Relax everyone, Plan S is just the beginning of the discussion

If you are working (or even vaguely interested) in the scholarly communication space then you will not have failed to hear about the release of ‘Plan S’ last week. There has been a slew of reports and commentary (at the end of the sister blog “Most Plan S principles are not contentious”). Here’s another (hopefully useful) addition to the mix.

The document identifies the key target as being: After 1 January 2020 scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.” There are 10 supporting principles to this statement.

The plan is specifically engineered to force the hand of publishers and academics to really embrace (begrudgingly adopt?) change. Personally I welcome a bit of disruption. It will be no surprise to anyone that I consider the policies that arose from Finch to have failed. But this new development has, understandably, given a few people the jitters.

First up, and if this is all you read remember this, Plan S is a statement of principle. Until we see the actual policies for our funding bodies everything is speculation. And while UKRI is one of the 11 13* funding bodies that has signed up to Plan S, it has said that the report from the review of the OA policy is unlikely to appear before the second half of next year.

[*changed on 14 October]

The reassuring part

So the first thing to say is – don’t panic. We have some time. The second is that fully half of the 10 principles are not contentious – see the sister blog. A further two may have some implications for institutional administration and possibly for managing budgets, but are again fairly non contentious from an academic, and mostly even from an institutional, perspective.

And then there were three

So we are down to three principles that need a little more unpacking. They relate to the retention of copyright and the ability choose where to publish. It is worth looking at these in more detail, and consider the information contained in the accompanying document “cOAlition S: Making Open Access a Reality by 2020: A Declaration of Commitment by Public Research Funders”. As it happens, we are already well on our way with many of these principles in the UK anyway. Let’s take a closer look.

Retaining copyright

Authors retain copyright of their publication with no restrictions. All publications must be published under an open license, preferably the Creative Commons Attribution Licence CC BY. In all cases, the license applied should fulfil the requirements defined by the Berlin declaration.

With my OA advocacy hat on I agree with this statement. There is no need for a publisher to hold full copyright over a work. They are able to operate in a commercial environment with a first publication right. Currently the system means that researchers must apply for permission to reuse work of their own if writing a new piece of work. There is a significant side income stream for publishers in relation to copyright ‘management’. Publishers claim they need copyright so they can protect author’s rights, but there appear to be few examples of a publisher protecting, say the integrity of an author’s work rather than the income stream from the work.

And this is not the first statement of this kind. The University of California released on 21 June their Declaration of Rights and Principles to Transform Scholarly Communication which states as one of the principles: “No copyright transfers. Our authors shall be allowed to retain copyright in their work and grant a Creative Commons Attribution license of their choosing”.

However as a person responsible for implementing policy within a large research institution I can see some issues that will need to be managed.

For a start, currently, in the vast majority of cases, while researchers own the copyright of their work, they sign it over to the publisher of their articles. As it happens the retention of copyright is a fundamental principle of the UK Scholarly Communications Licence (UK-SCL) which allows institutions to provide a REF compliant green OA route while allowing authors to retain their rights.

The alternative is to negotiate (as the sector) with the publishing industry to ensure that the publishing agreements that each researcher signs retains the author’s copyright. This would also require a huge advocacy and education programme amongst our community. For an excellent analysis of why there remains such a high level of confusion and misunderstanding about copyright amongst our academic community, I strongly recommend Dr Lizzie Gadd’s guest post to the Scholarly Kitchen Academics and Copyright Ownership: Ignorant, Confused or Misled?

The requirement for an open license is also potentially an issue for some disciplines. While many science based disciplines are not concerned with a requirement to publish under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) licence, there are members of our Arts, Humanities and Social Science communities who only feel comfortable with a CC-BY-NC-ND license. It is the Non Derivative aspect of the license that is of greatest concern and has been the subject of considerable discussion.

Restriction on ability to publish in a hybrid journal

The “hybrid” model of publishing is not compliant with the above requirements.

The nuclear interpretation of this statement is that funders won’t pay for hybrid at all. There are several precedents for this. Several UK institutions have stopped supporting payment for hybrid. London School of Tropical Diseases and Medicine are now restricted to fully open access journals only. University of St Andrews will no longer be able to pay APCs for articles via the ‘gold’ route in hybrid (subscriptions-based) journals. Their normal criteria is if the journal is listed in DOAJ. A 2016 analysis showed this is a common position.

I have written extensively about hybrid mostly arguing against it. But I do support the position that we need to walk carefully here. In our analysis at Cambridge on what might be seen as a ‘progressive’ publisher we noted there is an extremely long tail of society and smaller journals that we don’t publish in much but that collectively are a not insignificant number of papers. Let’s just say that learned societies have some way to go on their open access journey. But if we were to prevent our researchers from being able to publish in these journals this could well deeply affect the learned societies.

That’s why I welcome the statement in the preamble document that ‘transformative’ type of agreements which include offsetting arrangements will be acceptable under certain circumstances. The interpretation of this statement by UKRI into their policy will determine which publishers will be acceptable or otherwise.

Restriction on choice of publication outlet

In case such high quality Open Access Platforms or journals do not yet exist, the Funders will jointly provide incentives and support to establish these.

This one is potentially problematic because of the perception there will be a restriction on choice of publication options. But that is not necessarily the case.

The publishing sector adopted the language of ‘a threat to academic freedom’ this year in relation to the question of funders refusing to pay for hybrid open access. Academic freedom refers to freedom of expression not freedom of choice of publication outlet. This language is again being used by  the publishing sector in light of Plan S.

This language is now also being used by the academic sector. In an impassioned post European scientists state that Plan S means researchers are “forbidden to publish in subscription journals, including in hybrid ones, where OA option is available at an extra cost.” This is simply not the case. As described above, not all hybrid is necessarily off the table.

The other point that seems to be missed is under Plan S, authors can publish wherever they choose if they deposit the Author’s Accepted Manuscript in an institutional repository under a CC-BY license with a zero month embargo. We are halfway there already in the UK where authors generally are already depositing their work to an institutional repository for REF compliance. The part that requires attention then goes back to the question of the authors retaining copyright over their own work.

The question of access to open access publishing options is more complicated. There are many disciplines in which there are very few open access journals at all. These will need specific support especially initially in relation to these policies. Even then this is going to be tricky because establishing a new journal takes time. There are a few precedents, the Wellcome Trust launched Wellcome Open Research in 2016 based on the F1000 platform, and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation followed suit using the same platform in 2017. But these are unlikely to reassure many of our researchers.

The elephant in the room

There are some serious concerns with Plan S which relate to the equity issue of moving to a pay to publish ecosystem. These are valid and need to be discussed in the broader context of the open research debate. But that is not the theme of the majority of concerns from the academic sector. Those worries about freedom of choice to publish point to the real problem – what is attached to publication.

The problem is not Plan S, or open access per se. Publishing in specific journals or with specific publishers is primarily an issue of career prospects rather than of disseminating the work, and has been for a long time. When researchers say that the right to publish in an outlet of their choosing threatens ‘academic freedom’ they are referring to their ability to subsequently succeed in future job applications, promotions and grant applications. It is the academic reward system in which everyone is trapped.

Indeed the Plan S preamble refers to a “misdirected reward system which puts emphasis on the wrong indicators (e.g. journal impact factor)”. It commits to “fundamentally revise the incentive and reward system of science” and suggests that the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) as a starting point.

This is the real conversation we need to be having. It is not an easy one to address, but for those who have been arguing for the need to have a serious, international, sector wide conversation about this, Plan S offers a welcome shot in the arm.

Published 12 September 2018
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
Creative Commons License

10 thoughts on “Relax everyone, Plan S is just the beginning of the discussion

  1. I appreciate the measured tone of this post and hope very much that Plan S, as written, will serve as a shot in the arm for the serious, international, sector-wide conversation we should be having, rather than as a blueprint for future policy.

    As one of the authors of the “impassioned post” from researchers you reference, I am disturbed, rather than comforted, by your claim that it is “not necessarily the case” than Plan S will restrict researchers’ choice of publication options. No policy should unnecessarily restrict the freedom of researchers to publish where we choose. That the Preamble to Plan S allows that hybrid publication will be “tolerated” for as short a transition period as possible strikes me as a message to hybrid publishers — get on board! — rather than any sort of consideration for researchers.

    Even if it were the latter, should researchers take comfort in the idea that their current freedom to publish where they choose will only be limited in the future, as quickly as possible, rather than immediately? I think not. We academics interested in our academic freedom look no more favorably on a slow death than we do on a direct attack. When you say, “not all hybrid is necessarily off the table,” it neither assuages our concerns nor refutes our argument.

    First, we maintain that Plan S, if implemented as policy in its current form, would impinge on researchers’ academic freedom. You contend, “Academic freedom refers to freedom of expression not freedom of choice of publication outlet.” Yet, different countries have different approaches to academic freedom, and the notion is contested more actively in some places than in others. You seem to suggest that ‘freedom of expression’ is obviously co-extensive with freedom of speech, and that the latter obviously excludes ‘freedom of choice of publication outlet’. Prima facie, the notion of ‘freedom of expression’ ought to include not only different modes of expression (i.e., those that go beyond literal speech), but also different media.

    But there are many cases in with freedom of publication is explicitly included in academic freedom. In its 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the American Association of University Professors explicitly mentions freedom in publication of results, claiming that academics are entitled “to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” Is it really the case that universities in the UK, or the University of Cambridge, protect only an academic’s ability to speak freely, but not her ability to perform research or to publish freely? If so, it lends credence to the worry expressed by the UCU, “that the freedoms to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish without interference or penalty, are increasingly under threat in UK universities and colleges” ( Even if the UK is a special case of highly restricted academic freedom (which I don’t believe), it would be inaccurate to say that all of the countries included in cOAlition S restrict academic freedom to speech only.

    Second, that publishers have appealed to academic freedom to argue against OA activists is not a good reason to dismiss academics’ concerns that Plan S would impinge on academic freedom. The authors of the “impassioned post” are all in favor of Open Access. Why expect that all those in favor of OA ought to simply sit back, relax, and let Plan S run its course? Academics have a huge stake in the conversation, which should not be framed as OA Advocates vs. The Publishers. We academics have real concerns about Plan S impinging on academic freedom, and we shouldn’t be lumped in with ‘the enemy’ and summarily dismissed.

    Third, you suggest that we missed the fact that “authors can publish wherever they choose if they deposit the Author’s Accepted Manuscript in an institutional repository under a CC-BY license with a zero month embargo.” We didn’t miss it. We believe that requiring a CC-BY license impinges on academic freedom.

    Finally, and I am speaking only for myself here, we really do need to have a discussion about the academic reward system! Let’s do that. But let’s do so recognizing the real elephant in the room — that *academics* should be the main ones engaged in that conversation. OA activists seem to be looking at Plan S as a way of forcing reluctant publishers to get with the program. Framing the discussion as ‘Pro OA’ vs. ‘Pro Publisher’ runs roughshod over academics. Please listen to our concerns and address them in good faith, rather than assuming we are on ‘the other side’.

    1. Thank you for this piece. I only wanted to bring attention that according to declarations from Marc Schiltz on Twitter (, it seems that only the final published version of the article (and not the post-print, aka accepted manuscript) will qualify as compliant. If this is the case, publishing in a subscription journal under Plan S requirements will only be possible if the journal allows archiving of the final published version, with a CC-BY license. Since it is unlikely that subscription journals will allow this, subscription journals may be completely off bounds to coalition S grantees. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

      1. Alberto, I can reassure you that Danny’s blog is correct. Since Marc Schiltz’s tweet, Robert-Jan Smits has confirmed a number of times that there is a ‘green’ compliant option in Plan S involving the deposit of the accepted manuscript version in a repository with a CC-BY licence and zero embargo. He did this most recently at the Open Access Scholarly Publishers’ Association conference in Vienna last week.

  2. Thanks for your comprehensive response. I am sorry you see this the post as an attack on academics – it is not intended as such.

    To avoid ending up in a long discussion I will only address a couple of points. I think your interpretation of the hybrid question is probably correct. It would not be surprising if a future policy will identify what measures a publisher would have to make to demonstrate they are moving to fully gold before the funder would approve payments to that publisher.

    Publishers have had over five years of a considerable amount of free extra money through the RCUK policy. I know that several have said that making wholesale changes to their workflows has not been worth it given the small amount of publications they process from funded UK authors. Perhaps that thinking might need to be revisited. This is very much in their court.

    The academic freedom discussion is not new. Earlier this year I wrote about it in ‘Scare campaigns, we’ve seen a few’ where I noted that my understanding of the AAUP ‘freedom to publish’ statement is that it means meaning academics are *allowed* to publish, not that they have full freedom in choosing *where*. After all, when a paper is rejected by a journal is that journal preventing the author’s academic freedom to publish in that journal?

    Rick Anderson wrote to the AAUP to ask for clarification on this topic. They “declined to revisit the 1940 statement to clarify the ‘freedom in publication’ statement in light of evolution of scholarly communication since 1940.”

    The CC-BY question is a conversation on its own, I agree.

    Lastly, it would be fantastic if academics did start leading discussions on the academic reward system. We have some time, but not a huge amount.

  3. Just a couple of points of clarification:

    I didn’t see your original post as an attack on academics. I did think it was dismissive of academics’ concerns about academic freedom. Thanks for the link to your post on that topic. I will take a look.

    I don’t think I’ve fallen prey to publishers’ appeals to scare tactics surrounding academic freedom. I’ve been aware for some time that opponents of OA have used this tactic, and I find it to be mostly a cynical attempt to maintain the status quo. This is one of the main reasons I objected to being lumped together with the publishers. I believe we academics have some legitimate concerns about specific ways in which Plan S would impinge on our academic freedom. Ours is not a blanket attack on OA or OA policies. We support OA and many OA policies. We just have some specific issues with Plan S, as currently written.

    Let me know how I can contribute, if I can, to efforts to get the discussion with academics going!

    1. Just a quick note as I’ve seen this in multiple places now, most researchers/academics that I engage with are very supportive of Plan S (especially in the early-career researcher community). For example the Marie Curie Alumni Association which has 10,000+ researchers as members supports Plan S: So it sounds very strange to me when people try to make it sound like academics in general are against plan S?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.