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.

Sherlock Holmes ephemera

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.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


24 Thoughts on "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Baffling Funder Mandate"

Hm. My brain cheerfully rearranged the title to “Murder Fundate”…

It seems to me that if cOAlition S would be successful in having a broad impact and hybrid journals really do see a decline in submissions due to the murder… sorry, funder mandate, then a probable consequence would be that a lot of otherwise compliant hybrid journals would simply scrap their APC option. I would be fine with that, on the whole, but I also don’t see it accelerating any transition very much.

W: Perhaps not help directly Holmes, but you might help clarify the terminology. Indeed, you fell into the trap saying “you could post the work on a preprint server, … you don’t necessarily have to publish it in an open access (OA) journal or on any specific platform.” So you publish in journals and on platforms, but you post a preprint.

H: Ah, your back to that thorny issue that I believe Phil Davis argued on February 14th 2018 that preprints are not publications. You make public (i.e. publish) a publication, but you merely post a preprint.

W: Precisely. But the ground is shifted rapidly. More and more Editors are allowing preprints to be included in reference lists. So preprints will increasingly be found in the Science Citation Index.

H: So the difference between a preprint and a publication is diminishing. But clearly only the latter has been subject to formal review by an Editor-chosen expert in the field.

W: Even that distinction may be becoming less evident. Albeit self-chosen, peers can add comments to preprints or communicate directly with authors. And post-publication peer review is a field that is poised to grow.

H: So preprint publications would not be frozen in time, but could be continually updated according to the feed-back received.

W: The platforms for post-publication review might even evolve to demand some qualifications from the reviewers. For example, the now-defunct PubMed Commons, required that reviewers had themselves at least one publication in the scientific literature.

W: Hmmm. Food for thought. If it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, then a preprint is a publication. Now how are you going to get your busy peers with expertise on cocaine use by violinists to step up and volunteer?

In physics, citation of preprints have been around for a long time, but this does not give a purely ArXiv-posted publication (to mix the terminology further, just for the fun of it) the same status as a peer reviewed publication. The assumption is that it will appear peer reviewed elsewhere shortly, and that is why it is accepted practice to cite it.

Preprint archive publications draw their publication status only from the presumption that they will eventually be published in the “traditionally peer reviewed” sense. They are being towed along by the peer reviewed journals, so if you’re trying to leverage them to replace these same journals, you’re trying to lift yourself by the hair.

Mr. Bjorkman has piqued this reader’s curiousity further — Are there any published studies on
1. the time from arXiv pre-print posting to date of publication in a traditionally peer reviewed publication
2. % of pre-prints not published in a peer review journal w/in 1 year, 2 years, 5 years? (not sure what assumption is made about timescale for ‘shortly’ – maybe less than 6 months (the standard embargo period for many subscription journals?)
With big data and massive computing power at our disposal, it would seem possible to analyze the validity of the assumption of the ‘status of preprints’ — My hypothesis is that whatever the result, it is likely to differ greatly by discipline and no single rule or guideline would therefore be valid to apply across all (N.B. Coalition S).

Nice references, thanks!

Also note that arXiv is also used for other purposes than storing preprints of original research. Making available lecture notes, little just-for-fun things that doesn’t seem worth the trouble to go through proper submission for etc… plus of course the ones that never make it through in the end. These do not make up a huge fraction (although Lariviere et al. ended up with around 20%, hardly neglectable).

If I recall correctly, a lot of the preprints from arXiv that don’t make it into journals were from computer science fields, where results are more often “published” in meeting proceedings than in formal journal articles.

Thank you all for contributing to my further investigation. There is definitely a value in having a place to put the “just-for-fun things” to serve a community!

Very clever, Rick. Thanks for presenting this vexing issue in an informative way (and for keeping a sense of humor).

Dear Watson

Perhaps if one of your co-authors is German you may want to consider a Wiley journal, which as of today, would qualify under Plan S as part of a transformative agreement.

Germany’s Projekt DEAL and the publisher John Wiley & Sons have entered a ground-breaking transformative agreement, in line with the objectives of the Open Access 2020 initiative. Under this new agreement, all authors affiliated with 700 academic institutions in Germany will retain copyright and their accepted articles will be published open access in Wiley journals. Almost 10,000 articles by German researchers are published a year in Wiley journals, constituting around 9% of the publisher’s total output. The agreement also grants students and faculty read access to the full Wiley journal portfolio including backfiles starting with 1997. The national-level agreement is based on a “Publish&Read” model in which fees are paid by institutions—not for subscriptions but for open access publishing services.

For more detail see

That doesn’t sound “transformative” to me, at least by the Plan S definition:
“The negotiated agreements need to include a scenario that describes how the publication venues will be converted to full Open Access after the contract expires.”

Not so fast Crotty. We heard from Robert Jan Smits today at APE today that the Wiley agreement with Projekt DEAL may very well become a “skeleton” for many other “transformative agreements.” When asked directly about the point that the Wiley deal is not actually transformative (in that Wiley is not agreeing to flip any journals to OA on any specified timetable as part of the deal), he nonetheless indicated that as it will eventually lead to transformation (if enough such deals are signed) that it is likely (but not certainly) to be compliant. The mystery deepens.

Ugh. More confusion, less clarity. Also worth considering that Germany is not a Plan S signatory, so would an agreement with someone outside of Plan S make those journals compliant? At this point, who knows.

Apparently he also said that each funding agency in Coalition S will choose to interpret the implementation plan in their own way, so lots of individual and different policies are going to be put in place (this after previous statements that there will be only one unified interpretation). Sigh.

Good heavens, Watson my good fellow. Could the source of your confusion have something to do with the hours you have devoted to the company of violinists using cocaine? I recommend more time in the company of the advocates of Open Access who wish to see restrictive paywalls replaced by full open access rather than supplementing paywalls with some hybrid open access. It will ease your confusion. I fear a tipping point may have been reached. There is remarkably more alignment than you seem aware of.

At the 14th Berlin Open Access Conference held recently, funding agencies, researchers, librarians and research institutions (who foot the bill) from 37 nations and five continents made it abundantly clear through their deliberations and final conference statement that there is alignment about the intended outcomes of OA2020 and Plan S in terms of commitment to authors retaining their copyrights, to complete and immediate open access, and finally, to accelerating the progress of open access through transformative agreements that are temporary and transitional, with a shift to full open access within a very few years. The position allows for different models to achieve this end to suit various disciplines and regional conditions but the end is the same. The full statement and other relevant information can be found here: .

Perhaps the most interesting observation from the conference was that the alignment of thought to which I refer was not merely Eurocentric. It was global. It included the University of California (10% of USA research) and Japan. China, now the largest producer of scholarly information (20% of world research I believe), boldly stated that they intend to make the results of publicly funded research free to read immediately on publication (see ).

I may be hallucinating but it seems clear to me, dear Watson, that if your research is good it will find a good quality home with good peer review, a wider audience and better scrutiny. What is more, your funding agency will be keen to finance your next piece of research.

Glenn, I think it’s interesting that you’re citing these programs as an example of the “alignment” within the open access community, when in fact their alignment with Plan S (the particular program under consideration here) is hardly complete. Far be it from me to suggest that you’re hallucinating, but – to take two examples of non-alignment among these various statements and initiatives – if you’re under the impression that “mak(ing) the results of publicly funded research free to read immediately upon publication” is enough to bring an author or journal into alignment with Plan S’s requirements, you’re quite mistaken. And the Jussieu Call prominently features a demand for “an end to the dominance of a small number among us imposing their terms to scientific communities,” which is actually pretty much exactly what Plan S does, and what its architects expressly hope to do on a global basis.

In any case, the question that Watson and Holmes are trying to settle in this scenario isn’t about the harmony (or lack thereof) between Plan S and other mandatory open access regimes. It’s about how to determine what a cOAlition-S-funded author’s publishing options are. The answer to that question can only be answered by reference to the conditions prescribed by cOAlition S, and it is precisely those conditions that remain ambiguous and confusing. And they become more and more so with every public appearance by Robert-Jan Smits.

Interesting points. I’m not excited about the trend of reducing a coalition to a particular personality. Concentrate on the arguments made, not the individuals who are making them. Comparing Plan S to Brexit? Really? Asking whether the Wiley deal is really in agreement with Plan S is a good conversation to have. Asking whether the Wiley deal puts the institutions on the path to the ideals of Plan S if a better conversation to have (think about when it was negotiated). Yes, the timeline may be crazy.

Scott, I’m not sure whom you’re responding to — yours is the first mention of Brexit made on this page. And who is it that is “reducing a coalition to a particular personality”?

The Brexit Twitter quote is on the linked For Better Science summary of the Berlin APE conference. I don’t mean for you to take ownership of someone’s else’s page, thanks for asking.
You did bring up the name of Robert Jan-Smits. This is an individual who must advocate for the views of the entire coalition; however, it is not right to brand this individual as some kind of crazy advocate and believe that the entire coalition is crazy too. Meijer and another coalition is also being branded in this way.
No doubt this is a baffling funder mandate that Sherlock can’t figure out. But working with coalitions, we will take the intelligence of the crowd and muddle our way through, European Union like. Even those who don’t sign on to a coalition can model their negotiations based on some of the assumptions?
Thanks for your continued commitment to clarity of thought and the health of the publication market.

Thanks, Scott — these are good comments. Just to be clear, it’s not my intention to “brand (Smits) as some kind of crazy advocate.” We do, however, have to take seriously the things that Smits publicly says, since he very clearly presents himself as the official spokesman of cOAlition S and Plan S, and speaks constantly on its behalf. For example, you’ve mentioned the reports coming in from the APE Conference in Berlin. These indicate that Smits is sending genuinely confusing signals about whether and to what degree the 10 Principles of Plan S will continue to be honored and enforced, and about the degree to which cOAlition S members will have flexibility in their own interpretation of them. In some cases, these signals amount to direct contradictions of what the current Plan S documents say. Obviously, these reports may not be entirely accurate, and that adds another dimension of confusion to the situation. It will be very interesting to see how (and whether) this confusion ends up being resolved.

I’m confused. How are the funders who sign up to these coalitions supposed to “model their negotiations”? And with whom would those negotiations be conducted?

Research funders don’t much negotiate, which is rather why many researcher feel trapped in a vice by these requirements.

Let me give an example. Let’s say the DOD (US Dept. of Defense) funded research that ended up being published in a Wiley journal. Let’s say that the DOD wanted their research be freely available with no embargo period and as part of some funders coalition advocated for that. Then DOD agreed to mandate that. Then Wiley and the institution that the researcher works at were is negotiations on a content agreement. Wiley did not agree to all the terms of the coalition; however, they agreed to model their agreement based on those terms. Wiley agrees to the terms of the institution, which are modeled after the terms of the DOD, which are modeled after the terms of the coalition.
So, yes, everything is indirect. But the DOD is important and have to make some judgment calls about standards even if their researchers feel trapped?

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