At the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) Annual Meeting in San Diego last Thursday, those unfortunate enough to be speaking during the 4pm slot lost their audience as everyone’s attention turned to their phones. The wait was over! Revised Plan S implementation guidelines were released last Thursday or Friday, depending on what part of the globe you were in.

If nothing else, Plan S is the gift that keeps on giving for bloggers, pundits, and consultants and this will certainly not be the last word on the revised guidelines you read here in the Scholarly Kitchen. I’m going to use the opportunity of having the first word here to take a step back to look at the bigger picture (so those of you looking for the play-by-play will have to wait!). Today, I’m more interested in how Plan S may or may not contribute to a more fundamental remake of scholarly communication – one that is more fit for purpose in this digital century, rather than one that continues to be driven by the legacy of the print era. And yes, I do worry that in all of the wrangling about what is and isn’t Plan S compliant, we’re far too focused on the trees and are not asking the right questions.


My initial disclaimer, if it’s not obvious, is that I am completely supportive of the driving principles and objectives of Plan S. I lead an organization that is – and always has been – Plan S compliant from top to toe. But more than that, I share the goal of a future in which the research literature is fully and immediately open with liberal rights of reuse. And so, I am pleased to see that this bold goal not only remains unchanged but that the feedback process has encouraged (or, in some cases, perhaps forced) stakeholders to support these general principles:

‘The feedback received has shown that the overall goal of achieving full and immediate Open Access is widely supported by those who responded. The overall objective of Plan S has thus not been challenged.’

With that battle won, the question is now all about the transition. The revised guidelines show evidence of having listened to stakeholder concerns without watering down the fundamental principles. That’s key, but there are also a number of positive changes that both help to clear up confusion and should make the transition easier:

  • Time frames: The start date of 2021 gives everyone – but especially smaller publishers and societies — a more reasonable runway. There is now clarity about the end date for transformational deals (2024), although many still find this to be an aggressive timescale in which to transform a subscription business.
  • Clarity on compliance routes: As expected, there has been no change in the exclusion of hybrid as a route to compliance and mirror journals are now explicitly excluded. Preprints are also not considered compliant and while that may disappoint some, this is a recognition of the value of high quality peer review for the scientific record. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t support preprints as an important mechanism for early sharing and accelerating scientific progress.) There is also a stronger emphasis on multiple paths, including less onerous ways via the green route. This is good news for those who may not have APC funding during the transition period as long as non-compliant publishers relax their requirements.
  • Pricing: The revised guidelines have moved to a focus on transparency rather than caps but hold in reserve the right to institute caps in the future. And here I’m a little torn. The emphasis on price transparency allows for the fact that different journals offer different levels of value and service (and hopefully avoids what happened with fees at British universities where every institution rapidly moved to charging the maximum amount allowed)But there is some challenging work ahead to define what a “reasonable” price is (including what level of profit should be allowed). This compromise feels as if it is in large part a response to the considerable pushback from the largest commercial publishers, and that Plan S felt they needed them on board for this transition to work. While this may be true on some levels, it’s unlikely to lead to any significant reduction in or redistribution of spend.
  • Societies: There is now explicit acknowledgment of the challenges for learned societies and society publishers (and of course, Wellcome, UKRI, and ALPSP have launched an exploration of strategies for societies). My concern here is that worry about their future may drive more societies into partnerships with commercial publishers (I heard a number of publishers and society consultants confirm an increase in RFP activity at SSP), continuing the consolidation of the market. For those willing to experiment, they may find better long-term solutions than being squeezed when partner publishing agreements are found to be less lucrative for publishers in an OA market.
  • Rewards and incentives: Finally, I’m happy to see greater acknowledgement of the desperate need for change in research and reward incentives (which aligns well with work already underway through initiatives such as DORA).

And this is where I want to bring our attention away from the trees and back to the woods. Plan S has done much to reinvigorate debate about open access and to tease out support for the ultimate outcome of full open access to the scientific record. That’s not to be underestimated, but the discussions around Plan S reflect the same vested interests we’ve heard for a couple of decades. Some of these are legitimate concerns (perhaps most notably societies anxious about how to fund the important work they do), but I see other forces at work in shaping more worrying trends:

The increased “marketization” of the scholarly record: This may sound counterintuitive given the goals of Plan S and publishers’ concerns about its impact on their sustainability, but there are other ways in which responses to Plan S over the past 6-9 months could lead to some very real unintended consequences. Far from being “transformative”, the emergence of Read and Publish/Publish and Read (RAP/PAR) deals runs the risk of locking in the high cost of subscriptions into an open future and of reinforcing the market dominance of the biggest players as subscription funds simply flow in full to new deal models. Consortia are already complaining that RAP deals aren’t leading to a reduction in cost, but given that APC inflation is high and authors show little evidence of factoring pricing into their publishing decisions, there’s not much reason to expect any savings. And as noted above, we’re already seeing independent societies seek the “safe haven” of larger publishers, who are currently the ones with the resources to dedicate to negotiating these deals. If this continues, all kinds of smaller and independent publishers will have to continue to fight over the leftovers from library budgets. I’m not suggesting that publishers shouldn’t be allowed to charge reasonable prices for the value they add nor to make a reasonable return on that investment, but from what we’ve seen so far, I simply don’t see how “transformative” deals are going to deliver substantial change in this area.

Hardwiring the exclusion of research produced in the Global South: While open access has made huge strides in opening up the research literature for the benefit of those who can’t afford subscriptions, many of us have become increasingly concerned about the unintended consequences of Article Processing Charges (APCs). As Leslie Chan has demonstrated clearly through The Knowledge G.A.P projects, our discussions about the future of scholarly communication and the implementation of open access are firmly rooted in the privilege of the northern hemisphere. The launch of AmeliCA earlier this year further highlights the growing gulf between the needs of the Global South and the direction of the elite northern research and publishing framework. While Plan S talks about waivers (though has moved away from price caps), a system based on PAR deals will further disenfranchise researchers in the Global South and risks deepening existing inequality and exclusion.

Researchers remain disengaged: Mandates are not a good way of getting researchers to understand the issues or change behavior, any more than they are to drive change in an organization. It’s not so much that researchers have firm anti-open access convictions but rather (as one researcher on an SSP panel put it) that “they have zero information or incentive to care”. This has to change if behaviors supporting open research are to become the default. Mandates are unlikely to deliver on this – instead, we have to engage in the deliberate work of culture change (Brian Nosek of the Center for Open Science has a thoughtful model to illustrate this).

The revised guidelines are careful to point out that neither Plan S specifically nor open access in general require the APC model, but it’s important to go one step further and to be clear that open access is not a single business model – it’s the outcome we’re driving towards. The furor around Plan S over recent months has narrowed focus to a scramble for RAP/PAR deals which seems to have blocked our ability to think about different or more innovative approaches. Plan S has undoubtedly added a much-needed sense of urgency, and I hope that we can now add to that an ability to think big about what a true transformation of scholarly communication should look like. That system should not only be open, more efficient, and fully digital, but truly equitable for all.

Alison Mudditt

Alison Mudditt

Alison Mudditt joined PLOS as CEO in 2017, having previously served as Director of the University of California Press and Executive Vice President at SAGE Publications. Her 30 years in publishing also include leadership positions at Blackwell and Taylor & Francis. Alison also serves on the Board of Directors of SSP and the Center for Open Science.


23 Thoughts on "Plan S and the Transformation of Scholarly Communication: Are We Missing the Woods?"

I am totally opposed to Plan S! I am against totalitarianism and forced compliance when it comes to the marketplace. Those who are forcing its implementation do not force it upon themselves. As I have said why do I have to pay for microsoft it should be free? Why do we have to pay for the drugs that emerged from the pharmaceutical companies founded by Henry Welcome?

As one who is committed from top to toe to open access, I am rather curious when will PLOS again be raising it prices to publish? You do realize that the cost to publish is a bigger barrier to a scholar without access to funding. I know that PLOS will cover some of those who do not have funding but why should there be any cost to publish? Why isn’t PLOS freely publishing articles submitted and accepted?

I would suggest going back and re-reading this post, where Alison gets into the exact problems you mention. It is interesting to see so many in the OA world, coming from a very wide variety of positions and viewpoints (and I’m certainly one of them) reaching the conclusion that the author-pays APC model is an evolutionary dead end, and far from the final way that OA needs to work.

It’s acknowledged, but in a pretty dismissive way. I think it’s probably very naive to call it an unintended consequence; the exclusion of researchers without a lot of funds (whether in the Global South or not) is likely to be the main change. There’s a lot of noble sounding rhetoric, but what we’re really talking about is using the European’s clout now to establish a system that will allow them to maintain that clout for some time going forward. What Plan S is doing isn’t what you’d do if you wanted to make research outputs open to all; it *is* what you’d do if you wanted to exclude researchers who aren’t well funded.

We live in a world where huge improvements to access to research outputs have been made in recent years, and many fields effectively solved the problem at least as early as August 14, 1991 (of course, I’m no doubt biased as someone in a field where all research is immediately available for free, and you can publish for free, which Plan S will very likely end). That the Plan S people are ignoring what’s known is a pretty clear indication what they aren’t interested in.

So, Brian, you’ve actually reinforced a number of my key points here. Plan S doesn’t have to mean pay-to-publish (as in RAP/PAR deals) but that’s how it’s currently being advanced by most publishers. Plan S isn’t setting the business model and there’s nothing to stop us developing better models for open access that don’t exclude anyone.

Indeed, I think that I’m pretty clear in this post about the rising challenges of APCs. We’re fully engaged with that at PLOS and will begin piloting alternative models this fall.

Thanks, Alison, for these characteristically thoughtful comments. They particularly struck a chord with me because about ten days ago I gave the opening talk at a national conference organised by Goldsmiths, University of London to discuss open access in the arts, humanities and social sciences. It inevitably focused particularly on books. My theme resonated with yours, which is what proposals for mandates do to wider discussion of a field. I spoke about the challenging issues I’d raised in my 2015 report for HEFCE on Monographs & Open Access, and observed the limited progress in addressing them. I argued that the objective of mandates was to stimulate culture change and infrastructural development, rather than simply to require work supported by specific funders to be open access. Yet, I said, once mandates are introduced they have the effect of making debate focus on the details of the mandate rather than the broader issues such as those that I’d identified as needing attention before culture and infrastructure could make the necessary progress (issues such as business models, technology, third-party rights and so on). I therefore wholeheartedly agree with what you say about the diversions produced by mandates, as you put it not seeing the wood for the trees. For me it is not that we shouldn’t contemplate mandates, because mandates have a role to play, but that a lot of prior thinking and work was needed if the mandates weren’t to divert attention from key issues.

It should be said that the lack of challenge to the overall objectives of Plan S probably reflects the sense that this would be pointless, or even counter-productive, if any party was trying to achieve modification of the details. The sheer power of the consortium members in certain research areas means that only a very brave or a very eminent party would confront them. Better to pay lip-service to the objectives and try for some concessions. In practice, as Alison notes, many researchers in humanities and social science are just not engaged. The R1 universities are only just waking up to the fact that they will now have to bear the costs of the Plan S world, rather than have every user contribute something towards the expenses of review and publication. In particular, our biomedical friends have never really explained why public and charity-funded research should be made into a free gift to the international pharmaceutical industry. (This touched a very raw nerve when Sir Mark Walport was asked – and failed – to produce a coherent justification.) The issue of exclusion for developing country researchers still awaits a solution – OA has never really been an issue there given the availability of free access through Research4Life and similar schemes.

I agree. There is not much talk about some of the side effects about moving from subscriber-pays to author-pays, except for some discussion on developing country researchers. There are a lot of subscribers to journals, who want to use the research from the universities to make commercial products. These companies would now get all this research free, and instead the same costs would be moved to the universities.

I doubt that you’ll find a scholarly publisher who is fundamentally against the main goals of Plan-S. To use your metaphor, everyone is supportive of a healthy forest. However, Plan-S, as first proposed, was a plan to clear-cut the forest and implement policies that would allow just a few industrial crops to grow. Indeed, the architect of the plan, seemed to be swayed by a few industrial lobbyists and unwilling, at first, to listen to other diverse voices. This revised Plan-S plan is an improvement, but it is still vague and lacks specificity. Like all good policy, it is the details–the trees–that are vitally important. If there is one thing that I’ve learned from publishing is that details matter. If we want to promote a diverse forest, Plan-S should be shelved.

Full and immediate open access can be achieved by (1) requiring preprint deposit, (2) allowing publication in hybrid or mirror journals, and (3) requiring peer-reviewed version deposited into your repository of choice (like the NIH requirement to deposit to PMC). In this manner, access to the research is available to all before and after publication. The work is permanently indexed and freely accessible forever (barring disaster). It does not restrict researcher choice in regards to publication venue, and it does not needless require subscription publishers to uproot their entire business model. Societies used to subscription and reuse revenue can add a hybrid option and absorb a minimal revenue hit (a reasonable request to be able to accepted papers funded by the Plan S group).

Have our glorious overlords ever explained why the above is not enough to appease them?

I’d say because the above relies on action by the authors, and the authors, as said above, aren’t really engaged. Its much easier to put the onus on the publishers, than asking the authors to deposit in an open repository.

Nor have all the publishers complied with requirements like the NIH Mandate. NLM doesn’t get anywhere near 100% compliance in PubMed Central.

Any requirements for US funders are the responsibility of the funded researchers, not the responsibility of publishers. The relationship in NIH funding is between the funder and the fundee (and their institution). Publishers have zero obligation in this matter, but many see a competitive advantage in depositing in PMC on behalf of authors (which is why compliance is so much higher than for pretty much any other OA policy). If I recall correctly, when the OSTP Memo came out, many of the agencies when asked specifically forbade 3rd parties from fulfilling these responsibilities on behalf of fundees.

Deposition in a repository is explicitly allowed as an open access route: Most publishers forbid the deposition of the peer-reviewed version of the article without an embargo, so lobby your favourite journals to change their policies. I’m surprised the other commenters haven’t pointed this obstacle out.

You are advocating for gold open access, as is Plan S. The embargo period is meant to allow publishers a certain period for profitability from subscriptions, before the research is available (even in final manuscript form) in the public. Green open access allows the deposit after an embargo period.

The US Government funder “Public Access” requirements, set forth in the 2013 OSTP memo, and the individual agency plans, require the embargo period (and in effect green open access rather than gold open access), unless the articles are “open access” in the publisher sense of the phrase.

Can we talk a little about the “elitist” nature of policies like Plan S? If your institution or government funder can pay your OA fees that’s wonderful for you, but what about the vast majority of researchers around the globe, particularly in developing countries, who would have to open their (meager) pockets to pay Gold OA fees? Some publishers offer fee waivers for certain authors/countries, but is that sustainable? Someone always has to pay in the end. Plan S is trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.

Yep, see Alison’s comments about the global South, AmelICA and other fields/institutions that cannot sustainably rely on APCs…

Was not seeing it only in terms of geography, but also in terms of large vs small institutions. However, the concern is the same. Thank you.

I’m not sure why you, or Plan S, think publishers should price to cost. That would be a quick way to kill innovation in this industry.

It is a question of ethics. The same, tired, large, and for-profit publishers have been seeking to profit unduly from academic labor since the days of Robert Maxwell and Pergamon Press. Enough is enough. Limit what they can charge authors or institutions: lower their executive pay: stop them buying up data and smaller publishers: and on our [academic] side, take back publishing and stop prioritising their journals in promotion, tenure and hiring. [I know, this will only happen in an alternative universe…]. Gary Hall has good things to say: He says “we need to engage, critically and creatively, with the very concept of the liberal, humanist authorial subject that underpins our mode of being and working as academics and theorists. And what’s more, we need to do so by actually performing this concept differently in how we think and act.” OHP is a start with its freely available content.

Take back publishing? Research and publishing are two very different things. Many universities have presses but most do not. In a free, competitive market, the Elseviers and Springers should be allowed to exist too. Researchers have always had the choice where to publish. Now OA and Plan S are trying to take that choice away. Nice shout out to Robert Maxwell by the way. Does anyone remember who is was anymore? 🙂

“Freely available content”.

An absurd concept pedaled by the ignorant.

As soon as a researcher spends a single second considering a hypothesis there is nothing “free” about it. The researcher adds value and cost throughout their process. They then rightly look to maximize the value of their work. Either through audience of journal or brand. So look to those who can do that for them. Regardless of subscription or “OA”, costs are again occurred and paid for.

Nothing is “free” so we should stop lying about that.

“OA makes research freely available” – the biggest lie in publishing in the last 30 years.

As a DIY journal editor I wold like to know if Plan S has relented on insisting on xml file creation from articles, and mandatory Clockss archiving or equivalent [instead of cheaper equivalents like standard university archiving]. Both were mentioned in the first drafts of Plan S, and widely seen as enforcing uniformity that our DIY sector would be excluded from. These are things you cannot afford on a shoestring. I did not even know what xml was, having produced PDFs of articles for decades, like most of the 5000 or so journals on DOAJ.

Comments are closed.