Plan S does the wrong things to the wrong people


UK researchers may worry about the effects of leaving the European Union on their research, but a bigger peril may be the united front that the UK continues to present with other EU countries over open access.

The aim of the dozen or so mostly European funding agencies that have signed up to Plan S is to turbocharge the transition to full open access. UK Research and Innovation is very much on board with this and, last week, launched a consultation on its own open access policy that, it says, “aligns with the ambition of Plan S”.

In its original formulation, Plan S would have required work funded by any of its signatories to be made immediately open access from this year.

In some areas, this would have been disastrous because many society publishers with high standards and reputations would have been disallowed overnight. After some vigorous feedback, the start date was postponed until next January, and hybrid journals will now have until 2024 to complete their transition to a full gold open access model.

However, publishing in a hybrid journal that doesn’t commit to that transition will still be banned – regardless of how appropriate a publication venue it might be – unless the paper is also made immediately available in an online repository. UKRI is inviting views on the hybrid ban, and its policy will come into force a year later than Plan S, but it is committed to insisting on immediate open access.

While I understand the concept that open science has more impact, I’m not sure that the reality quite matches the theory. I am yet to meet a researcher who says that access to articles is a big problem for them given the possibility of interlibrary loans.

So who benefits from Plan S’ massive change? The general public? Researchers in other countries with less access? Possibly. The trouble is that Plan S leaves academics like me trapped in the middle, between the funders and the journals – many of which say they will struggle to be compliant with Plan S. If the hybrid ban is adopted, we will be unable to publish research council-funded work in high-quality journals in subjects such as chemistry unless we pay the costs personally or institutionally.

Affordability is a key concern more generally regarding open access. While I’m lucky that I have grants and a university with a dedicated budget for covering open access fees, these costs are significant. It is not clear who would foot the bill in the long term if all journals switched to open access – particularly if, as seems likely, it is higher than the current cost of subscriptions for the more research-intensive institutions. The risk is that academics will sit on their results if they don’t currently have research grants that can foot the bill, undermining the funders’ hope that open access will enhance the rate and scope of dissemination of new research. Even worse would be if cash-strapped universities capped the number of papers their academics could publish.

Let’s now consider the international context. Scientists from countries whose funders have not signed up to Plan S, such as the US and China, may well be reluctant to move to laboratories in signatory countries, where their choice of where to publish will be constrained. This will make those labs and countries less competitive (although it is worth saying that the US is reportedly contemplating a beefed-up open access mandate of its own).

Plan S also presents a potential administrative and political nightmare for labs with a mix of funders, only some of which are signatories to Plan S. I can see relations between teams of disparately funded researchers being strained to breaking point over publication constraints that apply to some but not all of them.

Is there an alternative? Yes! It seems crazy that in today’s world, where publication on the internet is basically free, that we have not yet set up a much cheaper and more inclusive global publication model. Instead of imposing such a divisive solution to such a dubious problem, Plan S signatories should come together with national science foundations in other major research nations to establish (and potentially own) what I’d like to call PeerPlus.

This would be a free open access journal (divided into subject areas), to which all researchers in the world would submit their manuscripts – perhaps after first posting them on a preprint server. The manuscripts would be peer reviewed (for free, as currently), but the only acceptance criteria would be technical correctness and accuracy – so even failed studies could be published.

I am conscious that this is not the first time that such a model has been suggested, and I cannot imagine that any funder would be opposed. It would be cheap, reduce fraud and remove the pressure to immediately target high-impact journals. Journal editors would browse PeerPlus, inviting submissions of those papers they think would enhance their brands. They would then pay peer reviewers to evaluate them for “novelty”, “timeliness”, “impact” and whatever other criteria the journal deemed important.

The added value of the journal’s curation, artwork, editorial support and so on would allow publishers to maintain a commercial ecosystem (via paid subscriptions) without affecting the dissemination of new scientific results.

Ultimately, Plan S will fail. That won’t be because it isn’t well intentioned or because research doesn’t need a radical new system and a cultural shift. It will be because Plan S does the wrong things to the wrong people, interrupting the positive international dynamics of research. We can and must do so much better.

Author Bio: Lee Cronin is Regius professor of chemistry at the University of Glasgow.