7 Feb 2019

Plan S may be disruptive, but is it disruptive enough?

Michelle Dalton (@mishdalton), Librarian, Institute of Public Administration, Ireland.


Whilst open access has been simmering beneath the surface of scholarly communications for some time now, in recent months it seems to have finally reached boiling point, thanks in no small part to cOAlition S and Plan S. The uncertainty that has ensued around the implementation of the Plan’s ten principles has sparked much discussion and debate around what publishing could and should look like in an open access world, but as yet, a clear consensus has yet to emerge on what the best solution might be.

Whilst Plan S does not explicitly promote or endorse an APC-model, in reality, the condition that archived author accepted manuscripts must have a CC BY licence, and the technical requirements expected of repositories, are perhaps not so easily achievable in practice - at least in the short term. Moreover, whilst in theory increased green open access content might put downward pressure on subscription costs, in effect, this may be difficult to predict with certainty, which still leaves us with a potentially unsustainable financial situation, even if open access has improved. Some researchers also have concerns about making a postprint version that may differ from the “version of record” publically accessible, or fear that a CC BY licence will allow others to translate or reuse their work in a way that may misrepresent it. With question marks over the feasibility of this avenue of compliance, the “easier” solution seems to point towards some kind of APC-based model, with traditional subscription journals flipping to fully open access models in the coming years.

However, APCs are not necessarily a cheaper option, and left unchecked, may allow publishers to continue to generate and extract the same high profit margins they have enjoyed up until now through subscription revenue. COAlition S is keen to ward off such concerns in highlighting the requirement for transparent pricing and capped charges to ensure costs are sustainable. However, even with the appropriate governance structures in place, where does it leave those researchers who are not funded or have no means by which to cover publishing costs? It is unlikely that waiver policies can cover all such cases, leading to a “play-wall” rather than a “pay-wall” for researchers. Furthermore, with an APC model publishers may have an incentive to have higher acceptance rates (even if unmerited by the quality of submissions) as the cost of rejected papers must also be borne by those which are successful. The introduction of submission fees could be one way to perhaps lessen this risk however.

In some respects, Plan S seems to have adopted a “hands off” approach, leaving publishers and the market to work out the logistics of what a compliant business model might look like by themselves. What we have seen in recent times are new flavours of the big deal in the form of “read and publish” (RAP) and “publish and read” (PAR) agreements. Whilst some may view these deals as a short term, transformative measure, it is perhaps unclear what the exit strategy is from such agreements. Once these models have taken hold it may be difficult for libraries or research institutes to extract themselves from them. The recent pushback from libraries in stepping away from subscription deals has been broadly supported by researchers, however this is perhaps partly due to the alternative solutions or workarounds that exist for accessing such content though tools like unpaywall, improved document delivery services, and scihub, even if this is more inconvenient. However, if a library withdraws from a PAR or RAP deal and researchers are suddenly unable to publish in a journal of their choice without having to fund it directly themselves, sentiment may not be as favourable.

If APC-based agreements start to thrive, it may be a missed opportunity to force through deep-rooted change, such as moving towards open infrastructure, and more innovative and disruptive solutions such as the Open Library of Humanities, Wellcome (and HRB) Open Research, and the European Commission’s ongoing tender process for an open publishing platform. However as 2020 approaches, the clock is ticking on the Plan S timeline, and this may understandably push actions towards more easily achievable solutions, rather than more radical ones which may take more time, but could be worth it in the longer run.

Of course, it remains impossible to discuss scholarly publishing without reference to the reward system underpinning it, and until this changes fundamentally it is difficult to imagine any significant shifts in publishing behavior occurring. Plan S has certainly resulted in some confusion and uncertainty. What is clear however, is that change must happen. The current subscription model has worked efficiently in some respects, but the escalating costs (in addition to the pressure to transform to an open access model) make it unsustainable, even for those libraries with relatively healthy budgets. I just hope that whilst we drive towards achieving open access, that we do not miss the opportunity to address the escalating financial cost of scholarly publishing, and the need to regain control from the hands of publishers, at the same time.

DISCLAIMER: The above are personal thoughts on an issue I am still very much thinking through, and as such are subject to change... 


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