Plan S – response to alternatives proposed by Kamerlin et al.

The recent substantial critique* by a group of mainly chemistry researchers to Plan S has garnered a lot of discussion on Twitter and in blogposts (e.g. Plan S, Antwort auf die Kritik), mostly around the risks the authors associate with the implementation of Plan S in its current form. The authors, in their well-thought-out piece, also include four solutions as alternatives to Plan S, and these have as yet, to our knowledge, not been given as much attention they deserve. To further the healthy debate around both Plan S and alternative (existing) options for open access, we hereby provide our point-by-point response to the four scenarios sketched by the authors (below in cursive) and how we feel they relate to the goals and methods as proposed in plan S. 

(1) One possible solution would be to convince all subscription (TA) journals to make all papers fully OA after an embargo period of 6-12 months, without APCs. In this environment, libraries would still buy subscriptions to allow scientists to catch up with the most recent developments, and the broader public would have access to all research without a paywall (but with a slight delay). While this plan does not provide immediate access to everyone, it is a safe and easy solution that would be beneficial for most stakeholders. Under this model, most publications would be read by scientists in the first 6-12 months after publication, and after the embargo period is over, no further costs should be accrued to access a scientific paper. In a modification of Plan S, rather than an indiscriminate blanket ban on all non-pure Gold OA journals, it would then be possible to exclude any (non-society) journals that won’t accept this policy from the list of ‘allowed’ journals. This will likely still result in some journals being excluded as possible publication venues, but is a smaller infringement on academic freedom, and could become an acceptable situation for most researchers and a model to which any journal can easily adapt without compromising on quality. We note that according to Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s Open Access Envoy, even an embargo period of 6-12 months is “unacceptable”, but he does not explain why  29 exactly that should be the case. Very recently, Belgium accepted a new law following this exact 6-12 month embargo model. This embargo period is intended to “give authors the chance to publish their papers in renowned journals, and prevents that publishers are damaged by a loss in income from subscriptions’, as is the opinion of Peeters’ cabinet.”

This option is currently executed by a number of journals/publishers, and is often referred to as delayed OA. While this would indeed be an option that would not disrupt the current reputation-driven publication system (the disruption of which is arguably one of the goals of plan S), it has also several issues:

1) by limiting immediate access to subscriptions, it would limit access to only those researchers (typically from richer institutions) that can afford those subscriptions, excluding researchers from other institutions, non-affiliated researchers, members of society, NGOs, small and medium (and large) companies, start-ups and non-profits, from immediate access to scientific and scholarly findings and the benefits flowing from that. Thus, this is arguably not an optimal solution for most stakeholders.

2) Currently, most delayed open access models do not include an open license for the publications involved, making this a read-only model rather than a true open access model that enables access as well as re-use.

3) Currently, as far as we know, publishers making journals available free to read after a number of months or years do not guarantee in any way that they will remain available. If the journal is sold to another publisher, volumes may become unavailable again.

4) This does not solve the problem currently unsustainable subscription prices, one of the very reasons of the push for OA.

NB1 The law recently approved in Belgium deals with the authors’ right to archive and sharing the manuscript of a publication after 6-12 months embargo, e.g. in a repository, not with the publisher making closed publications open on the publisher platform. It therefore more closely relates to solution 2 proposed by the authors. (see below).

NB2  It is unclear why the authors seem to argue that society journals should be exempted from this model (“it would then be possible to exclude any (non-society) journals that won’t accept this policy”).


(2) Another model, which can be implemented in conjunction with point (1), is a mandate on depositing preprints in appropriate online repositories (Green OA), similar to the Open Access requirements of the US National Institutes of Health . This is the model frequently employed by scientists to meet funders’ Open Access requirements. These are then easily searchable using a range of search tools, including (but not limited to), most easily, Google Scholar. This is a solution with great benefits to the reader and limited risks to the author, as it allows for rapid early-stage dissemination of research, the provision of real time feedback to the authors, while opening up research to the scientific community and general public much faster than waiting for the very long publication time scales inherent to some journals. (…)

There seems to be a misunderstanding here around the difference between preprints and the deposition of published articles (either publisher version, or the author-version after acceptance by the publisher). The OA requirements of NIH and many other funders concern the latter (e.g. through deposition in PubMed Central). While this model has indeed resulted in a large proportion of publications from NIH (as well as, for instance, the Wellcome trust) to be OA, where an embargo is involved (such as with NIH) it has the same drawbacks regarding non-immediate access as discussed above for scenario 1. As with scenario 1, it also does not provide incentives for publishers to change their publication model nor for funders, institutions and researchers to change the reputation-driven publication system.

NB The further benefits discussed in this scenario (early-stage dissemination, real-time feedback, circumventing long publication time scales) are benefits that are associated with preprints. Additional benefits of this model include a demonstrable trace of the scholarly record (e.g. being able to see changes made in an article as the result of peer review and community feedback).

(3) We note here also that more and more reputable publishers are now adding high quality open access publications to their repertoire of journals. In particular, we encourage fully open access journals published by scientific societies. A brief (but by no means exclusive) list of examples of such journals include ACS Central Science , ACS Omega , Chemical Science , RSC Advances , the Royal Society journals Open Biology and Open Science , IUCrJ and eLife , among others. A move to a fully open access landscape is clearly going to become much easier when there are more journals that can guarantee the same level of quality control and sustainability as current reputable subscription journals, as venues to disseminate one’s work. It may be a slower transition, but making this transition in an ecosystem that supports it does not infringe on academic freedom as Plan S does. Clearly, the overall march towards Open Knowledge Practices seems inevitable, as well as desirable, as researcher consciousness about the means of research dissemination, the possibilities, and the important ethical issues surrounding closed science increases. We must be careful to encourage this march in a way that does not replace one problem with another.    

The increase in the number of good quality open access venues (both from commercial and non-profit publishers, as well as from scholarly societies) is fully in line with what Plan S aims to stimulate. While there are clearly different opinions on the ways in which this development is best stimulated, there appears to be no difference in opinion as to the benefit of having a wide array of qualitatively good full OA publication options. It is encouraging to see that the authors include in their examples journals  for multiple disciplines that do not claim to be selective based on perceived impact, but judge research on the basis of soundness (like ACS Omega and Royal Society Open Science), indicating that they do not equate quality with selectivity per se. It should also be noted Plan S includes the commitment of funders to apply rigorous criteria as to the quality of full OA publication venues, although the exact nature of these criteria remain to be decided on. Plan S also wants to cap APCs. Though it is as yet unknown at what level, it probably will be at a level below the highest APCs currently asked for by full OA journals. It is interesting to see that the examples given have APCs ranging from 0 to 2500 USD.

Finally, the debate about Open Access, and APC, ignores the Diamond (also known as Platinum) model of OA publication. Diamond publication is a fully sponsored mode of publication, in which neither author nor publisher pays, but rather, the journals are funded by a third party sponsor. An example of Diamond OA is provided by the Beilstein Journals, all publications for which are covered by the  non-profit Beilstein Institute in Germany . Similarly, there is no fee for publication in ACS Central Science, and all publication costs are covered by the American Chemical Society . It is important to ensure the moral and ethical integrity of that sponsor. But, when performed in an ethically uncompromised framework, this would be an ideal model for publications by scientific societies, whose  journals could then either be sponsored by funders and other donors. In such a framework, rather than simply transferring costs from readers to authors, while allowing questionable journals to flourish and exploit APC, quality control can be ensured by financially supporting high quality not-for-profit publications. Would this not be a much braver step for European and National funders to mandate, than  a push for pure Gold OA?  

Plan S explicitly does not state a preference for an author-paid APC model. Other forms of pure gold OA, like indeed diamond and platinum OA, are fully in line with plan S. Diamond not being compliant is thus a misunderstanding. Depending on the implementation, the stated intent of funders to “provide incentives to establish and support full gold OA versions where appropriate” might also take the shape of enabling diamond/platinum models. One possible model for this would be the announced plans for a publication platform financed by the EC that will require no APCs from authors or institutions.  

Overall, the four solutions proposed by the authors all represent tried-and-tested solutions that are practiced in various settings, and all are providing valuable contributions to progress in open access (or in some cases, free-to-read access) of research articles. Two of them (3 and 4) are, as models, fully in line with plan S. The other two (1 and 2) facilitate access but fall short of the ambitions of plan S to not only provide immediate open access to research articles, but also to stimulate a shift in publishing away from a subscription-based journal system. Whether those ambitions and their proposed implementation are deemed to risky, too forceful and/or too limited in geographical scope to be beneficial to research and researchers remains a topic of debate even (or perhaps especially) among proponents of open research practices, which include both the original authors and ourselves.

Bianca Kramer (@MsPhelps) and Jeroen Bosman (@jeroenbosman)
Utrecht University Library

Bianca Kramer is currently also a member of the EC Expert Group ‘Future of Scholarly Publishing and Scholarly Communication 


*The piece is also published as part of a  post on the For better science blog