[Version française ici]

[Please read also rectifications and comments by Johan Rooryck, executive director of cOAlition S (rooryck.org) below]

Since January 1, 2021 the landscape of scientific communication, mainly in Europe, has changed profoundly and few researchers seem to be aware of the importance of the event.

A new requirement from major research funding bodies aims to put an end to decades of tradition in scientific publishing, where researchers deliver their research results free of charge (in the sense that they do not pay for publication and the publisher does not remunerate them either) in journals whose publishers sell subscriptions to universities and other research institutions as well as to interested readers.

Plan S enters the scene

Convinced of the growing trend over the past 25 years towards electronic communication, several major research funding organisations (17 agencies and 6 foundations, including two of the world’s largest funders of biomedical research, the Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute), have joined together in an alliance, « cOAlition S« . They have designed a « **Plan S** » to break down the subscription toll barriers and accelerate scientific progress by allowing freer and quicker sharing of methods and results.

Plan S offers a real opportunity to open the access to scientific literature produced with public means or coming from disinterested foundations. It requires scientists funded by cOAlition S member organisations to make their articles immediately accessible for free on line upon publication.

Researchers have several ways of complying with Plan S, either by paying publishers a fee to make an article freely available on a journal’s website, or by depositing the article in a free public repository from which anyone can download it. A verification tool enables researchers to check that the journal in which they plan to publish an article is in compliance with Plan S.

Will Plan S succeed in inducing the desired effects ?

Open access is a growing success. Since 2017, the majority of new articles in all academic disciplines, especially in science, have been published in open access. In 2020, at the request of UNESCO, most publishers removed the toll barriers for articles related to the COVID-19 pandemic in order to rapidly understand the characteristics of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and to accelerate the development of vaccines and treatments. In this respect, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought home to many the usefulness, if not the absolute necessity, of instant and open communication in the face of a large-scale collective challenge.

However, cOAlition S has not managed to expand significantly beyond Europe. Not all European research funds have, or have yet, joined. Major research funding agencies in China, India and the United States have expressed support in principle for Open Access, but have not joined Plan S. The impact of Plan S will therefore only be felt on a portion of the world’s scientific literature. Without wider adherence, the plan risks putting compliant researchers at a disadvantage internationally.

Another danger is that, because of its compulsory nature (which is also its strength and its chance to work well), Plan S offers traditional publishers a tempting opportunity to charge excessively high publication fees (known as APCs, article processing charges), if not to cover costs but rather to make up for the loss of income from cancelled subscriptions. Plan S pledges to set a cap on publishing fees, but this will not prevent wealthy researchers from supplementing their own funds.

What is the benefit for the authors ?

Authors are very concerned about the impact factor (IF) of the journals they publish in, because of what is usually required of them, unfortunately. However, several studies report that the number of citations of open access articles, even under conditions where the article is not given a journal IF, is higher than that of traditional articles with a reading cost. This trend has increased dramatically with the COVID-19 pandemic, but the citation advantage only applies to high quality articles. Other studies have shown that open access articles demonstrate greater reach if other measures are applied, such as the number of downloads and consultations online or in social media, or even in the general or popular press. These elements confirm that open access reaches a wider audience than just the scientific community to access the information.

Does Open Access have a cost?

In the so-called Gold Open Access, articles are licensed to be freely available upon publication and, in compensation, the publisher gets a royalty to cover the cost of publication. This new mechanism allows immediate access to scientific information and is therefore a victory for the Open Access movement in this respect. On the other hand, if it amounts only to a transfer of the editorial cost from the reader to the author, it is a failure in financial terms, especially if the process is interrupted in the middle of the transition process and if subscriptions persist alongside new initiatives, which is the case today. In recent years, the average cost of publishing an article for its author was around €2,200 and could reach €4,000 or more. Such prices far exceed the real cost of the publishing work. The Nature family of journals has set its maximum open access price at €9,500 and Cell Press (Elsevier) will charge €8,130 for an article in its flagship journal, Cell. According to these publishers, such exorbitant rates would be justified by the fact that the reputation and prestige of their journals attracts an excessive number of article proposals and that the necessary sorting, in the absence of payment per submitted manuscript, involves a huge amount of work.

Double payment, or when research institutions are being trapped

More and more research institutions, particularly in Europe, are entering into agreements (transformative agreements) whereby they pay a single fee to a publisher covering both publication costs and open access. The largest such agreement was concluded in January 2020 between Springer Nature and more than 900 German research institutions and libraries . Moreover, this system does not eliminate journal subscriptions, but simply provides immediate access to specific articles at the request of the author, thus complying with Plan S. Thus, a hybrid system is being created where an article – and the knowledge it contains – is not only provided free of charge by the author to the publisher, but is actually published on account of the author and is part of a journal that is otherwise sold by subscription. The hybrid system with double pay wished by some publishers immediately leads to extra costs for researchers and extra profits for publishers.

The good old « Green Road to Open Access »

An older variant, called the « green road » (* Green Open Access *) allows authors to avoid publication costs. In this formula, authors publish in journals – even those that use the reader-pays principle – but deposit their article immediately in an online repository. This process has become a legal obligation for the publication of publicly funded research in many countries, including the USA (for legal provisions in Belgium, see the Belgian Open Access website . These institutional repositories have thus grown considerably. The *Directory of Open Access Repositories* provides a list of several thousands. Publishers generally impose an embargo of 6 or 12 months before authors can open the archived document and make it available free of charge but nowadays many publishers allow authors to immediately deposit a final version of a peer-reviewed article in an institutional repository. The embargo policies of thousands of journals are listed and kept updated in a database called Sherpa/Romeo.

Plan S integrates the green road but it is mandating the immediate open access without embargo. Plan S accepts this form of Green Open Access, but adds a provision requiring accepted manuscripts to be licensed for immediate free distribution. This provision is contested by many publishers who want to require payment by the author in this case. The debate is not over yet.

Will the fees for authors be controlled ?

When a grantee’s research is published, Plan S requires publishers to disclose their rates to funders, including the cost of services such as pre-selection, organising peer review, writing improvement and proofreading. cOAlition S is committed to openly sharing this information with authors and institutions, with the hope of ensuring some level of control over prices.

Is the move to Open Access an ethical obligation ?

Although all those involved in scientific communication, researchers, librarians, decision-makers and publishers are nowadays generally aware of the usefulness and even the necessity of open access, many still hesitate to make a real commitment to it. Until now, research funders had never made it compulsory for research articles produced with their financial support to be published free of charge and immediately.

Some authors are also hesitant because of the requirement to publish in prestigious, high-impact journals to obtain tenure, promotion or the means to carry out their work. In addition, they may believe in the common misconception that journals offering only open access articles lack rigour.

Furthermore, paying to publish in journals that benefit from the prestige of their publishing house creates a blatant inequality between researchers in different institutions according to the financial means at their disposal.

Is there a risk that the Open Access spirit could be perverted ?

From its inception, the open access movement has postulated that publishing costs should be controlled by research institutions and funded by redirecting resources after canceling journal subscriptions. In reality, things have proved more complex. Although « transformative agreements” that cover both publishing and reading have rapidly increased the percentage of articles published in open access in some institutions, the details of these agreements are generally kept secret and so their scope is difficult to compare.

Nevertheless, it is clear that making most articles open access but for a fee, if tariffs are not a realistic reflection of actual costs, will explode university library budgets (Harvard estimates this increase at 71%) and mark large differences in the ability to publish. Indeed, this could create a vicious circle whereby well-funded researchers publish more, gain more visibility as well as recognition and, as a result, get more funding.

If Plan S does not explicitly monitor and maintain, within the terms of its open publication requirement, an insurmountable ceiling on publication costs, these perverse effects of budget explosion will be inevitable. This is now where the challenge of communicating public research lies.

Is Open Access the future of scientific publishing ?

Brazil and other Latin American countries have successfully developed a model for maintaining open access without per-article-use fees, AmeliCA , which has led to the creation of open access journals and repositories. By 2019, the region had the highest percentage of open access scientific articles in the world, almost two-thirds of its production. This initiative thus indicates the perfect feasibility of such an open system. Obviously, it comes from countries where universities are less affluent and could not afford to adopt costly practices that richer institutions tend to consider necessary, inherent to the research process itself, and included in regular research functioning costs.

The debate continues on how to control publication expenses. Many proponents of Open Access argue that making it more affordable will require a broad change in scientific culture. In particular, the evaluation committees will have to completely review their requirements in terms of publication metrics when assessing research and researchers.