They will become increasing reliant on the invisible workings of search algorithms to find relevant material, the flecks of gold in the mountain of dross. Again, we lose the diversity of competing journals – this time to centrally driven search tools.

Ultimately, our response to Plan S reflects whether we think that competition and diversity are likely to contribute more to the promotion of science and scholarship than central planning and platform capitalism.

The fourth search result from David Sweeney’s link is from a British Academy-published piece by the then Director of the Royal Geographical Society accusing RCUK (as was) of…. assumption and assertion. Everyone’s at it, it seems.

If the evidence gathered by Wellcome and UKRI is contentious or ambigious, who decides? Will the methods be transparent? Will members of the HSS community be part of the research planning and execution?

I don’t agree that Plan S is at odds with the values of societies – many of the principles outlined in the plan, such as adherence to DORA, authors retaining copyright, and so on, are things that many of us have been offering for some time. I wrote about the upsides (and challenges, like the timeframes associated with Plan S) in a post at

Something which Michael raises here is the advantage of large players in this space. I can’t disagree with the suggestion that there will be ever-more consolidation of the marketplace, but I wonder how willing large publishers will be to pay a premium for society journals in an environment where historic revenue streams, and particularly cash flow patterns, are so threatened.

Thanks for the link to your piece Tasha. Agree that societies share the values associated with DORA and open access in general. I misalignment I was referring to is the value of author choice and not putting up barriers to publication for those authors without funds for APCs.

I think you have put your finger on a key issue – large publishers will indeed be less willing to pay a premium for society journals in an environment where historic revenue streams are less certain. They will also be less willing to offer guaranteed royalties (at least at current levels), which in turn will make it challenging for societies to budget when they will not know what their journal revenues will look like from year to year.

(I just wanted to share the same comment I made on Twitter.) This piece contains the assumption: “It is also clear that the cOAlition S vision of the future of scientific and scholarly publishing is at odds with the values and practices of most society publishers.” This is by no means clear. Many societies or society publishers may share the same values espoused in Plan S; it’s only the “practices” that currently differ.

What we are witnessing is people who are not in a business (Welcome/Gates/Government/uninformed academics) attempting to run a business they in actuality know nothing about. It is similar to the question: Do you know how to play the piano to which the person answered: Why yes with one’s fingers!
I believe PlanS is much like the Schlieffen Plan to which Moltke’s observation: “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy” is often applied.
It is time for publishers of all stripes to go to their authors and query them about Plan S and their perceptions of it. If authorship says nay then authorship should go to the Welcome Trust and Gates and say stay out of this. If you do not, then take your money elsewhere.

or apply the same logic to freeing-up access to generic drugs development, patents (open innovation, anyone?), and everything else (product, process, software, hardware, etc) paid for by the taxpayers and benefits the industry instead. Why stop with academic publishing alone?

Thank you for sharing the 2013 post which really puts the OA imbalance matter across the humanities and social sciences in perspective. While the examples in that article towards technology/science commercialization (patents, tech-transfer etc.) are all from the US, it makes me wonder if this is true for Europe too – where Plan S is relevant. On the other hand, is there a chance of US funders taking up similar measures or are they better at understanding and dealing with market dynamics and economics?

Alternatively, we are witnessing a group of people who are paying for research who want their payments to come with some strings. The strings have to do with allowing the research to be used by society. It would be like the piano buyer saying I want my piano to have headphones and be electronic. Yes, it is a shock to piano makers, but it exists.

“Alternatively” is the wrong word to use. These two positions are not alternatives; they can coexist. The outstanding question is whether one or the other provides more benefit to society. This is not being discussed at all, and it should be. After open access, what?

To expand upon your metaphor — it’s not the piano buyer/user but more like a philanthropic group that buys pianos for orchestras demanding that all pianos they pay for are electronic and have headphones. And that they be wired a specific way and to only be sold through one channel. And then if they took action to prevent piano manufacturers from selling any other type of piano to anyone else even though there remains huge market demand for those other types.

Thanks Michael for your valuable analysis. As an HSS publisher I would add to your ‘simple change’ to the plan S a similar ‘carve out’ for hybrid journals in the humanities and social sciences. The majority of these journals derive most of their income from subscriptions, as opposed to big deals. And as most HSS publishers have no access to read and publish deals and without enough funding around to provide for sustainable APCs, hybrid seems the most feasible way to reach some optimal Open Access point.

Thank you for this article. As one involved in publications at a medium-smallish scientific society which years ago went down the inexorable path from self-publishing to having a commercial publisher publish our 2 journals, it rings true.  Our journals are apparently valuable to the commercial publisher, the publisher payments are an important revenue stream to the society which supports our student travel grants and various other benefits.  The disallowing of hybrid articles indeed indicates that much of push to move to an author-pays OA model is less driven by access to science as being on a crusade to change the science publishing practices.

The major sour note in the hybrid option are the high APCs. Why is $3000-5000 the going rate for flipping a switch to make an article OA for many “hybrid” subscription titles from Elsevier, Springer Nature, and Wiley, when fully OA titles from the same publishers run $1500-2000?  These publishers selectively set articles to free access all the time to encourage readership, so why are the fees to authors so high? I get the impression this premium pricing model is set to take advantage of authors who have pressure from funders to publish OA, but to keep numbers of OA articles low to retain subscriptions. So yes, Plan S is Plan Suspect, but something seems not quite right in the hybrid OA offerings.

That editorial on APCs and true costs of OA publishing was indeed worth reading. Thanks. I suppose the argument would be that hybrid fees should be similar to the true article publishing costs, not just the cost to “flip the switch” on the web platform from locked to open.

Another reason why society publications are different from titles owned by the commercial publishers is that societies give their members full access to the journals as a benefit of membership. Since by definition, professional societies focus on professional niches, for those engaged enough in their profession to become society members, they have open access. It’s not a complete solution, as not all professionals are society joiners, but the situation is very different for society publishers than for titles owned by the commercial publishers.

I’ll have a post tomorrow that talks more about the value that society (and not-for-profit) publishing offers the community. Stay tuned.

Thank you, I await with interest. As an author and editor for two society journals, I have to say that most of my papers were not directly funded by grants etc, and I am in no position to pay perhaps $ 10,000 on the basis of say 3-4 papers per year. I have a deep suspicion that this has less to do with access, and more to do with eliminating any kind of gate-keeping on quality and professional utility. There are those outside the scientific community who would welcome the contamination of good science with published dross.

The journals I write and work for will probably survive in the medium term, because authors and subscribers are often outside the geographical/political grip of plan S. But we may see a decline in the number of high quality submissions that come our way, which may have a knock-on effect on readership and subscriptions.
I would add that the society with which I am most closely involved uses its revenue, mainly from its journal, to engage in outreach, student support (on an open, international basis) and conferences. In my view, it plays a very significant role in sustaining the research community that it serves.
Universal plan S would effectively silence me, unless co-authors had access to funds. I am no superman, but my papers are cited, and I have a very low rejection rate. I will be only a tiny part of the overall loss

While I can’t speak for the commerical publishers you mention, I think a few things are going on simultaneously. It is likely true that, as you suspect Chris, the APC pricing of some hybrid journals has been set so as to discourage too much uptake. But at the same time, there is the general challenge that most hybrid journals are selective journals. So journal costs are spread over a relatively small number of APCs. Pure gold OA journals are often less selective and hence can have lower APCs. This is well explained in the excellent article from Bernd Pulverer (EiC at EMBO) that David Crotty links to (and is also linked to in my post towards the end).

However, it also appears that APCs for gold OA journals have been too low. Many APCs were initially set by waiving a finger in the air or by looking at competitive titles (whose APCs were set by waiving a finger in the air). As publishers analyze a few years of actual financials, recalibration appears to be happening. There is evidence that APCs for pure gold OA journals, industry wide, are rapidly heading toward equilibrium with hybrid journals (though obviously there will always be variation on a journal-by-journal basis reflecting the selectivity and reputation of a given journal, unless of course Plan S funders get their way and are able to introduce standardization):

I would be interested in hearing what you think of the claims of the Fair open alliance that claim to run LingOA journals at a cost of $400 and MathOA at a rate of $300 per article (but most probably up to $1000 in other fields), still substantially lower than many other commercial OA publishers. See the FAQ at

” The question is whether the Plan S funders are willing to throw these independent societies under the bus in pursuit of the goal of undermining the commercial subscription business”
I think the goal is to put their funding dollars towards research that is accessible. What actions are independent societies doing to accelerate partnerships with universities and other societies to make the research more accessible? Which other non-profits have you contacted to work together instead depending on the big commercial publishers?

>>Scientific society publishers have, over a great many years, developed publishing models that work well for the communities of research, practice, and scholarship that they serve. <<

This seems like a daring assertion for anyone looking at publishing models from a long-term, customer (i.e., library) point of view. The subscription publishing model is flatly unsustainable. Annual costs increase higher than inflation, while annual budgets keep pace with inflation *at best*. Subscription cancellations are inevitable at almost every institution, and even if the models work well for societies today, the future is grim.

Honestly, small society publishers seem more vulnerable to subscription cuts than big publishers, because of big publishers' diversified revenue streams, but also from a simple usage basis. After all, it will be easier for libraries to make a case for cutting a small society journal with X views per month than for canceling a large publisher's disciplinary journal with 20X views per month. This is effectively what has already happened to university presses, with academic libraries cannibalizing budgets for (relatively) low-usage mongraphs in order to continue providing access to (relatively) high-usage journals.

At worst, it seems like Plan S turns an inevitable, slow-moving crisis for society revenue models into an equally inevitable but faster-moving crisis. The crisis is coming for subscription-reliant societies one way or the other; maybe the best part of Plan S is that it forces societies to confront sustainability questions sooner rather than later.

So I have to ask. Everyone seems to assume that it is appropriate for societies to run a surplus in their publishing programs that then funds other activities of the society. This can be viewed as a subsidy universities pay to societies, through their libraries. A subsidy from the university to a society might or might not be appropriate, but the problem is that under the current system it is not transparent. To take one case, the 84% of the American Chemical Society’s revenue comes from publishing and 11% from membership dues. The surplus from their publishing operations is about $45 million a year and the revenue from dues is about $11 million. Arguably the the hidden subsidy from universities through library payments provides for 80% of ACS’s programs and members 20%. ACS might not be typical, but everyone seems to think the general principle is just fine. Maybe this assumption need some reconsideration.

It is public information in that you can find the numbers if you look, but I would bet few provosts or even deans of science recognize the extent of the subsidy.

ACS might not be typical, but the percentages for publishing surplus, membership revenue, and publishing surplus that contributes to non-publishing activities is similar for most large disciplinary societies, IEEE, AMS, APA, and even MLA, though the total dollars are much larger for ACS and IEEE than MLA.

I guess I’m confused by the suggestion that subterfuge is happening here. The journals are clearly labeled as coming from the societies. Are provosts and deans similarly unaware that when the library purchases a journal from Elsevier/Wiley they are subsidizing whatever those companies do with their revenues?

If you’re asking for someone to provide a necessary but difficult and often tedious service that you need, is it wrong for that service provider to seek some incentive for doing all that work? (again, discussed in more detail in a separate post here:

Plan S has many issues which have not been well-thought before. I see that one of the most important for its promoters is an attempt to make DOAJ a widely and officially recognized list of journals. One of items of Plan S declares about a leading role of DOAJ and only journals listed in DOAJ will be acceptable to have an access to funding APC. It means that DOAJ intends to play the role of widely (WOS, SCOPUS) and nationally (ABDC, ABS, QUALIS, AIDEA, ANVUR, NSD, etc) journal lists. Yes, WOS and SCOPUS are commercial products but it was established in expenses and under initative of a sole institution. ABDC, ABS, QUALIS, AIDEA, ANVUR, NSD are not commercial and this is a request of scholars. DOAJ declared at its web-site that DOAJ does not recognize and journal impact factor (which are residuals from journal lists). Does it mean that DOAJ will get rid of its statement about the role of journal impact factor with regard to the wish of DOAJ to be recognized officially as a sole accptable journal list under Plan S? Does it mean that plan S ignores other national journal lists like ABDC, ABS, QUALIS, AIDEA, ANVUR, NSD? If we compare the procedure of revision the journal lists above, so in major cases the journals list are set up for 3-5 years. DOAJ addes and removes journals daily. This does not go in the line with the practices of other journal lists. If the open access journals are in ABDC, ABS, QUALIS, AIDEA, ANVUR, NSD why plan S disregards these national journal lists and addresses a respect just to DOAJ? If DOAJ excludes each year about 400-500 journals we expect that the procedures of evaluation of new journals by DOAJ should be improved remarkably before pretending for a sole journal list under plan S. I see that DOAJ should consider criteria of evaluation of the journals including predatory publsihing issues. It will make DOAJ quite original journal list and add more actual value to plan S as well. So, we, scholars are waiting for such steps from DOAJ and promoters of Plan S.

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