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The Scientific Literature

Plan S Is Still Coming

It’s been a few months since I wrote about “Plan S”, the far-reaching effort by several European governments to require open-access publication for scientific projects that they fund. Since this was announced last fall, the whole scientific publishing world has been trying to deal with the potential consequences, authors and publishers alike. Expressions of support, of disbelief, and of warning have not been hard to find.

Just recently, there has been talk that preprint servers might be the way out for everyone. The draft guidance for Plan S seemed to offer that possibility – that authors could deposit manuscripts at a free-to-access preprint site (such as arXiv for physics, BioRxiv, or ChemRxiv), fulfilling the open-access mandate, and that the final form of the papers would then be published by the traditional journals. There would still be no embargo period for these preprints, and the eventual publishers would relinquish all copyright claim on the manuscripts in that form. Those publishers would in turn be the only providers of the final formatted paper, with hyperlinks, supplementary material, and so on.

And now comes word that the entire plan will be delayed by a year, presumably to give everyone time to hammer something out. The funding agencies will now start requiring OA publication in January 2021. Another big change is the removal of a cap on funding OA publishing fees, although the Plan S coalition says that it will be monitoring those closely and expects transparency about the charges. Interestingly, the funding agencies have also agreed, on their part, to ignore the rankings and prestige of the journals where papers do get published, when it comes time for grants and grant renewals. This was a big objection from the researchers themselves, who pointed out that most of the high-end venues for publication would fall outside Plan S requirements – they feared that relegating European-funded research to less prestigious journals would hurt the entire effort and make it more difficult to attract post-docs, etc. And finally, it does look like the preprint-server method is getting serious consideration for when the plan does kick in.

So at least for the present, it looks like the Plan S effort is having the desired effect: it has shaken up the major scientific publishers and made them rethink the way that they’re doing business, and (if implemented in the way that now seems likely) will be by far the most comprehensive open access publishing plan yet, with the fewest restrictions. It will come in short of the original drop-the-bomb aspects of the proposal, but it’s going to look a lot more like those than it will look like the publishing landscape that came before. Adding an extra year to the implementation seems like a good-faith gesture to make this actually happen.

We’ll have to wait and see if this becomes a new equilibrium in publishing, or if it will (eventually) look like one more step, a big one, along the way to something new. What’s for sure, I’d think, is that scientific publishing will never again look like it did twenty years ago, or even ten. It’ll come down to the behavior of the next generations of scientists themselves, and their universities, governments, companies, and funding agencies. None of that is really in the hands of the major publishers, a fact that they now have an extra twelve months to come to terms with.

11 comments on “Plan S Is Still Coming”

  1. John Wayne says:

    Thought: if the supplemental information is going to be the few things of value provided by the publisher, it is reasonable to expect that it will rarely be free.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      That occurred to me, too – as it stands, you can often get a great deal of the useful information in some papers by downloading the free SI, but that may well change under the new system. Makes you wonder if more SI material will start showing up on preprint servers, and where the balance will be struck. . .

      1. Tom says:

        Give the value of SI (and I agree it’s often essential to fully understand a paper), I think it’s naive to expect that Plan S or its successor won’t come to include requirements on SI availability in time. My guess is that we’ll see a requirement that preprints must contain all relevant information if they’re to be used to satisfy the “publicly available” mandate, which will initially mean SI but with time will be expanded to include raw spectra and so on.

  2. Pandaman says:

    None of this addresses the issue that in the real world sci-hub is a thing and whenever someone wants a paper they can get it easily and consequence-free.

    1. chimaera says:

      For those with ethical qualms about SciHub, there’s a very useful add-on for Mozilla Firefox (I haven’t checked other browsers) called Unpaywall which will search for legitimate free copies of an article when you’re browsing the literature.

      1. AlphaGamma says:

        Unpaywall certainly exists for Chrome as well.

  3. Paul Brookes says:

    The rather minor detail of “removal of a cap on funding OA publishing fees” seems to be getting less attention that perhaps it should.

    What’s happening (for those who aren’t paying attention) is the wholesale replacement of subscription fees with APCs as a revenue stream for the publishers. While this might please Elsevier et al. with their 35% profit margin on billion$ of revenue, for those of us now finding that we have to spend 5% of our NIH grant budget per year on publication fees, this is decidedly uncool.

    And how many academic institutions do you think are taking the “savings” in subscription fees realized by their library budgets, and redirecting that money in an OA fund, to chip-in on APCs for their faculty? (hint… it’s close to zero).

    And how much does anyone want to bet that “removal of a cap on funding OA publishing fees” was a huge lobbying effort by the publishing industry, to ensure the academic cash spigot doesn’t dry up any time soon?

  4. PHUONG says:

    if the supplemental data will be the couple of things of significant worth given by the distributor, it is sensible to expect that it will once in a while be free.

  5. oliver says:

    Dear Derek,
    that whole Plan S fiasco is nothing than the desperate attempt be the “traditional” publishers to stay relevant. That won’t fly!
    This is still BULLSHIT from its inception and will never be implemented.

    Cheers, Oliver

  6. carwano says:

    that was good
    thanks a lot

  7. T says:

    Would be nice to see a comment on the effect on all this of alternative approaches like Projekt DEAL in Germany (which among other things is intended to solve one of the problems mentioned here in the comments by forcing institutions to think about redistributing subscription money from their libraries to funds for APCs). It falls short of the “publishers make their services completely free to both authors and readers” model that some would have like to see, but this was always about as realistic as saying drug companies should give away their drugs for free. Publishing involves real work (large numbers of staff to take care of technical/technological and legal aspects as well as managing peer review, answering queries, complaints, concerns, etc), and while quoting Elsevier profits is satisfying, most publishers are struggling and actually lose money on many of their journals. Which is not to say they haven’t gotten away with some real BS in recent years (like forcing people to buy weird journal packages and not being transparent with the pricing), and they certainly deserved the resulting backlash and imposition of new rules by the scientific community. But expecting them to provide a service for free is still nonsense.

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