I do have views about open access, and you might have expected me to discuss Plan S before now. But I know quite a bit more about it than I did, thanks to two things: a visit to the department by our very helpful open access staff from the Library, and a list of FAQs from Scholastica, the back-end organisation behind beautiful open-access journals such as Discrete Analysis.
A universe in which Plan S was fully implemented would have some advantages over the present one, as I hope will become apparent below. But revolutions are always messy, and this one seems likely to be no exception. Although the start date is supposed to be January 2020, there is a great deal yet which has not been agreed; it is rumoured that the group behind Plan S have rowed back from some of their more extreme positions (but also that this was done partly because of pressure from the major academic publishers, who are keen not to lose the huge profits they make on the back of our labours).
Plan S mandates that all funders of research who sign up to it will require the results of the research to be published open-access. So far, so uncontroversial. But there is more to it. Very many journals now are “hybrid”, so that you can choose to pay article processing charges (APCs) and have your paper published open-access, or not, in which case it is available to subscribers only (perhaps for some limited period). One thing which Plan S will implement, it seems, is that hybrid journals will no longer be tolerated; publicly funded research must appear in journals which are fully open access. (Why?)
There are various issues here:
- Learned societies often get the bulk of their income from publishing activities. It is quite possible that a move to APCs will severely dent this income. The rules are not drawn up with learned societies in mind, and no provision has been made to mitigate the blow.
- Governments in some countries provide universities with money to pay APCs for open access publication. But this raises problems of its own. First, there are authors who have no affiliation with a university, and as I understand it there is no provision for them (apart from a vague commitment to support Third World academics). Second, if an institution doesn’t have enough money to pay for all its researchers’ publications, someone (probably not an academic) has to decide who gets to publish and who doesn’t.
- Plan S will set an acceptable level of APCs. I have not found anywhere any indication of what this will be. At present, commercial publishers charge several thousand euros per paper. Nothing I read in the Plan S documents suggests that this is regarded as much too high.
On the face of it, it takes away researchers’ freedom to choose where to publish, since the number of Plan S-compliant journals is likely to be small (at least in the early stages). In some subjects more than others, young researchers feel that the journals in which they publish have a big effect on their subsequent careers.
However, leaving that aside, Scholastica are naturally more interested in how to ensure that your journal is Plan S-compliant. You might think that a pure diamond open access journal, like the one I am proud to be associated with, would not have any difficulty. But, as I said, the rules were designed under pressure from large publishers, and this assumption is by no means true.
To be Plan S-compliant, a journal must satisfy the following conditions (and others):
- The journal must be fully open-access, with copyright held by the authors under a CC-BY licence. (Scholastica point out that they have just introduced a scheme for journal editors to set a default copyright licence.)
- It must have no or low APCs (see above).
- It must be registered in the Directory of Open Access Journals.
- Articles must have DOIs.
- Articles must be archived in an official repository.
- Where possible, articles and data must be in formats (such as XML) which are fully machine-searchable. This applies also to article metadata. (Fine for metadata, but until we have XML that can produce the quality of typesetting we get from LaTeX, mathematicians are unlikely to be happy with the first requirement.)
In other words, things that would be useful if they existed, which the big publishers already provide (mostly), and which will be troubling to implement for small publishers.
It should also be noted that Plan S will permit “transitional arrangements” to be negotiated. But it is expected that large publishers will have the resources for these, which tend to apply at national level (indeed Springer already have such arrangements in place), whereas again small publishers will struggle.
You might think that this is just a European issue, but it is not. Already the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has signed up, and Plan S is actively seeking further support. Also, you might think that, if you don’t have a public research grant, you will be immune; but think about possible coauthors (who might be students or postdocs, or work in a country where university staff are government employees). It is not an exaggeration to say that this affects all of us.