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 The draft guidance for Plan S seemed to offer that possibility – that authors could deposit manuscripts at a free-to-access preprint site (such as arXiv for physics, BioRxiv, or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.