Plan S: The Ambitious Initiative to End the Reign of PaywallsPlan S: The Ambitious Initiative to End the Reign of Paywalls
Plan S: The Ambitious Initiative to End the Reign of Paywalls

Plan S: The Ambitious Initiative to End the Reign of Paywalls

A funder-driven push for freely accessible scholarly literature has divided the scientific community.

Dec 19, 2018
Diana Kwon


Efforts to eradicate paywalls have been gaining steam in Europe. Over the last few years, university consortia in several countries have been pushing for open-access agreements in negotiations that have occasionally led to heated stalemates. In Germany and Sweden, for example, around 300 institutions refused to renew their subscriptions with the scholarly publisher Elsevier, leaving thousands of academics without access to new content in the publisher’s journals since this summer. 

Now, funders have joined the fight. This September, cOAlition S, a group of 11 national funding agencies across Europe, launched a plan to take an aggressive approach to end the reign of subscription-based journals. 

This new initiative, dubbed Plan S, mandates that starting in 2020, academics receiving grants from participating agencies—which include funders in the UK, France, and the Netherlands—must make all scientific articles open access immediately upon publication. The coalition also outlines 10 key principles, such as commitments from funders to help cover publication fees, provide incentives to establish quality open-access journals and publishing platforms, and a promise to sanction those who do not comply with the new rules. 

Since September, two additional national funders and three charitable foundations—the Wellcome Trust in the UK, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the US, and Riksbankens Jubileumsfond in Sweden—have joined the coalition. 

This is the nature of publicly funded research—it should be a global public good that can be utilized by anyone.

— John-Arne Røttingen, Research Council of Norway

“Funders have always held the real power to shift the dynamic of science publishing, but they have largely not used it,” says Michael Eisen, an open-access advocate who cofounded PLOS and a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley. “[This is] a huge moment in the fight for open access because it represents the funders finally stepping up to the plate and doing what is necessary to shift the system.”

Initially, cOAlition S stated that grant recipients would no longer be allowed to publish in hybrid journals, which contain both paywalled and open-access articles and make up a large proportion of the scientific literature, including prestigious titles such as Science, Cell, and The Lancet. The funders noted that an exception would be made in cases where institutions had established agreements with journals to combine publishing and reading into one fee, but only during a very short transition periodThe group has now adopted a slightly softened stance, giving researchers the option to publish in subscription journals as long as they deposit either a final version or an accepted manuscript into an eligible public repository immediately after publication. 

“Coalition S is working toward making sure that authors of research papers retain their copyrights and that all articles are non-exclusively licensed to be used by others,” says John-Arne Røttingen, chief executive of the Research Council of Norway and a co-leader of the task force to implement Plan S. “This is the nature of publicly funded research—it should be a global public good that can be utilized by anyone.”

See “Open-Access Plan in Europe Bans Publishing in Paywalled Journals 

Mixed reactions

The immediate response to the public unveiling of Plan S was “overwhelming,” says Robert-Jan Smits, the Open Access Envoy of the European Commission and the primary architect of the scheme. According to Smits, within the first few days, the coalition had received tens of thousands of tweets and emails from across the globe—including praise from academics in countries such as India and Mexico saying that they wanted to do research, but their universities lacked the funds to pay for subscriptions. 

More than 1,800 academics have signed an open letter that voices support for open-access publishing mandates from funders. Although the letter, which was spearheaded by Eisen, does not directly reference Plan S, it states that while funder demands may “superficially limit our publishing option in the short term,” they can lead to a system that “[maximizes] the reach of our scholarship and its value to the research community and public.”  

Several publishers, however, have voiced their concerns about the plan. Back when the initiative was announced in September, a spokesperson for the International Association for Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM) told Nature that banning hybrid journals could “severely slow down the transition” to open access. And the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the nonprofit organization the publishes Science, told Science’s news team that implementing the plan “would disrupt scholarly communications, be a disservice to researchers, and impinge academic freedom.”  

In early November, more than 600 researchers signed a different open letter—this one criticizing the plan for being “unfair for scientists” and “too risky for science in general.” The letter states that Plan S is a “serious violation of academic freedom,” and outlined several specific problems the academics have with the plan, including a ban on many valuable journals, the possible risk to international collaboration if funders in others parts of the world did not adopt a similar policy, and the potential for the cost of scholarly dissemination to increase under a model focused on “gold” open access, in which authors pay article processing charges (APCs)—sometimes in the thousands of dollars—for individual papers.

See “Opinion: Understanding and Coping With Rising Publication Costs” 

Smits says he believes that this early criticism of Plan S stemmed partly from a misunderstanding of the scheme. To provide more clarity, the coalition recently released additional details about how it would implement the initiative. The published guidance describes three separate routes to Plan S compliance: publishing directly in an open-access journal or platform, self-archiving by immediately depositing the final version of a paper or an accepted manuscript into a public repository after publication, or publishing in a subscription journal under a temporary “transformative” agreement. These can include “read-and-publish” arrangements currently being negotiated by university consortia, with the added requirement that they must be limited to a maximum of three years, and include a clear description of how the publication will convert to full open access by the time the contract expires. 

I want [publishers] to join the transition. They will hopefully see that this is the future for them as well.

— Robert-Jan Smits, European Commission

Following the publication of the guidance, STM said in a statement that its members would be meeting with the organizers of cOAlition S to discuss Plan S on December 6. (STM declined to comment for this story, noting that it had nothing to add on the record while it was in dialogue with cOAlition S.)

Some members of the publishing world have expressed concern that the implementation guidance has fueled their worries about the potential effect of Plan S on society publishers. “I think the technical implementation that’s been put forth by the coalition will be difficult for smaller journals, community-based journals, and society journals to implement,” says Angela Cochran, the associate publisher and journals director for the American Society of Civil Engineers. “The groups that are most likely to be able to take advantage of these requirements quickly and in a cost-effective manner are the commercial publishers.” 

Smits says he is aware of these concerns, and that he has scheduled a meeting with around 20 societies in January to discuss what it will take for them to flip their journals to open access and how the coalition can help. “We’re willing to talk to the smaller societies who have a problem switching their journals to open access,” Smits tells The Scientist. “But we have to be clear that we’re not going to bend over backwards for those societies that run extremely expensive papers and then make enormous profits.” 

Lynn Kamerlin, a biochemist at Uppsala University in Sweden who spearheaded the open letter against Plan S, says the recently published implementation guidance has not quelled her and her colleagues’ concerns about the initiative. One key outstanding issue is that while it may appear that the coalition is providing researchers with publishing alternatives, according to Kamerlin, “it’s a false illusion of choice.” For instance, she adds, the self-archiving route may look like it provides the option of publishing in a wider range of journals, but many publications restrict such action until after an embargo period, making immediate deposit impossible. That letter has now garnered more than 1,500 signatories around the world.

See “Two Big Funders Join Open-Access Movement

A work in progress

Some European funders have chosen not to join cOAlition S, at least for the time being. For example, both the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) have publicly endorsed the initiative, but have not signed on. SNSF has stated that this was because it already unveiled its own open-access plan for 2020, which takes a softer approach, allowing academics to publish their papers in subscription journals as long as the articles are made open access at a later stage. DFG, on the other hand, has expressed concern that Plan S’s goal could lead to a rise in APCs. 

Although a few national agencies have stated explicit reasons for sitting out of Plan S, for funders in many other countries, “it’s just a matter of time,” Smits says. “I just have not had the time to talk to the right people.” Over the last few months, Smits has been traveling to countries across the globe, including the US and South Africa, spreading the word about Plan S and trying recruit additional members. 

The recent endorsement for the efforts of Plan S from Chinese organizations—including two libraries and a major research funder—was a game changer, according to Smits. Although it is not yet clear what steps the country will take to enact open-access policies, Chinese officials have stated that they are dedicated to making publicly funded research immediately and freely accessible. “Everyone thought that the Chinese were addicted to the subscription model,” he tells The Scientist. “This was a big surprise.” 

Plan S organizers still need to iron out some of specifics of their strategy, such as identifying a potential cap on APCs. Røttingen says that before doing this, the coalition plans to commission an economic analysis of the publishing landscape over the next year, and notes that to do this effectively, they will need publishers to be open about their publication costs. 

For some, moving scholarly reports to a completely open-access format is just the beginning of the transformation that is toppling the traditional model of academic publishing. “The act of publishing something should not be a heavily fraught process—scientists should be able to publish their work in a fairly quick, efficient, and easy way, as [we do] on preprint servers,” says Eisen. “For me, in the future model of publishing, we don’t have selective journals at all.” 

Robert Kiley, Wellcome Trust’s head of open research, expresses a similar view. “I think a much cleaner system [than what we currently have] is one where the article is already published . . . then the peer reviewer makes their arguments as to how this paper could be improved,” he says. “Societies could then take that content and start producing their own highlights from the literature.” Kiley notes that Wellcome Open Research, a platform launched by the organization around two years ago, has implemented this kind of immediate and transparent publishing model. 

Smits, however, currently sees publishers as part of the open-access future he and his colleagues are trying to build. “I hope that the big journals will still be around, but as open-access journals, he says. “I want [publishers] to join the transition. They will hopefully see that this is the future for them as well.”