26 Nov 2020

Open Access and Plan-S: from pay to read to pay to publish?

By Susanna Terracini

These days, the attention of the mathematical community is focused on the problems caused by the pandemic, as is natural. These are difficult times for everyone. However, a transition is taking place that concerns us very closely: the implementation of the Plan-S on open science. It will strongly affect the way we do research and publish, not necessarily in a positive way. We are about to face an unprecedented economic crisis: finding a fair and sustainable route to open access is, never like today, a fundamental need.

Finding a fair and sustainable route to open access is a fundamental need.

Plan-S is an initiative aimed at enforcing open-access science publishing; it was launched in 2018 by “cOAlition S“, a consortium of national research agencies and funders from twelve European countries. The plan is aimed at scientists and researchers who benefit from state-funded research bodies and institutions. It requires them to publish exclusively, by 2021, in open-access journals or platforms, or, in any case, make their work immediately available in open access repositories without any embargo. Plan-S, with its ten principles, represents a very powerful push towards the application of open science ideas, which we all aim for. In fact, “S” stands for “shock”.

Here are the ten principles of Plan-S:

  1. authors should retain copyrighton their publications, which must be published under an open license such as Creative Commons;
  2. the members of the coalition should establish robust criteria and requirements for compliant open access journals and platforms;
  3. they should also provide incentives for the creation of compliant open access journals and platforms if they do not yet exist;
  4. publication fees should be covered by the funders or universities, not individual researchers;
  5. such publication fees should be standardized and capped;
  6. universities, research organizations, and libraries should align their policies and strategies;
  7. for books and monographs, the timeline may be extended beyond 2021;
  8. open archives and repositories are acknowledged for their importance;
  9. hybrid open-access journals  are not compliant with the key principle;
  10. members of the coalition should monitor and sanction non-compliance.

Journals are classified according to the following definitions:

  • Diamond Open Access: scientists can freely read and publish with no charges, (the journal costs are covered by mecenates – usually scientific institutions)
  • Gold OA: open to anyone for reading. Article Processing Charges are required (paid either directly by authors or by their institutions)
  • Hybrid OA: articles are available only by subscription, except those individual articles for which the authors have chosen a paid Open Access option, that can be read by anyone with no charges.
  • Green OA: the published article is not freely available by the journal; however, the accepted manuscript can be freely posted in the archives without any embargo (many publishing houses allow this form of open access only after a period of time, usually 12-24 months)

Journal open access policies, including embargo information, are usually available on the publisher website. Sherpa Romeo is an online resource that aggregates and presents publisher and journal open access policies from around the world.

At this moment, the great majority of mathematical journals fall in the Hybrid OA category, but not in the Green one, because of the presence of an embargo on the Accepted Manuscript; thus they are not compliant with Plan-S OA principles and have to evolve towards a compliant model.

The unresolved question is who should bear the costs of open access.

Needless to say, there is a strong pressure in the scientific publishing market to evolve from subscription- or Hybrid-OA models to pure Gold (or other business models).  A main problem for scientists is the high publication costs charged for Open Access, usually in the order of 1000/2000 euros per article, that mathematicians (as well as other scientists) can hardly afford.

As partial mitigation of this problem, transformative agreements are now being made between publishers and national consortia of academic libraries. These agreements redirect the institutional funds formerly used to pay subscriptions to pay for the Article Processing Charges required by the publishers. Indeed, according to with Plan-S, “where applicable, Open Access publication fees are covered by the Funders or universities, not by individual researchers”.

What are we transforming into?

As a result, the joint action of Plan S and the transformative agreements are driving the publishing market towards the model Gold Open Access with Article Processing Charges. In such a model, researchers pay to publish and no longer to read. However, even this definition is not exact. In the old days, and up to now, however, hard copies of the journals were available to anyone in public and academic libraries.  While access to scientific content was somehow fairly guaranteed in the past, today open access issues mainly concern electronic versions of articles. Electronic publication represents a huge step forward both for the dissemination of knowledge and for its use, but the Gold OA model risks sharpening inequalities instead of reducing them.

In a short time, the whole community will get used to paying to publish and fairness and ethical problems will go into the background.

Does the fact that authors do not pay individually or directly their article publication charges solve the ethical problem?

When a hybrid journal is turned into gold OA, if the author doesn’t pay or someone doesn’t pay, they simply cannot publish there.  When the publication fees are covered by an institution, the authors, not paying themselves, perceive neither their presence nor their magnitude. In a short time, the whole community will get used to paying to publish and fairness and ethical problems will go into the background.

Who really pays for the Article Processing Charges?

The national transformative agreements exclude a number of categories:

  • national institutions not subscribing the agreement;
  • individuals not structured inside any of the agreeing institutions;
  • researchers from countries not subscribing any agreement;
  • all national researchers after reaching a certain number of papers, when the agreement covers a limited amount of tokens.

For all of these categories, the transition to Gold OA will be a very bad deal. But not just for them.

As a matter of fact, paying for publishing strongly affects academic freedom.

Do we really want to go there?

Let us take the point of view of a scientific journal editor-in-chief of a traditional hybrid scientific journal.  This journal aims to be a place for discussion on some topics of interest to the scientific community. The editor-in-chief does their best to animate the debate but ….  To be compliant with Plan-S, the journal turns into gold open access with article processing charges (APCs). The journal is forced to publish only those contributions of scientists who pay.  Researchers who cannot afford to pay for the APCs (individually or through their institutions) will not even submit their papers for publication in this journal. It is not just a question of blatant injustice; it is both an ethical and a system efficiency problem.

The transition of traditional journals to the gold OA model with APCs is not desirable also for other reasons.  The publication fees charged for one article are shamefully disproportionate to the total expenses incurred for online publication. It is simply not sustainable for all those researchers who do not benefit from large grants. Finally, Plan-S is a European matter. There is a serious risk of segregating the European publishing market from the rest of the world. It would be a return to the past. This danger has been recognized by the ERC which, while sharing its principles, has decided to follow a path towards Open Access implementation that is independent of cOAlition S activities.

There is a novel open access model, offered by a few publishing houses, including the EMS Publishing House: it is named subscribe-to-open option. Compared with the Gold OA route, subscribe-to-open “retains the familiar subscription framework; libraries subscribe to journals as they would usually do and when a revenue target is achieved, the journal becomes open access for the subscription year. Where a researcher is required to published OA due to funding stipulations, he/she is allowed to publish as Green OA regardless of the journal’s target or status.” This mode solves many of the ethical problems mentioned above but requires a higher level of awareness from scientific institutions to work.


Let me end this article with three recommendations:

  • Enforce the Green Open Access mode with no embargo for the accepted manuscripts for all articles (publishers imposing an embargo should be banned; the embargo lift should be put in the pot of negotiation in all transformative agreements).
  • Postpone the ban on hybrid journals of Plan-S until the editorial market has found an ethically acceptable path to open access, respectful of equity, plurality and academic freedom.
  • Encourage the development of alternative models not involving Article Processing Charges, such as the subscribe-to-open option and favour the market evolution towards the diamond OA model, which recognizes the role of the institutions as mecenates rather that customers.

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