High-profile subscription journals critique Plan S

Publishers say that the bold open-access initiative rules out proven ways of opening up the literature.

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Students studying in the Branch Library Main Campus at the Technical University of Munich.

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Publishers of highly selective scholarly journals — including Nature and Science — say that they cannot comply with Plan S, a European-led initiative that mandates free access to research results on publication from 2020, unless its rules are changed.

Their appeals come as part of a massive consultation on how the open-access initiative should work, which closed on 8 February and received about 600 responses, including from most of the world’s major academic publishers.

Many publishers told the Plan S coalition that they support the general aims of the initiative, but don’t agree on its details. They also say the timeframe for the transition is too short.

The consultation asked for feedback on a November document that explained how Plan S funders intend to implement the initiative. From 2020, it says, researchers supported by the funders must publish their results either in open-access journals, or, if they choose another publishing route, make a near-final copy of the manuscript immediately open in an approved repository. Funders will not pay the cost of publishing in hybrid journals, which publish some articles behind a paywall but charge a fee to make others openly available. They will also determine a “fair” fee that publishers can charge for article processing, to help inform a potential cap on these costs.

Highly selective journals, in particular, argued that they have high internal costs that couldn’t reasonably be recouped in a fully open-access model, and that cutting costs would risk reducing journals’ quality. Some publishing companies also urged the initiative to reconsider its policy on hybrid journals.

But their arguments have been rebuffed by Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s open-access envoy and architect of Plan S, to which 18 research funders have so far signed up.

Smits told Nature’s news team that prestigious journals should come up with new business models. “This has happened to the music industry and the film industry, and now it is happening to academic publishing,” he says.

High costs

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes Science titles and Springer Nature, which publishes the Nature family of journals, say costs are high because their journals have in-house, professional editors who evaluate — and ultimately reject — many more papers than they publish, and because they also produce non-research content, such as news and opinion articles. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its publisher, Springer Nature.)

Springer Nature estimates that it costs, on average, €10,000–30,000 to publish an article in one of its Nature-branded journals, which it says is much higher than at less selective and more specialized journals. That cost would be difficult to recover through article-processing charges that researchers and funders would find acceptable, it says.

The AAAS did not give a per-article cost but said that scientists across disciplines look to selective journals as “filters for quality and merit”. Limiting what funders will pay for publishing is a “threat to maintaining an accurate record of published scientific content”.

Springer Nature says that selective journals need a different approach to comply with Plan S, which could involve a phased transition to immediate open-access publishing. It suggests that this could be achieved through “policies and funding” for publishers to turn their titles into hybrid journals, or by creating separate, open-access versions of certain journals that gradually evolve to become independent of the subscription title. Alternatively, journals could charge both submission and article-processing fees, it says. It adds that a near-final version of a manuscript could be shared after six months, with the final version still accessible only through subscription or through a free, read-only shareable link. (These suggestions would not comply with the current demands of Plan S.)

Other scientific societies argued that, while their journals could move to full-open access models, they might also have to charge high fees or publish more articles to stay afloat, which they argue could compromise quality.

In its response, the selective journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) — published by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington DC — said that it would need to charge around US$6,000 to publish an article open access. PNAS said that — based on this cost — the journal would still need to spend millions of dollars to make the switch to full open access, according to an analysis it commissioned.

“I do not know of many scientific societies, including the NAS, that have financial reserves of that magnitude to transition their journals to full OA,” NAS president Marcia McNutt said in the response, which was also published as a PNAS editorial.

Transformative deals

Many Europe-based publishers — such as the journal arms of the Britain’s Institute of Physics (IOP) in Bristol and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in Cambridge — objected to Plan S’s limit on how long ‘transformative’ deals with institutions will be allowed. Under these ‘read and publish’ contracts — increasingly in demand by European researchers — library consortia still pay subscription fees for access to paywalled articles, but researchers can publish under open-access terms. Plan S dictates that these agreements be phased out by 2024, by which time it says all hybrid journals must flip to an acceptable open-access model.

Springer Nature has signed these deals with groups of institutions in nine countries, and says that such contracts should be allowed to continue. The publisher says that the deals have been popular with researchers, and many have opted to make their papers immediately freely available — which it argues makes it unnecessary for hybrid journals to flip completely to open access. The IOP and RSC also highlighted the open-access benefits of these arrangements.

Springer Nature and IOP Publishing add that they can’t commit to making all their journals open on the basis of agreements in a few countries that provide only a small proportion of their authors. Publishers including the AAAS also argue that eliminating hybrid journals will impinge on researchers’ freedom to publish wherever they like.

Negotiations ahead

One name absent among respondents was Dutch publishing giant Elsevier, which didn’t submit its own feedback to the consultation. Instead, Elsevier — which publishes some 2,960 journals, including The Lancet and Cell — says that it helped develop a submission from the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical (STM) Publishers in Oxford, UK, of which it is a member.

The STM Association says that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to open access, and that the timeline of Plan S is “rushed”.

Springer Nature suggests that the Plan S coalition engage in individual, confidential talks with publishers to explore “bilateral solutions”.

Smits says he would prefer to form a working group that includes representatives from big publishers and coalition funders to agree key principles to help make individual deals easier to strike. “Pricing cannot be part of these principles, although transparency could be,” he says.

Paul Ayris, director of library services at University College London, says that he can see no reason why publishers should not change their business models to comply with open-access requirements. “Commercial publishers wedded to old practices need to get real,” he says.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00596-x


  1. 1.

    McNutt, M. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 116, 2400–2403 (2019).

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