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Societies and scientists react to open access Plan S

Mandate from some European funders could have far-reaching consequences

by Andrea Widener
February 8, 2019


Plan S by the numbers


Comments received on Plan S as of Feb. 5, days before the submission deadline


Open access chemistry journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals


Open access chemistry journals published in the US


Percentage of ACS authors funded by Plan S signatories from 2015–17

A European initiative designed to kick start open access publishing is getting mixed reviews from scientists and societies at home and in the US.

Under Plan S, scientists who receive support from participating research funders can only publish their work in journals that provide immediate free access to all published content starting in January 2020.

Hybrid journals, which provide both traditional subscription and open access options, would not qualify. Currently, hybrid journals make up the vast majority of the open access-publishing sphere, including high profile publications like Science and Nature, as well as top discipline-specific journals such as the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Supporters of Plan S say that complete open access is vital to communicating science and that a jolt like Plan S is needed to push publishers to change.

Detractors, including most traditional journal publishers, say that the plan has not been well thought through. They say it could do serious damage, both to scientists who can’t afford publishing fees and to societies that depend on publishing revenue to support other programs, such as diversity initiatives or science advocacy.

So far 13 government funders in Europe have signed on, including from the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the UK. Three private foundations have also agreed to follow Plan S—the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust, and the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. Organizers hope more will sign on.

Plan S was first announced in September 2018, but organizers accepted comments on the details through Feb. 8. Organizers had already received over 900 comments on Plan S several days before the deadline. During this period of debate on Plan S, chemists have been among its staunchest supporters and biggest detractors.

Many chemists think that the benefits of complete open science under Plan S outweigh any possible risks. Egon Willighagen, at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and his colleagues submitted a letter supporting Plan S that was signed by over 100 scientists.

Willighagen edits an open access journal—the Journal of Cheminformatics—and chooses to publish in open access journals himself. While there are some things he would change about Plan S, Willighagen hopes organizers eventually go even farther to include opening research and citation data as well as supplementary material.

The goal of open access is to make all research freely available to anyone who wants to read it, something that is not possible in hybrid journals. “Some publishers see hybrid journals as the end goal rather than as a transition phase,” he says. He hopes that Plan S will help them see things differently.

Willighagen also hopes that the Plan S requirements will force scientists to look beyond the journal name to evaluate the research itself. “The perception of the journal seems to be more important than the quality of the research,” Willighagen says.

But not all scientists are as optimistic. Lynn Kamerlin, a chemist at Uppsala University in Sweden, worked with colleagues to start a letter against Plan S that now has over 1,700 signatures. Kamerlin is a long-time supporter of open access, but she thinks Plan S takes it in the wrong direction.

“The debate has been hijacked,” says Kamerlin, who is an editor at several chemistry journals, including several American Chemical Society publications. “I think people equate open access and Plan S.”

Kamerlin is especially concerned about the restriction on publishing in hybrid journals. She worries that will hurt recruitment and collaborations when scientists find out they can’t publish their work in the most important journals in their field. “It’s going to cause brain drain where the best and brightest move to other places,” she says.

Kamerlin also worries that many scientists will not be able to afford to publish where they want unless they are from a rich institution. Traditional publishing models use subscription fees to pay for peer review and other journal costs. “It is not the size of the wallet that determines if you can publish in a certain journal,” she says. But that would change under Plan S, which requires that publishers primarily switch to having authors pay to publish so the work is open to everyone immediately. A small number of journals do not ask for a fee or charge a subscription, but that is rare.

Societies that publish journals are worried that the changes mandated by Plan S threaten their ability to continue to publish good work. Several publishing trade groups have spoken against Plan S. ACS helped pull together 48 society publishers to submit a joint comment to Plan S organizers, in addition to submitting its own concerns, says Brian Crawford, president of ACS Publications, which also publishes C&EN. Funds from ACS journal publishing operations help support publication of C&EN.

In addition to the ban on publishing in hybrid journals, publishers are worried about Plan S requirements that scholarly articles be published under a particularly open copyright license. The license would allow anyone, including for-profit companies, to republish or adapt the research.

Also, although Plan S doesn’t say it will cap prices on what funders pay to publish, it does say the organization will look into the issue. Caps could hurt journals that reject large numbers of papers or have higher peer review costs for other reasons, says Brian Crawford, president of ACS Publications. Caps might also might put publishers at risk of violating US anti-trust laws against collaborating on prices.


Instead of creating more open access options, the Plan S mandates will constrain scientists’ freedom to publish where they want and publishers’ freedom to publish what they want, publishers believe. “The editorial decision making by ACS editors should not be influenced by the business model,” Crawford says, but strictly by the science they want to communicate.

Overall, “Extracting cost savings from the publishing enterprise seems to be an underlying central goal” of plan S, the joint letter from society publishers concludes.

It’s hard to tell what the impact of Plan S could be on ACS, Crawford says. Currently only two of ACS’s more than 50 journals—ACS Central Science and ACS Omega—are fully open access and would qualify for Plan S.

Between 2015 and 2017, 6% of authors who published in ACS journals were funded by Plan S supporters, which would cause only a minor impact on ACS operations. But if many more funders sign on it could mean less funds for other activities supported by ACS and other societies.

Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science, wrote an editorial expressing her concerns about Plan S for societies overall and for the National Academy’s journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She says PNAS would need over $10 million in reserves to cover the costs to move from its current subscription model to full open access.

“I am convinced that we must move to open access for scientific publications. I am not convinced that an open access future must risk the viability of the professional organizations that support a healthy research enterprise,” McNutt said in an email to C&EN.

Kenneth Ruud, a computational chemist at the University of Tromsø, is a strong supporter of Plan S. His university, where he is also an administrator, has among the largest percentage of research published in open access journals in recent years after a push toward open access in Norway. He thinks a drastic move was needed to push the world toward complete open access. “The good thing is that it has raised it on the agenda for all scientists,” he says.

But Ruud also recognizes that Plan S implementation will create chaos for a while. Scientists might not be able to publish where they want and might not have good options until traditional journals change to full open access—his preference—or create new journals to fill the void.

As for publishing his own work, Ruud says, “I really don’t know where I will publish once Plan S takes effect.”

UPDATE: This story was modified on Feb. 22, 2019, to clarify the Plan S requirement for authors' payment.


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