Open Access: is Plan S heaven or hell ? How about giving it a dispassionate look ?

As I was savagely attacked on Twitter just recently by a troll who was accusing me to play double game in terms of supporting or rejecting Plan S (I spare you the invectives ad hominem), here is, with more space available, my nuanced point of view on this plan.

  • Plan S is full of good intentions and certainly represents the boldest and most proactive official step forward in the Open Access (OA) saga to date. For the most part, the principles correspond to the wishes of all OA supporters. However, there are still serious concerns about its implementation within a very short time frame and about the partnerships that this entails, particularly because of the involvement of shark-editors who can be seen participating in the ongoing reflection…
  • Plan S is supposed to be enforced in such a short time that there is little hope that most  journals that do not require APCs (article processing charges) will move to the desired model. They will therefore be banned for the benefit of « unfair gold » publications.
  • Plan S does not solve the problem of « predatory » or « parasitic » publishers. Rather, it would have the effect of encouraging them and it may even be profitable for them.
  • It is highly unlikely that publishers who will be asked to concede more rights to authors (no embargo, licence, etc.) would agree to significantly reduce their APCs and even to avoid increasing them to counter the loss.
  • Plan S does not take into account the differences in the way science is conducted in the various fields of research. Publication practices are highly variable and the plan finds its best justification in the material and life sciences, although less, if at all, in the human and social sciences. Particular attention must be paid to these pitfalls when implementing the plan.
  • Plan S does not clarify the future of learned societies that live from subscriptions to their editions, and whose price is usually very reasonable and not worth a fight.
  • Plan S applies to the various partners in scientific research in Europe but it runs the risk of placing European research at a disadvantage compared to research of other continents that do not adopt these new rules. Consultation is therefore essential beforehand, otherwise our researchers will rebel against any constraint that they may feel dangerous for their international positioning and such consultation, which will take time. This is all the more serious as it could mean excluding these European researchers from publications by international research teams….
  • There is serious concern about principle number 5 of Plan S. Indeed, by considering the assumption of publication costs by funding agencies – an excellent initiative – the plan paves the way for a price increase as requested by shark-editors. It encourages publishers to switch to an open access formula where the author pays to publish and the author will be in favour of it as long as his/her funder covers the cost. A quick calculation shows that if a research laboratory of respectable size publishes about a hundred articles per year, and each article would cost between €2,000 and €5,000, based on the current norm for « big » publishers (who cannot afford any financial loss in the transition or afterwards), we are heading towards a cost of half a million euros for this laboratory alone. One therefore understand immediately that the system goes straight into the wall… While principle #6 provides some comfort by stating that costs will be capped and controlled, it is questionable how such control can be exercised. The future will tell us, but without a truly effective solution, the system will not be viable.

In conclusion, although we live in a world where, if you are not entirely in favor of something, you must be against it, I strongly support the concept of Plan S but with several important changes and clarifications.


This text is largely the translation of an extract from the book I am publishing on Open Science (in French, sorry, but the English version is in preparation) at the Editions de l’Académie Royale de Belgique and which will be released on December 10, 2018, both in print and as a free downloadable e-book. My deepest thanks to the Académie for understanding the value of OA to the point of granting a toll-free access to the downloadable version of the book.

4 commentaires sur “Open Access: is Plan S heaven or hell ? How about giving it a dispassionate look ?

  1. Jeroen Bosman

    Dear Bernard,

    thanks for sharing your views here. I was surprised by some of them and hence I take the opportunity kindly offered by you to leave some comments.

    1) You say that zero APC journals are given too short notice to move to the desired model. I take it that you refer to the requirement of xml mainly. I agree that this can be a stumbling block, but also that this does not need to be insurmountable with enough community support, sharing of best practices and moving to using open source software that converts docx to xml as early as possible (e.g. COKO’s Pubsweet). And yes, funders could provide support to help smaller non-profit publishers to make the transition. And yes Plan S could be lenient in enforcing this part immediately from 2020. I also do feel with you that regarding technical formats (XML, JATS etc) there should be the same timing of requirements for all journals, including hybrid ones.

    2) I really do not understand why you relate Plan S to predatory publishing. Plan S stipulates that journals should be listed in DOAJ and DOAJ does quite stringent vetting. If you think there are predatory journals in DOAJ, please let us know.

    3) The link you see between conceding rights and APC levels is probably not real as almost all journals offering APC based OA already have no embargo and offer cc-by licenses. Also, there currently is no cap on APCs.

    4) You say Plan S does not take into account differences by field. For one, Plan S does not require OA for chapters and monographs, so that is certainly a way of taking into account field differences. Next to that, Plan S is quite simply asking for immediate, full OA with open licenses and copyright retention. While that may be seen as one size fits all, I would say it is not and that it actually leaves a lot of room for the various fields to choose routes for realizing that.

    5) Regarding societies I witness a great variety of sizes, stances towards OA and licenses, journal (subscription/APC) prices and surplus created from subscriptions. The approach towards societies can be sympathetic, but I think it is reasonable to ask for transparency and also for societies to reconsider their income base. Smaller societies can be offered help in transitioning their journals, e.g. by (national) libraries, as is being done in Finland.

    6) As the cOAlition keeps growing issues regarding international collaborations may be redressed. Apart from that I can see many reasons why researchers will want to work with cOAlition S funded colleagues. Your point seems to suggest that all researchers are just selecting a journal based on impact factors and do not take OA and other factors into account. I am not denying that this is still a strong tendency, but there are counter movements outside Europe as well. I can even see researchers wanting to move to cOAlition S countries to be able to practice open science to the fullest.

    7) I would say your example calculation using absolute numbers is not very convincing. If the same money that is currently in the system would be channeled differently it is entirely possible to keep all journals afloat. It’s a matter of distribution. Of course the question is whether we would like to spend the same money and whether the distribution needs to be the same. I am looking forward to the study of OA costs and prices that cOAlition-S will commission.


    1. Dear Jeroen,

      1) The too short notice.
      I agree with you that nothing is impossible. However my own experience shows that success in change is reversely proportional to the level of difficulty imposed both on the authors and the technical staff. And this reverse proportionality is logarithmic.
      In other words, I am not talking about principles but about real life. If we consider that, on its principles, Plan S should be implemented, we have to make sure that all requirement beyond the basic idea of generalized open access are clearly and fully justified. If all stakeholders are not ready in due time, the reform will collapse.

      2) Predatory publishers.
      I must admit I missed the requirement to publish only in journals listed in DOAJ. This is of course reassuring, provided that DOAJ will firmly resist the pressures that will inevitably be exerted on it when it will no longer be just an indicative reference but an element of decision. Its responsibility will be extremely heavy in determining the landscape. It will go from counselor to judge. But if it works, fine.

      3) Link between conceding rights and APC levels.
      I was of course talking about the handful of legacy publishing giants who are still now detaining the vast majority of the scholarly production and who, whatever the rules become, must make at least as much money as before. They will maintain the myth of prestige (materialized by the impact factor and so on), among researchers and evaluators (in other words, in the culture of the research community), to justify increasing APCs. The announced capping remains vague and must be clarified.

      4) Differences by field.
      Here again, my concerns come from experience. Having implemented a (successful) deposit mandate in a comprehensive university, I can tell you that everyone’s compliance requires more diplomacy than a simple top-down diktat…

      5) Learned societies.
      I fully agree with your comments on this. I was just recommending to be careful and to avoid behaving like an elephant in a porcelain store… The subject is a delicate one and many researchers will tell you how valuable the contributions of learned societies – especially the small ones but not only – can be.

      6) International collaborations.
      This is definitely not a minor issue. And I wish I could share your optimism regarding the abandonment of the current model based on the impact of journals…. In what we can now call the History of OA, this has always been the stumbling block of the movement. Prestige…

      7) The cost.
      I am aware that the calculation using absolute numbers is questionable. But even if we admit that it is based on approximations, it is clear that, without a strict control of APC costs (and here, coercion is absolutely essential), the publication budget will explode by an order of magnitude. No small adjustments will solve that.

      From all this, you will understand that my wish is not to derail the Plan S train but to make its designers anticipate all the many reasons for derailment and prevent them in time. The deadline is short, that is my humble message.

      Aimé par 1 personne

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