Open Access 2020: Navigating the icy waters of Plan S

Researchers and publishers react to the most recent open access mandates coming from European funding agencies. The movement is small, but the impact could be huge.

07 January 2019
Gwen Weerts

In the early 2000s, the Internet disrupted several major industries, including music, travel, retail, and publishing. Scholarly publishing was no exception, so society and commercial publishers began the work of converting print subscriptions to digital archives. While they were immersed in the logistics of digitizing content, the question of access became a hot topic: if the Internet was free and open, and scholarly articles could be accessed on the Internet, why shouldn't that research be free and open to read as well?

This universal-access question kicked off publishing's open-access movement. In 2003, the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities was released, outlining steps to make the Internet the primary medium for disseminating knowledge. In the United States, a 2008 mandate by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) required that all NIH-funded research be made open access within one year of publication. In 2013, an Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) mandate expanded on the NIH model by requiring that the results of most other federally funded research be made publicly available within one year. Similar mandates were instituted by European funders.

Publishers adapted to these requirements as they arose, building new workflows to deposit articles in the required repositories, and re-examining subscription-based business models in preparation for a future when library subscriptions might disappear.

Publishing in the 21st Century

Many journal publishers, including SPIE, adopted a "hybrid" model: authors could, as usual, publish in a subscription journal for free or they could pay for open-access publication, making the article available online for anyone to read. For most journals, the open-access fee—or article processing charge (APC)—covered the expense of paper submission, peer review, and publication. Many researchers and funders imagined this hybrid model as a transitional stage toward the inevitable dissolution of the traditional subscription model.

Other publishers responded to the growing interest in open access by promoting existing (or launching new) all-open journals, like PLoS One and Optics Express.

Both models gained critics. Hybrid journals come under criticism for "double dipping," the assertion that the journal is collecting fees for articles twice: once from the library or individual subscriber, and again from the authors who pay open-access fees. (See the below for information about SPIE's hybrid model.)

Meanwhile, open-access journals are criticized for being one more sponge absorbing researchers' grant funding—especially those journals that charge high APCs. The past decade has also seen the proliferation of open-access "predatory journals" that conduct cursory—or no—peer review: researchers pay a fee to have their paper published in a journal that purports to be legitimate, but lacks most of the characteristics of reputable journals.

In spite of detractors, both models have become standards in the scholarly publishing landscape. And yet, the "inevitable" hasn't yet taken place: the Internet didn't kill off journal subscriptions. They remain a large portion of library budgets, and statistics indicate that author interest in open-access publication has plateaued. For SPIE journals, author-choice open-access publication stabilized at around 20%.

Interest in open-access publication also sees considerable variation between research communities. The SPIE journals Neurophotonics and Journal of Biomedical Optics, for example, have had a substantial percentage of authors opt for open access; in response, SPIE converted both journals to full open access in 2019, including the backfiles. Low author uptake of open access in SPIE's other technical communities—like lithography, electronic imaging, and remote sensing—indicates that these research fields are less concerned with open access publication.

"Our journals serve the many authors who do not need, want, or cannot afford open access and who should be able to publish in their journal of choice," says SPIE Director of Publications, Eric Pepper. He also noted that SPIE has maintained a liberal "green" open-access policy for over two decades, allowing authors to post their papers in appropriate repositories with no embargo. "SPIE believes our hybrid OA program is an author- and institution-friendly shared approach to open access."

The author-choice model of open-access publication is now 15 years old, and the urgency for scholarly publishers to "out with the old" has been tempered. The system seems to be working, and researchers have a range of publishing options to meet their needs.

But for some, progress toward all-open science isn't moving fast enough.

Plan S: "Science, speed, solution, shock"

On 4 September 2018, a gong called "Plan S" sounded, calling the open-access movement back into the center ring of scholarly publishing conversation. A group of 11 European research-funding organizations supported by the European Commission and the European Research Council—dubbed cOAlition S—issued a new plan with a primary principle:

"By 2020 scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants provided by participating national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms."

It was the strongest open-access mandate issued by a funding body to date. Among its ten key tenets: authors should retain copyright of their publication with no restrictions; funders will pay the APCs for publication in open-access journals, although open-access APCs should be "standardized and capped"; funders will monitor compliance and sanction noncompliance; and, notably for many publishers, the hybrid model of publishing is not compliant with these principles.

Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission's special envoy on open access and one of the Plan S architects, anticipated some resistance to this idea. "The ‘S' in Plan S can stand for ‘science, speed, solution, shock,'" he said.

Soon after the announcement, the London-based Wellcome Trust and Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also endorsed Plan S, a clear signal of the cOAlition S effort to expand this all-or-nothing philosophy beyond continental Europe.

What does this mean for publishing in optics and photonics?

Although cOAlition S is accepting feedback from the scholarly community on the implementation of Plan S through early 2019, there are some significant ramifications to future scholarly output as currently outlined in the plan.

First, it's important to note that 80% of journals globally are either subscription-only access or hybrid, meaning they would not meet the requirements of Plan S as originally conceived. Eight out of eleven of SPIE's journals are hybrid, as are many of the highest impact-factor journals, including Nature, Cell, and Journal of the American Chemical Society. In effect, Plan S would block publication in journals known for rigorous peer review and high-quality research output.

In response to Plan S, more than 1,500 scientists from all career stages, including Nobel Laureates, have signed an open letter of appeal calling Plan S "a serious violation of academic freedom." Since the academic evaluation system rewards publication in top-tier journals, they argue that the provisions of Plan S could negatively impact careers by preventing researchers from publishing where they choose.

According to the appeal, the original funders who belong to cOAlition S account for only 3.3% of global scientific output, but this small group could change the entire publishing ecosystem. cOAlition S knows that the Plan S guidelines are radical, and believes they will stimulate creation and adoption of new open research models for publishers, scholarly societies, libraries, universities, and researchers. They're relying on the collaborative and multidisciplinary nature of scientific research to cause a ripple effect far beyond the small sphere of their immediate funding influence.

However, one consequence may be that researchers avoid collaborating with scientists in Europe so that they don't have to be told where they can and cannot publish. Lynn Kamerlin, a biochemist at Uppsala University, Sweden, who coordinated the letter of appeal, says, "As the plan is written now, it's a huge gamble. If the rest of the world doesn't come along, European researchers are going to pay the price."

Softer language, small concessions

Smits' response to the letter of appeal has been mulish. In a phone conference between Kamerlin, the Plan S architects, and other authors of the appeal, Smits was quoted as saying, "Why is Plan S necessary? Because researchers are irresponsible. They still chase the journal impact factor."

When queried about the impact of the plan on scholarly societies, who are the standard-bearers for rigorous peer review and often utilize publishing revenues to sponsor outreach, scholarships, and policy activities, Smits said, "I talked a lot to scholarly societies. They are a noble group, but they will have to bite the bullet and go open access."

While these may sound like fighting words, it does seem as though the research community's concerns are being heard: cOAlition S relaxed their stance on some of their key principles in late November. For example, they declared that a transition period will be allowed beyond the original 1 January 2020 deadline, giving hybrid journals time to achieve compliance with Plan S, and released a call for consultants to propose alternative business models to help society publishers "transition to a financially sustainable, Plan S-compliant publishing model." The revised guidelines suggest that unembargoed deposits of scholarly articles in certain open-access repositories (green open access), may be acceptable—a shift from the initial declaration.

It remains to be seen where this conversation will end. If Plan S garners more support from funding agencies in the United States, Europe, and Asia, then these groups could overturn the scholarly publishing world in a way that will affect research output across all disciplines. Alternatively, three years from now Plan S might be barely remembered as a blip of turbulence in the vast ocean of scholarly publishing.

Most likely, the reality will fall somewhere in the middle, and Plan S funder mandates will become yet one more obstacle that researchers and publishers must navigate in an increasingly complex ecosystem.

cOAlition S is accepting feedback on the implementation of Plan S until 8 February 2019.

SPIE's publication model

Per SPIE Director of Publications Eric Pepper, "SPIE has chosen to be proactive in providing opportunity for authors to fulfill their public/open access obligations or preferences by offering a ‘gold' option for modest cost in all journals. SPIE's hybrid OA fees are substantially lower than fees charged by most fully OA journals as well as most hybrid journals. The combination of APCs and subscription income enables us to set modest OA fees and sustain reasonable subscription pricing."

In addition to the "gold" (CC BY) open-access option, SPIE has a long-standing "green" open-access policy that grants authors the right to post an author-prepared or official version of their paper on websites and repositories controlled by themselves or their employer. Unlike most other publisher policies, SPIE has no embargo requirement. This policy also extends to funding agency repositories. SPIE authors are also permitted to post draft manuscripts on preprint servers such as arXiv.

Read more about SPIE article posting and sharing at


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