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Laura Bellingan examines the implications of ‘Plan S’, a new push by funders to make all the research they support open access by January 2020 

The Biologist 66(1) p9

The ambition to make the output of publicly funded research and scholarship freely available to all crystallised at the beginning of the century. It has since been adopted by a significant number of private and charitable funders of research, while academic publishers, particularly learned society journals, have developed mechanisms to support greater public accessibility. This has been mainly online in the form of open access (OA) publishing. Here, typically the cost of publishing a paper is borne by the author or research funder (via an ‘article processing charge’). This means the publisher can make that paper available for free rather than selling access to it via a journal subscription.

If this sounds easy, it hasn’t been – especially for the learned societies building and running international journals. Progress towards an OA world has been most rapid in the biomedical sciences, but despite significant growth in the number of journal articles freely available, and indeed the number of full OA journals where all content is freely accessible, progress still feels slow for those enthusiastic for change.

Towards the end of last year a new initiative emerged called ‘Plan S’, led by a coalition of more than a dozen research funders and international charities based mainly in Europe (known as ‘cOAlition S’). They have mandated that all outputs of their funded research programmes, from January 2020 onwards, be published via an immediate and fully OA route.

In other words, any researcher receiving funding from this coalition of funding bodies must publish in a fully open access journal. This excludes hybrid journals – traditional subscription-based journals that offer the option of publishing via OA.

While greater accessibility to scholarly output is supported across our sector, there are aspects of Plan S that raise concern with learned communities in particular.

The first is the required timing to implementation. The plan gives, effectively, a one-year lead-in and is a huge challenge for academic journals, many of which are produced under partnership or contract agreements between learned societies and commercial publishers.

Even self-publishing societies cannot create or change journal models in that timeframe, especially as many journals have large archives of research to manage, and an international subscriber and author base not aligned with Plan S. (Hybrid journals already have trouble with the problem of ‘double dipping’ – that is, charging libraries a subscription for access to some content that is free to everybody else.)

Another concern raised in relation to Plan S was an expectation that a low price cap would be set for article processing charges, regardless of the high variation in actual costs to journals of reviewing, editing, proofing, typesetting, distributing and marketing articles. It has emerged that ‘reasonable’ charges will apply, so it will be for journals and learned societies to prepare for debate on this.

A sustainable model needs to have a money flow that covers all the costs of publishing, including the need for development. The latter is significant: within the span of many scientists’ careers, academic publishing has moved from bound library editions and index cards to smartphone-readable papers with explorable datasets.

It is likely that the Plan S ambition will hinge on whether other big research blocks – China, the US and so on – join cOAlition S. The majority of authors will need to balance their journal choice (made for a variety of reasons of reputation, visibility and community) with accessibility policies and available funding.

It has certainly rebooted the debate. The Society is gathering views from across the sector and will be keeping abreast of developments throughout the year.

Laura Bellingan FRSB is Director of Policy and Public Affairs at the RSB.