A guide to Plan S: the open-access initiative shaking up science publishing

A woman reads at the library of the University of Science and Technology Liaoning in Anshan, China

Plan S is helping to drive a shift among publishers towards open-access business models.Credit: Yang Qing/Xinhua via Zuma Wire

In 2018, an influential group of research funders announced a bold pledge: the scientists they fund should publish their peer-reviewed papers outside journal paywalls. The initiative, called Plan S, caused an instant uproar over its aim of ending journal subscription models — the means by which many scholarly publications have financed their existence. Its intended start date in 2020 was delayed, and its details were tweaked. But after much sparring over policy, the project formally began in 2021, with 25 funding agencies rolling out similar open-access (OA) mandates.

As the first papers under these mandates are published, Plan S supporters say it’s the start of a journey towards open science. But most research funders haven’t signed up yet, and negotiations over the plan have produced a complex landscape of options to avoid paywalls. Here’s what the initiative means for scientists and journals — and some of the controversies that will play out in 2021 and beyond.

What do Plan S funders tell scientists to do?

Support for Plan S comes from cOAlition S — a group of research funders that includes a host of mainly European national funding agencies, and some of the world’s most influential private biomedical funders, such as the US organizations the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the London-based funder Wellcome. These funders were acknowledged on around 200,000 science papers published last year — around 5% of all research articles, but 12% of a selection of the most highly-cited journals, according to an analysis by citation-analytics firm Clarivate and DeltaThink, a consultancy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Scientists with grants from these funders must make resulting papers immediately free to read and publish them under a liberal license so that anyone can download, reuse or republish the paper. Researchers can publish their final paper OA in a journal, or they can make the accepted, peer-reviewed version of their manuscript available online in an approved repository. cOAlition S has rolled out a ‘Journal Checker Tool’ that promises to let researchers see their compliant publishing options for any journal.

One wrinkle is that each funder differs on how it will apply its policy. Wellcome and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation apply their OA policies to all manuscripts submitted for publication after 1 January 2021. But others, such as national funders in Norway, Finland and the Netherlands, apply it to papers that result from calls for research proposals issued in 2021. The United Kingdom’s national funder, UK Research and Innovation, hasn’t yet said when its new policy starts: it’s waiting for a review later this year.

Money is a key bone of contention. Many journals charge per-paper fees to publish OA. Most Plan S funders will cover these fees, but not in all cases. The European Commission, for instance (which supports Plan S), will pay fees for fully OA journals, but won’t pay in the case of hybrid journals, which are subscription journals that offer OA publishing. Other funders will support paying for OA in only some kinds of hybrid journals, and will review this policy in 2024.

How have publishers reacted?

Subscription journals have mostly adapted so that Plan S-affected scientists can still publish with them. The biggest disruption was at highly selective journals, which reject most of the papers submitted to them, and recoup their costs through subscription fees. They argued that if they switched to an OA model, they’d have to charge extremely high fees for the few papers that they publish.

In the end, these highly selective titles adjusted. They all retained their subscription models, but some announced new OA-publishing options, with per-paper fees among the highest in the industry: Nature’s OA fee is €9,500 (US$11,500), whereas Cell’s is €8,500, for instance. Other journals, such as Science and The New England Journal of Medicine, will allow Plan S-funded scientists — but not others — to post their peer-reviewed manuscripts online with liberal licensing terms while final versions of papers remain behind paywalls. This avoids high fees, but it’s not clear whether the journals can continue to run this way if lots of funders join Plan S.

Next year, funders might place limits on how much they will pay. cOAlition S says that after July 2022, only publishers who’ve provided data to explain their OA fees under one of two ‘price and service transparency frameworks’ will be eligible for their support, and that cOAlition S will support only OA publication fees that are “fair and reasonable”.

Can’t scientists just make their papers freely available online?

That is the focus of one of Plan S’s most contentious parts, announced in July 2020. Under the ‘rights retention strategy’ (RRS), Plan S funders have instructed authors — as a legal condition of their grants — to assert that they retain the right to post their peer-reviewed, accepted manuscript online, with a liberal publishing license, when they submit their manuscript to a journal.

By doing this, a scientist could publish behind a paywall but comply with their funder’s mandate by immediately posting their accepted manuscript OA online. (Posting a preprint does not comply with Plan S.) Some researchers have already begun using RRS language in their journal submissions — and the strategy could allow scientists to avoid OA publishing fees, although cOAlition S says that publishing the final paper OA is its ‘preferred’ route.

Many journals require delays before accepted manuscripts are posted online or require that these manuscripts are shared under a restricted license. But cOAlition S says the RRS trumps these terms and that the only way journals can prevent it is to turn away papers from scientists who invoke it.

More than 50 publishers, including Elsevier, Wiley and Springer Nature, signed a statement in February saying that they do not support the rights-retention route to compliance. When asked whether they would automatically reject manuscripts whose authors used the RRS, Elsevier referred Nature’s reporters to the February statement; Wiley and Springer Nature both said they would not, but that, if a manuscript passed peer review, they would direct authors towards choosing to publish their final paper OA. A Springer Nature spokesperson added that authors should ask their funders to cover OA costs, and that ultimately, the firm could choose to discount or waive a per-paper OA fee at its discretion. (Nature is editorially independent of its publisher).

In a blog post published on 8 April, Springer Nature says that if a Plan S author wants to publish behind a paywall without paying a per article charge, they will be required to sign a license that only allows their manuscript to be shared after an embargo period. This effectively overwrites the RRS.

How does Plan S affect the open-access movement?

Despite the complexity it’s brought, Plan S has already catalysed a shift in the OA landscape, advocates say. Journals that previously offered no route to make peer-reviewed articles immediately OA now do — even if only for authors with Plan S funders — and there’s been a blossoming of experiments with OA business models. All this is a precursor to arriving at open science, says Colleen Campbell, a coordinator at OA2020, an alliance campaigning to replace subscription business models with OA publishing. “The culture is changing,” says Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project and the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Plan S is also shedding light on the finances of journals, as subscription-funded publications start to charge per-paper fees. Robert Kiley, the coordinator of Plan S and Wellcome’s head of open research, wants to continue making publisher pricing more transparent. “We want to get to a place where publishers can fully articulate the services they provide, and the prices they charge,” he says.

These are long-standing questions for many funders and researchers, who point out that large science-publishing firms make sizeable profits while relying on researchers to freely provide manuscripts and review each other’s work. Publishers, in return, argue that their work adds value to scientific articles.

The pay-per-paper business model has disadvantages. It risks excluding researchers who are less wealthy or aren’t backed by funders or institutions that will pick up the tab. Some journals are trialling business models that avoid directly charging authors per paper. Many hybrid journals have struck ‘transformative agreements’: contracts in which university consortia or libraries pay lump sums that both allow their scientists to publish work openly and cover subscriptions to paywalled content. In another idea, called ‘subscribe to open’, subscription journals each year offer to open up that year’s journal content if all their subscribers agree to continue paying fees.

Some OA journals, too, are turning away from per-paper fees: PLOS, the non-profit publishing organization, now offers a ‘community action publishing’ plan in which universities pay flat annual fees that enable their scientists to publish freely in PLOS’s most-selective journals. The publisher will cap surplus revenue at 10% above costs. In March, Plan S released a study of the finances of non-commercial journals that charge neither publishing nor subscription fees but are subsidized in other ways, for instance by governments or philanthropies.

Plan S might also help to shift the management-by-metrics culture of modern science. Funders signing up to it have avowed that, when they make grant decisions, they’ll value the “intrinsic merit” of papers that researchers publish — not where the papers are published or any metric-based journal assessment. It’s not clear how this will be monitored or enforced, however.

Ultimately, the impact of the plan could hinge on whether the majority of the world’s science funders — including those in the United States, China and India — sign up to its vision.

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