Plan S for open access is far too risky, say researchers

More than 700 researchers from across Europe and beyond have signed an open letter criticising Plan S, a European plan to force scientists to publish findings of publicly funded research in open access journals that has the backing of the European Union and a number of national funding agencies.

The researchers say the plan is “unfair for the scientists involved and is too risky for science in general”.

“Plan S has far-reaching consequences, takes insufficient care of the desires and wishes of the individual scientists and creates a range of unworkable and undesirable situations,” the researchers say.

‘Plan S’ is an initiative designed to ensure that by 2020 scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants provided by participating national and European research councils and funding bodies “must be published in compliant open access journals or on compliant open access platforms”.

Plan S is built on 10 principles, which include:
  • • A requirement that authors of funded research publications assign all of their copyright prerogatives (including republication, commercial use, and the creation of derivative versions) to the general public.

  • • A prohibition on publishing in either subscription or ‘hybrid’ (ie partially open access) journals, thus making more than 80% (and for some fields more than 90%) of journals off-limits to funded authors, included those published by scholarly societies, which are very important to many researchers.

  • • A threat of 'sanctions' against those authors who fail to comply.
In September 2018, a group of European government funding agencies announced the creation of cOAlition S, an organisation created to implement the plan.

Eleven research funding agencies from France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and eight other European nations, who together spend €7.6 billion (US$8.7 billion) in research grants annually, said they will mandate that, from 2020, the scientists they fund must make resulting papers free to read immediately on publication, Nature reported.

However, the 782 researchers from all ranks – from masters students to professors, directors of institutes and Nobel laureates – who signed the open letter believe cOAlition S is “not satisfied with imposing these rules in the European Union alone, and is now actively engaged in seeking to spread this approach to other countries as well, notably the United States”.

The have four main criticisms of the plan. First, they say the complete ban on hybrid journals is highly problematic, especially for chemistry.

“Apart from the fact that we won’t be allowed to publish in these journals anymore, the direct effect of Plan S and the way in which some national funding agencies and academic/research institutions seem to want to manage costs may eventually lead to a situation where we won’t even be able to legally read the most important [society] journals of, for example, the American Chemical Society, Royal Society of Chemistry and ChemPubSoc [Europe] anymore,” the researchers say.

They note that in their announcement of Plan S, the Dutch funding organisation NWO, for example, wrote that they expect to cover the high article processing charges (APCs) associated with the desired Gold OA (open access) publishing model – which does not charge the reader and assigns the costs (APCs) to the author, although it should be noted that an increasing number of open access publishers waive these charges – from money freed by disappearing or stopped subscriptions to existing journals.

Forbidding researchers access to journals

The researchers say this means that Plan S may eventually forbid scientists access to, or publishing in, more than 85% of the existing and highly valued journals.

“So effectively Plan S would block access to exactly those journals that work with a valuable and rigorous peer-review system of high quality.”

They note that in the Netherlands, for more than six months already, researchers have not had legal access to most Royal Society of Chemistry journals, and they argue that fully banning even more society journals is “completely unacceptable and unworkable”.

Second, the researchers say they expect that a large portion of the world will not fully go along with the plan.

The US, China and the rest of Asia highly value the existing society journals, in particular for chemistry the American Chemical Society (ACS) journals, and for physics the American Physical Society journals, they say.

Germany and Switzerland have already indicated they will not conform to the plans as currently formulated. Belgium will also not join in and independently introduced a different open access policy. Spain is also out, at least for the time being, they say.

“A transition period for the rest of the world will surely take a long time, and a total global ban on hybrid [society] journals being taken up as a global initiative seems very improbable.”

‘Splitting the global scientific community in two’

“Therefore, Plan S has the risk of splitting the global scientific community into two separate systems: cOAlition S grantees vs the rest of the world, with all associated negative consequences.”

The researchers say if that happens, collaborations between the cOAlition S countries and the rest of the world will be put at risk, because joint publications in the highest quality selective journals, based on rigorous peer review and quality control procedures, with the highest standing in the community, “won’t be possible anymore”.

They say the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Science, Nature, Nature Chemistry, ACS Catalysis and Angewandte Chemie are all forbidden under Plan S.

They argue that this will also have a strong negative impact on the internationalisation of PhD students and postdocs, since why would someone with academic ambitions come to, for example, the Netherlands or Sweden to obtain a PhD or obtain postdoc experience if they are not allowed to publish in journals that are important for their career progression, making them uncompetitive if they want to leave cOAlition S countries?

“Students in our universities are already starting to wonder if it is wise to do a PhD in a cOAlition S country, or rather move to another country to increase their chances of a successful [academic] career,” the researchers say.

Furthermore, if Plan S succeeds in splitting the global research system, it puts the willingness of scientists to do something for anyone in ‘the other system’, such as acting as a peer reviewer for manuscripts and research proposals, under pressure, they say. “These are all highly undesirable developments that will hurt science as a whole.”

Costs of dissemination ‘will rise’

Third, with its strong focus on the Gold OA publication model, in which researchers pay high article processing charges for each publication, the total costs of scholarly dissemination will likely rise instead of being reduced, as intended under Plan S, they say.

They also argue that the strong focus of Plan S on supporting in particular for-profit Gold OA journals – at the expense of high quality non-profit society journals – carries a serious risk that it might lead to a surplus of papers of low quality or originality or newsworthiness and that research groups may be confronted with high article processing charges.

“After all, this system is coupled to perverse financial incentives: Stimulate accepting as many papers as possible – regardless of their quality – and keep increasing the already high APCs [article processing charges] in more selective journals.”

Fourth, they say Plan S ignores the existence of large differences between different research fields and will have a much larger negative effect on chemistry than on some other fields.

Serious violation of academic freedom’

They conclude that Plan S is a “serious violation of academic freedom” that will lead to “strongly reduced access to and possibilities to publish in suitable scientific journals of high quality, with a direct consequence that it also strongly restricts our choice of countries with which we can conveniently collaborate or sustain lasting exchange programmes”.

“A full ban on publishing in hybrid journals with imposed sanctions also feels like a serious degradation of existing rights.”

They argue that less radical and cheaper solutions are possible.

“Researchers should have the freedom to choose publication venue, and while complying with open access mandates, to also choose how papers are made open access, in a way that contributes to minimal increased costs for the publishing system while not impinging on academic freedom or jeopardising internationalisation in research and higher education,” the researchers say.

They call on funding agencies that are already part of cOAlition S and those that have not yet signed up to “take into account the full landscape of ways that papers can be made open access, and not just the very narrow definition provided by Plan S, including the hybrid ban, and the fact that peer reviewed pre-prints such as [those] allowed by the ACS are currently not an obvious compliant solution”.

In addition, they demand that cOAlition S signatories “take responsibility for the implications and risks Plan S may have for the European research landscape”, and “take every possible action in the implementation stage to prevent these potential and unintended consequences”.