This week, a group of 11 European funders introduced their Plan S, under which all scientific (read scholarly) publications must be in open access (OA) journals or platforms and available immediately upon publication, by 2020. There are a number of good early analyses of the plan out there, such as Peter Suber’s. The commercial publishers were quick to lament it as the death knell of western civilization.

Plan S is not radical

Despite air raid sirens sounding at the big commercial publishers, Plan S is in fact not very radical at all. It is incremental, and even in some ways regressive. The plan generally advocates the kind of change that the commercial publishers have been trying to engineer for the past few years, in that it mandates a move to author processing charges (APC) based publishing, or gold OA, in which there is no subscription for access to journal content, but rather a charge for getting a paper published.

Plan S does not even mandate open access in any reasonable sense of the term. It prohibits the use of subscription-based journals, which is a very different thing. APC-based journals, need I remind cOAlition S, are not actually open access. They move the charges around, but do not eliminate them. They restrict who can publish, rather than who can read what is published.

Plan S even advocates that the APCs be paid by funding agencies and governments, maintaining the massive transfer of public money to publishers for our privilege to publish and read publicly  funded research. It creates a system in which we continue to pay to have research done and to have it published.

By specifying that green OA only plays an archival role rather than a publishing role, it keeps commercial publishers firmly in control of the landscape. That is far from radical, and is exactly in line with the wishes of the commercial publishers. So what are they reacting to?

Plan S is a threat to commercial publishers for one reason

Despite the plan’s general conformity with their long-term strategy to maintain their hegemony, the big commercial publishers have reacted badly. Both Science and Nature are attacking the plan, calling it “radical” and warning that it could create “limitations on academic freedom”, that it could “severely slow down the transition” to real OA, and that it could “potentially undermine the whole research publishing system”. Elsevier, perhaps still licking its wounds from a few recent interactions with the community, merely endorses a critical statement by the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers.

I agree with at least one of their alarmist statements. Plan S “will not support high-quality peer-review, research, publication and dissemination”. No publication system does that. Not even the current one. Academics do that, whatever the logistics of dissemination.

The plan would have been considerably more radical if it had called for making scholarly contributions available in institutional repositories. Instead, it enshrines the centrality of the journal, an increasingly archaic institution, and merely seeks to regulate how publishers can administer them. And that is why publishers are up in arms. One of the plan’s provisions is that APC be capped and regulated. It doesn’t come close to suggesting a level at which they can be capped. The accompanying preamble even acknowledges that publishers “may be paid fair value for the services they are providing”. What those services actually are, is a separate discussion.

As revealed in Springer Nature’s IPO document and other places, APCs have been at the heart of the commercial publishers’ strategy for transitioning to what they want to define as OA while maintaining and even increasing their profits. Any suggestion that APCs may be regulated in any way, even in a “fair” way, is enough to cause the publishers to attack the plan.

If even such a mild and commercial publisher-friendly set of measures as Plan S generates so much alarm among them, I have to wonder what would be the effect of a truly simple and radical proposal, such as recognizing that papers posted to repositories are publications.

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One thought on “Plan S could have been written by the big commercial publishers, except for one key provision: It seeks to regulate APCs

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