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Funders flesh out details of Europe’s bold open-access plan

Photograph of Robert-Jan Smits

Robert-Jan Smits says the open-access plan has not been watered down. Credit: Guven Yilmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty

A group of major science funders that launched a radical plan to change the face of scholarly publishing earlier this year has released details of how their plan will work.

The 16 funders – almost all from European nations – say that from 2020, the researchers they fund must either publish in open-access journals, or, if they choose another publishing route, make a near-final copy of their manuscript immediately open in an repository the funders have approved.

The guidance document, published on 27 November, answers many of the questions scientists have had about the initiative, called ‘Plan S’, since its launch in September as a series of principles. And it comes with a public consultation to give researchers a chance to have their say.

The funders, under an umbrella called cOAlition S that includes the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have rowed back on one of the most controversial aspects of the plan — a ban on ‘hybrid journals’, which are outlets that allow researchers to make their work free to read if they pay a fee, but that keep other studies behind a paywall.

Many publishers have expressed concerns about this aspect of the initiative.

Instead of an outright ban, Plan S funders now simply say that they will not cover the costs of publishing for authors who choose non-compliant hybrid journals, but that papers in these journals will still be regarded as compliant if an open copy is posted on a repository in tandem with publication. This means that it will be possible to publish open-access articles in any hybrid journal and, by posting those articles online, be compliant with Plan S.

Additionally, Plan S funders will actively support paying fees for publishing in particular hybrid journals that intend to become fully open-access.

Some researchers have complained that the strict conditions of Plan S impinge on academic freedom because it limits their choice of where they can publish their findings. Such concerns have been fuelled in part by the lack of detailed information available about the plan. For example, the Plan S website initially listed ten principles with a preamble, but provided little information about their implementation.

Plan compliance

The guidance document is designed to answer these questions and lists the three ways in which researchers can publish work that is compliant with the plan:

1. Publish in an approved open-access journal or platform.

2. Immediately put a copy of the manuscript accepted by the journal, or the final published article, in an approved open-access repository.

3. Use a hybrid journal that is covered by a ‘transformative agreement’ and so intends to become a full open-access venue.

Under all three routes, the papers must be published with a liberal CC BY license, which allows for commercial reuse of their findings.

The funders have also released an accompanying “Technical Questions and Answers” document that says that posting articles on preprint servers, while encouraged, is not compliant with the rules, because such articles have not undergone peer review.

The plan also gives further details about so called transformative agreements that allow researchers to use hybrid publishing and recover publishing costs during an initial transition period.

These transformative deals are often made with publishers by national consortia that pay for journal subscriptions on behalf of researchers in a certain country. To comply with the rules, these contracts must outline exactly how the journals they cover will convert to full open access over the agreed period. Details and costs of the contracts, which can span three years at most, must be made publicly available, and negotiations should be finalised before 2021.

Researchers publishing in hybrid journals that are not covered by a transformative agreement will still be able to comply with their rules. To do so, at the time of publication, they need to post in a Plan S approved open repository either the final version of the paper or the version accepted by the journal under the required liberal license.

A review of two ways that researchers can comply with Plan S and still publish in hybrid journals, is slated for 2023, according to the guidance document.

Open criticism

Lynn Kamerlin, a biochemist at Uppsala University in Sweden who orchestrated an open letter criticising Plan S that has garnered more than 1,400 signatures, says that she is disappointed that posting articles on preprint servers is not compliant.

She says that most subscription journals do not allow researchers to immediately post the final version of their manuscript in an open repository with a liberal license. Unless there is a seismic shift in the publishing landscape, the plan will restrict where scientists can publish their work, she says.

Stephen Curry, a structural biologist and open access advocate at Imperial College London, notes that the rules on hybrids have been relaxed. “But it is still the case that cOAlition S is not prepared to financially support the hybrid model,” he adds.

Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s open-access envoy and architect of Plan S, denied that this was essentially watering down the policy.

“We are not watering down, we stick to the ten principles. We are just indicating how they apply,” he told a press briefing ahead of the launch of the consultation at the Science Media Centre in London on 26 November.

The consultation is open until 1 February and researchers can give feedback by via the Plan S website. The rules will come into effect on 1 January 2020, but funders have the option to decide whether to apply the new rules to the existing grants, new grants or new calls for grants.



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