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.