Setting: the parlor of a London flat, dimly but warmly lit by flickering candles and a coal fire. Famed detective Sherlock Holmes sits in a wingback chair, wearing a smoking jacket and puffing on a briarwood pipe. He is reading a book.
Holmes’ colleague, Dr. John Watson, bursts into the room, red-faced and muttering to himself.
Holmes: Dr. Watson, you seem quite agitated this evening. Whatever is the matter?
Watson: Confound it, Holmes! Some of my colleagues and I have completed a clinical study of the effects of cocaine use on violinists, and now we wish to publish our findings. But the agency that funded our study is part of a consortium of public funders called cOAlition S, and they have imposed restrictions on how and where we may publish. The requirements are complex and sometimes inscrutable, and furthermore they seem at times to be contradicted by the public pronouncements of cOAlition S’s representatives. There seem to be multiple pathways towards compliance, but the guidance from cOAlition S is schematic at best.
H: Never fear, Watson. I’m confident that if we simply apply deductive reasoning to your dilemma we shall arrive at a proper conclusion.
W: I certainly hope so. The architects of this program have publicly expressed their intention to monitor compliance with their requirements and to impose sanctions on those found insufficiently compliant, so I must say I’m quite concerned.
H: “Sanctions”? How do they intend to sanction those found to be non-compliant?
W: This they do not say. I assume they mean that those who are not compliant will no longer be eligible for research funding in the future, but so far no official clarification on this point has been forthcoming.
H: Very well; let us begin at the foundation. What are the rules governing your publishing behavior in this instance?
W: Well, that’s just it. The plan put forward by cOAlition S is called “Plan S”, and its main principle is that publications based on studies funded by its members “must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.” This requirement is amplified in the subsequent implementation guidance as follows:
All scholarly articles that result from research funded by members of cOAlition S must be openly available immediately upon publication without any embargo period. They must be permanently accessible under an open license allowing for re-use for any purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship.
H: We’re making progress already, then, Watson. Making one’s work available immediately and without restriction is simple and may be done in any number of ways: you could post the work on a preprint server, or on a blog or personal website, or in your local institutional repository; you don’t necessarily have to publish it in an open access (OA) journal or on any specific platform. Why worry yourself about the compliance of journals and platforms when you can simply make the work compliant yourself, without the intervention of a third party?
W: Not so fast, Holmes! In reality, the Plan S requirements are much more constraining than that. My colleagues and I must make available either the “final published version… or an author’s accepted manuscript,” both of which necessarily imply the editorial intervention of a publisher. So simply making our research results freely available and reusable is not enough to ensure compliance. The paper is not compliant unless it has been vetted, reviewed, and edited by a publisher.
H: All right, then. It sounds as though you must submit your article to a journal that will allow you to make your work immediately available upon publication and without restrictions on reuse. Luckily for you, there has been explosive growth in recent years in the availability of such venues—many of which are high-reputation journals that will allow you to pay an article processing charge (APC) if you wish to publish in a Plan-S-compliant manner.
W: If only it were so simple, Holmes! But Plan S explicitly forbids publication in those venues. These are popularly called “hybrid journals,” and cOAlition S regards them as non-compliant by definition. Publishing funded research in them is only allowed if they are operating under “transformative agreements” — in other words, they must be on the path to becoming fully-OA journals.
H: And does Plan S say what constitute the acceptable terms of a “transformative agreement”?
W: No! In fact, the term itself is hardly defined.
H: What if you wish to use your own personal funds to pay the APC for publication in a hybrid journal? Will Plan S allow that?
W: I have heard rumors that such will be allowed, based on things that some of my colleagues have heard cOAlition S representatives say both in public and in private. But as yet that possibility is not contemplated in the official Plan S implementation guidance. And even if it were, Holmes, where would the money come from?
H: Then surely you can publish in a fully-OA journal that does not charge an APC?
W: In theory, yes — if such existed in our field. But my search of medical journals in the Directory of Open Access Journals turned up vanishingly few that meet all the Plan S criteria, are of reasonable reputation, and are a good fit for our study topic.
H: It sounds as if the architects of Plan S are trying to close off all options for their funded authors except APC-funded Gold OA journals.
W: That model is the one that most neatly fits the strictures of the plan, and indeed, Plan S has been characterized by some observers as “an effective mandate for author-pays (or funder-pays) Gold OA.” But representatives of cOAlition S deny that they have any such intention.
H: I must say, Watson, this all seems very odd. Why would cOAlition S funders care about the venue of publication, as long as your paper is freely available according to the terms they have laid out? Isn’t their goal to ensure that the results of research they have funded be made freely available to all?
W: My collaborators and I have puzzled over this question ourselves, Holmes. In fact, it seems that Plan S is not merely about making publications based on cOAlition S-funded research freely available. The goal is to “accelerate the transition to a scholarly publishing system that is characterized by immediate, free online access to, and largely unrestricted use and re-use of scholarly publications.” Journals in which the free-access and the pay-for-access models coexist are seen as an impediment to that transition, and therefore are not to be supported. For this reason, it appears, such journals are only within bounds if they are in the process of becoming fully open access.
H: Indeed that does complicate things, Watson. But let us stay calm and consider the available alternatives. In order to be compliant with Plan S, then, clearly you and your colleagues must submit your paper to a journal of some kind — and, apparently, it must be a very specific kind. Do many such exist?
W: As I said, there are quite a few journals that would be compliant — but few of them publish in our specific discipline and have an attractive reputation.
H: But do your funders care about journal reputation? It sounds as if what they want is to make sure the results of their funded research be vetted and made available; there is no requirement that it be published in what I believe some refer to as “glam mags.”
W: Indeed, but reputation does matter to my colleagues and myself, since our names will be attached to the papers. We don’t necessarily expect to publish in the “top” journal in our field (however one might define it), nor are we interested in “glamor” — but we do want to make sure that our results are given the kind of rigorous editorial attention that comes with publication in a high-quality journal; and, to be honest, we don’t want our names and work associated with a journal that has not secured itself a strong reputation for publishing quality work.
H: What if no publisher accepts your paper? This would preclude the existence of an “accepted manuscript,” not to mention a final published version. What route to compliance remains available to you in that case?
W: It is by no means clear that any route remains available at that point, Holmes. I suppose in that case we would have to post our work as a preprint and take our chances with the sanctions — the parameters of which remain a mystery.
H: Surely you and your colleagues are not the only ones wrestling with this scheme, Watson. Has no one attempted to sort out the options and provide additional clarity or guidance?
W: Several have done so, Holmes, and while their efforts are deeply appreciated they have only made it clear how fiendishly complex this situation is. Simplification in representing it seems only to be achievable by leaving out details that turn out to be quite important in practice.
H (puffing thoughtfully on his pipe): Well, Watson, you do indeed face something of a quandary. Perhaps in future you would be well advised to seek funding from another source.
W (laughing bitterly): You mean from one of the other funding agencies lined up outside our laboratory entrance, hat in hand, pleading for the chance to give us money? No, Holmes, I’m afraid that in this regard our options are quite limited.
H: This would seem to be another instance of the universal applicability of what is commonly known as the Golden Rule.
W: You mean, “Do unto others…”
H: No, Watson: “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Well, best of luck to you and your colleagues. I’m afraid there’s little I can do to help in this case.