Plan S will be a catastrophe for learned societies


A spectre is haunting arts and humanities scholarship: the consequences of open access. Policy decisions are being taken now, but within the next three to four years, these missteps are likely to have profoundly harmed entire disciplines and possibly wiped out some of our most cherished learned societies.

Given the huge pressures faced by academics since the start of the pandemic, this topic has not recently received much critical attention. Of course, there have been consultations – UK Research and Innovation recently ran a 48-page online questionnaire, which a colleague and I spent two hours on Zoom completing. But there was no automatic acknowledgement of our submission; the fact that I had to confirm by email that my form had been received doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

In principle, I have no problem with fully funded open access. But the current debate consistently elides the fact that research published in easily accessible journals, books or websites must be paid for. The big question remains at what point in the production process should the financial transaction happen? For journals, the most common model is that academic institutions pay the publisher a subscription fee to receive online and sometimes hard copy issues for use by students and staff. But those supporting Plan S wish to move to a situation where journal publishers are paid out of the author’s research funding for publishing a paper that is then freely accessible to anyone online.

This model may work for science and medicine, where published papers have a relatively short citation half-life and the vast majority of researchers are funded by grants that make provision to pay for publication. But there is no rationale as to why the publication model for neuroscience must be the same as the one for ancient Greek. In the arts and humanities, the citation half-life of papers is much longer – years and sometimes decades, not months – and many scholars do not have access to such funding. The mindless managerial mantra that one size should fit all is hopeless.

The so-called “hybrid” journals, payments to which are soon to be blacklisted under Plan S, are particularly at risk. But such journals are typically owned by learned societies and have evolved over the decades to allow flexibility and a mixed market, enabling publication by scholars from all backgrounds: funded, non-funded, independent, early-career and in countries with fewer alternative funding opportunities. All can publish alongside each other in the specialist journal of their field, bringing a rich diversity to publication. This is now imperilled.

The loss of papers from Plan S-funded authors is designed to encourage hybrid journals to go entirely open access, but this is an impractical option for societies publishing papers in fields that already have low levels of funding. In practice, Plan S will abolish these journals. The UK’s R&D Roadmap talks much about the importance of supporting diversity in research, but clearly the funders don’t wish to extend this laudable aim to publications.

One of the motivations behind the move to open access is a perception that some publishers have misbehaved by undue profiteering. Whether or not this is the case in a few instances, it is grossly unjust to punish one entire section of the academic community for the transgressions of one or two companies.

Most companies do their best to publish the journals entrusted to them. For example, one of the things they do is use their financial firepower to protect the intellectual property of their authors. It is proposed, under the new scheme, that the intellectual property in papers will be retained by individual authors, who evidently will not have the resources to defend their rights. Intellectual anarchy will reign, I predict.

A further consequences is that, in the arts and humanities, learned societies will experience serious financial damage as sometimes as much as two-thirds of their entire income is derived from their journals. Their other main income stream – conferencing – has already been devastated, perhaps irreparably, by the pandemic. They use this funding to underwrite a wide range of activities, including supporting younger scholars with bursaries and reduced conference fees, providing recognition through, for example, essay prizes, as well as communicating – especially via their websites and social media – information about their specialist subjects to a broader audience. And all those conferences, meetings and workshops allow scholars to present early versions of their research and discuss these with colleagues from all sorts of backgrounds and institutions.

Eventually, the results of this process appear in society journals that are produced by teams of editors, editorial boards, referees and so on, who freely provide their knowledge services and without whose expertise and skills it would be impossible to maintain any scholarly standards.

Those who want to make the final outcome of the research process freely available with no offer (so far) of any compensation where authors do not have the necessary resources put at severe risk the finances (and, thus, the activities and, in some cases, the very existence) of all learned societies.

These consequences can no longer be assumed to be unintended. Such ill-advised decisions amount to the wilful destruction of the very effective dissemination system that academics have created over the generations.

Author Bio: Frank James is Professor of the History of Science at UCL and Chair of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, which owns the quarterly journal Ambix published by Taylor and Francis.