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Ambitious open-access Plan S delayed to let research community adapt

The public library in Stuttgart, Germany

Academic libraries, publishers and researchers responded to a consultation on the open-access initiative known as Plan S.Credit: AB/NurPhoto via Getty

A major push by some science agencies to make the research they fund open-access on publication — Plan S — has been delayed by a year. Funders now don’t have to start implementing the initiative until 2021, the agencies announced today, to give researchers and publishers more time to adapt to the changes the bold plan requires.

The funders, together called Coalition S, say they are also now prepared to give publishers more flexibility in how they transform paywalled or part-paywalled journals into fully open-access titles to become compliant with Plan S, and they will not necessarily place a cap on journals’ open-access publishing fees as they’d previously stated. The group of 19 mainly European funders behind the plan made the changes after a public consultation drew hundreds of responses from publishers, academic libraries and researchers (see ‘Five key changes to Plan S’).

“2020 was considered to be too ambitious by the research community and publishers genuinely wishing to change,” says Marc Schiltz, president of Science Europe, a Brussels-based advocacy group that represents European research agencies and officially launched the policy last year.

“It gives more breathing space to those who have to effect this transition,” says Paul Ayris, director of library services at University College London. “But 2021 will still be a challenge.”

Coalition S has also added a principle to the plan that states that, when considering whom to fund, the agencies will ignore the prestige of the journals in which researchers publish. That change addressed arguments that it will be difficult for scientists to change their publishing behaviour if the profession’s reward system still depends largely on publishing in highly selective, prestigious journals, many of which currently have paywalls.

That emphasis could quell resistance to the plan from some in the scientific community, says Robert-Jan Smits, the original architect of Plan S and head of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Several publishers, including Wiley and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science, have welcomed the delay and policy changes, but some say that the plan still poses challenges.

Five key changes to Plan S

Plan S funders must enforce their rules on open-access publishing by 1 January 2021 at the latest, rather than 1 January 2020.

Funders won’t now immediately place a cap on the cost of publishing a paper in an open-access journal. But they say journals must be transparent about publishing costs.

Funders have tweaked the rules around hybrid titles and ‘transformative agreements’, which give these partly paywalled journals a route to becoming open access.

Funders pledge to ignore the prestige of journals when making funding decisions.

In some cases, researchers will be able to publish work under more restrictive open licences, when approved by the funder, than was previously allowed.

Response to feedback

Coalition S funders — which include national agencies in Britain, France and Sweden, as well as the Wellcome Trust in London and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington — considered more than 600 responses to detailed implementation guidelines that they published last November.

The thrust of the policy remains the same: from 1 January 2021, research papers resulting from work funded by these agencies must be open access on publication. Researchers can publish in open-access journals or on online platforms that meet Plan S’s rules, or they can post their published paper, or its peer-reviewed accepted manuscript, in an approved, open repository under a liberal publishing licence. However, many subscription journals — including Nature and Science — don’t currently allow researchers to post papers or manuscripts publicly immediately on publication, meaning that unless they change their models, researchers funded by Plan S agencies will not be able to publish in them.

In the revision, funders have tweaked one of Plan S’s most controversial aspects: the way in which they propose ‘hybrid’ journals, which make some papers open access for a fee but keep others behind paywalls, be phased out. As before, Plan S agencies will cover the costs of publishing open-access papers in such journals until 2024 (now pushed back from 2023), and only if these journals are part of agreements that Coalition S deems ‘transformative’, because publishers have committed to making the titles open access on a defined timescale. (Some ‘read and publish’ deals between publishers and library consortia, which cover the cost of open-access publishing in particular journal bundles, could be considered transformative.)

But the coalition now says that it is also willing to consider individual hybrid journals ‘transformative’ — and thus compliant with Plan S — outside such agreements, as long as the titles have a defined plan to publish more open-access papers over a set time. That wiggle room might give some subscription-based journals a new path to becoming open access.

In response to the changes, Steven Inchcoombe, chief publishing officer of Springer Nature, says that this route could open the door to an open-access option for its flagship title, Nature. Inchcoombe had proposed the idea of “transformative journals” in a blogpost earlier this month, in which he also proposed that Springer Nature or other publishers as a whole could be termed a “transformative publisher” — so that all their titles would be Plan S compliant if they increased open-access take-up across all journals. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its publisher, Springer Nature.)

Springer Nature’s concepts are “interesting”, but Plan S agencies are still waiting to see and assess commitments from the firm on its open-access ideas, says John-Arne Røttingen, head of the Research Council of Norway and one of the leaders of the group deciding how funders will implement Plan S.

Transparent pricing

Plan S funders also changed their proposal to limit the costs of open-access publishing by capping what they would pay in ‘article processing charges’. Rather than automatically imposing a cap, the funders now ask journals to be more transparent about the cost of publishing papers — although they say they could still introduce a limit. “We don’t want to pay for brand value, we want to pay for services,” says Røttingen.

A handful of other tweaks concern the rules around public copyright licences and alternative open-access publishing mechanisms. The guidelines now allow researchers to use slightly more restrictive open licences when publishing their work in some as-yet undefined circumstances, when approved by funders. That might ease the concerns of some publishers and researchers who object to extremely open licences that permit anyone to reuse the text of a work.

And funders have changed the wording about open-access publishing mechanisms that don’t involve paying fees to journals, to make clear that these options comply with Plan S; critics had said that Coalition S had initially paid these mechanisms scant attention. Such routes include posting peer-reviewed manuscripts online, or using journals or platforms that are free both to read and to publish in, for instance because their costs are covered by government subsidies.

Inchcoombe says that Springer Nature is deeply concerned about the idea of allowing researchers to archive accepted manuscripts online immediately under liberal licences, because “this could have serious unintended consequences” — for example, “the commercial reuse of primary research by others who have made no contribution to the work’s production”.

Other publishers also continue to express caution about Plan S, despite the changes. More action is needed to mitigate unintended consequences and the potential cost implications for unfunded researchers, says Emma Wilson, director of publishing at the UK Royal Society of Chemistry in Cambridge.

A spokesperson for Wiley also raised concerns that the plan’s “blanket requirements” could limit the publisher’s ability to support transitions to open access in other communities.

Plan S remains “tremendously exciting and ambitious” but it still faces major obstacles, says Ayris. The funders involved support only a fraction of research worldwide, he says, and unless more agencies sign up, it could be difficult to achieve a global flip to open access.


Updates & Corrections

  • Clarification 31 May 2019: This story has been updated to make clear that Steven Inchcoombe’s proposal about ‘transformative publishers’ could apply to many publishers.


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