Modified on 07.01.2019, 15:10

Version française ici.

Plan S is not a law. It is even less a European directive waiting to be transposed into national or federal law.

Plan S is a pledge made by and among funders together in a group called cOAlition S, in order to harmonise the criteria they want to use to evaluate research proposals from January 2020 on. They are committing themselves to abide by the rules of Plan S when assessing the research they fund.

For this reason, all discussions on Plan S should avoid any confusion with a legal constraint.

Every organisation in charge of evaluating research proposals is free to impose its own assessment rules as long as it states them clearly beforehand. Every funding organisation is free to require that its fundees make public the results of the research it funds, to decide how the authors will publish and how soon. So, along the lines of Plan S – and among other elements they may wish to consider – the Plan S signatories, cOAlition S, took the decision that the results of the research they fund must be openly accessible immediately when the authors decide to publish them. The actual wording is « immediate open access to all scholarly publications from research funded by coalition members from 2020 onwards ».

The funders may also choose the sanctions they will apply to those who are infringing their rules. So they may decide that transgressers will be ineligible for a subsequent application.

Hence it all amounts to an agreement between funder and fundee. As the Plan is not a law that would be applicable in any particular country, no one is obliged to abide by its rules as long as one can get the funds from elsewhere.

However, there are a few drawbacks that explain the turmoil Plan S has created in the research community.

First of all, there are not so many public funding organizations. In some countries, there is only one or very few. And even fewer – or sometimes no – not-for-profit private funders. In Europe, alternative resources come from the European Community. Researchers may therefore be restricted to depend upon cOAlition S members. In such a case, they will have to follow the requirements of the plan when choosing their publisher. This effectively limits their choice, and it worries many people.

Then, regardless of the publication scheme, the authors are required to place their text under a CC-BY licence (hopefully without the ND or NC suffixes). This will – inevitably, I am sure – repel researchers as an additional administrative constraint or even – wrongly, I believe – a deprivation of their academic freedom.

Obviously, everything depends on the offer of Plan S-compliant publishing as of January 1st, 2020. If the current situation remains unchanged, the plan will encourage publication in journals that are already compliant today. It will lead to an arm-wrestling confrontation between cOAlition S and the « legacy » publishers. Will the latter adapt their policies in time? If not, they could be progressively removed from the landscape. And it is precisely the goal of Plan S: to get rid all the disadvantages denounced by the Open Access movement and that are contrary to the OA principles.

A new difficulty arises. Among those who are ready (i.e. who offer immediate distribution and free reading via the Web), two categories exist:

A. Platforms that are available to authors for free or almost;

B. Fee-based publication platforms. Among these, one can distinguish several, very different options :

  • B(1) Publication is made in a “traditional” subscription journal and deposited immediately when accepted in an open access repository (Green OA). The cost is for subscribers (usually universities, sometimes individuals) on the reader’s side, not on the author’s side. There is a very light cost for universities to manage the repository.
  • B(2) « Hybrid » editions, generally offered today by the same traditional publishers, who continue to sell a paper form by subscription but also charge for immediate online publishing. The cost is both on the author’s side and on the reader’s side (double dipping).
  • B(3a) Innovative platforms using new forms of reviewing (identified, open, etc.). The cost is on the author’s side.
  • B(3b) Platforms of traditional publishers that distribute articles without paper publication in parallel (i.e. not hybrid) but reproducing the traditional scheme of traditional scientific publishing, in particular peer review. The cost is on the author’s side.
  • B(4) « Predatory » editions that put manuscripts online for money without any real guarantee of quality. The cost is on the author’s side, the reader reads for free when the scam doesn’t go so far as not to publish anything…

Comments :

B(1): At first, cOAlition S members were not considering Green OA as compliant, but there have been adjustments along the way since September 2018 and it appears that this would be acceptable. They will, « under specified conditions, accept deposit of scholarly articles in Open Access repositories ». It would be nice to know what these « specified conditions » are. What is sure is that embargoes are banned. Although we have been denouncing them from the onset, they have been a compromise that has allowed Green OA to be tolerated by the most demanding publishers up to now. In the short or middle-term, forbidding embargoes might kill Green OA. There is an additional difficulty with Plan S and Green OA: the technical requirements imposed upon the repository management teams will be difficult to meet in such a short notice. Exhausting but not impossible.

B(2): cOAlition S members clearly ruled out the hybrid model at first. However, in the implementation document of November 26, they announced that they will tolerate « in a transition period, publishing Open Access in subscription journals (‘hybrid Open Access’) under transformative agreements as means to achieve compliance with Plan S. ». The transformative agreement must be signed with cOAlition S and must « have a clear and time-specified commitment to a full Open Access transition ». Yet this blurs the project somewhat by leaving some loose ends…

B(3a & 3b) : cOAlition S clearly favours these open platform models from the outset, while also supporting model A. It should be noted that B(3b) risks perpetuating the cult of the impact factor and the illegitimate transfer of prestige from publisher to author.

B(4): One can hope that researchers will be wise enough to avoid becoming preys by all means. However the pressure to publish directly in OA may lure many of them into an extremely fast but insecure publication. In any case, predatory publishers will be banned. It is an excellent thing except for the fact that beside the obvious or documented predators there is a grey zone where it is difficult to decide whether or not a publisher is predatory, particularly for newcomers for whom there is still a lack of evidence.

This leaves the researchers with 4 options: A, B(1) conditionally, B(2) transiently and B(3).

But with all this, Plan S can be sustainable only if :

  1. cOAlition S gathers enough signatories to weigh significantly on the scholarly publishing landscape. So far, according to a US source, « the first 15 funders to back Plan S would account only for 3.5% of the global research articles in 2017 ». Pressure on the global system needs much more adhésion than that.
  2. cOAlition S ensures that none of its members fails to take back the compliance label from publishers who practice excessive increases in their APCs, above the « cap » announced by Plan S, the level of the cap being still unspecified. Will it be unified ? Or will it vary according to still unknown criteria such as impact, prestige and the like ? The wish of Open Access advocates is that the cost of publication should be low enough to cease being an element of discrimination based on financial capacity.
  3. cOAlition S members adjust their evaluation criteria to the new norms and make sure there is a real consistency between their requirements for granting and those for post-evaluation. In this respect, a strong commitment to the principles of the DORA (« cOAlition S members intend to sign DORA and implement those requirements in their policies ») and of the Leyden Manifesto is indispensable.