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Axe S?

By Rob Cuthbert

People on both sides argue passionately about what they see as the biggest change in their working lifetimes. The present situation is flawed, but some believe the best way forward is to work within the system for continuing improvement. However others believe with equal passion that the best way is to crash out, with no deal for the big unaccountable bureaucracy on the continent. The European Commission is heavily involved. The debate has run for years, but then the powers that be announced that they would implement a phased transition to completely new trading arrangements. Battle lines were drawn and both sides dug in for a conflict which so far shows no sign of resolution.

Plan S is higher education’s version of Brexit. It may not have generated quite as much media coverage as that unreal thing, but it has its full share of intransigent minorities, suspicion on all sides, special pleading, accusations that the elite is merely looking after its own interests, and claims that a voiceless majority will be the ones who suffer the most.

Everyone is in favour of open access, in much the same way as everyone is in favour of free trade, but it turns out that neither concept is as clear-cut as it first appears. Academics’ guerrilla warfare campaign against what they saw as the exploitative practices of some publishers has now led to some major cancellations of contracts, the biggest and best-known being the decision by the University of California system to cancel its contract with Elsevier. Such legal opposition runs alongside illegal but massive file-sharing operations, the biggest being the Eastern-European based SciHub. Meanwhile the launch of open access journals such as PlosOne has not dented the supremacy of the major publishers: such journals may already have peaked with a very small proportion of the total publishing market.

Hence Plan S, an initiative by 13 European funders, the European Commission and charitable funders including Wellcome and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This group, known as cOAlition S, want all scientific publications arising from research they fund to be published in compliant open access journals or on compliant open access platforms from 2020. They launched a consultation on their proposals which generated a huge worldwide response from academics and academic publishers.

The UK entered the field early with the 2012 Finch Report (see SRHE News 9, July 2012), which controversially led government to choose Gold Open Access (OA) as its primary route, with the REF embodying this requirement. This means that ‘article processing charges’ (APCs) have to be paid up front, whether by the author(s), the institution or the research funder. It was envisaged that APCs would fall over time thanks to competition between publishers, but in fact there has been a 16% rise since then, as David Kernohan reported for WonkHE on 20 February 2019. The last-but-one HE Minister Jo Johnson asked Sussex VC Adam Tickell in 2016 to advise further – thatadvice and an Open Research Data Task Forcereporthave now been published. Kernohan reported that: “the UK hit 54% of outputs as OA in 2016, up from 15% in 2012. We are firmly on track to achieve the target. And there is substantial evidence that OA articles are downloaded more, cited more, and used more than their non-OA counterparts, both from journals and repositories.” The upfront cost of Gold OA is a clear disincentive for many researchers despite REF requirements: grants may not cover publication costs and research may be unfunded. The research councils currently provide block funding for APCs, but this is unlikely to be permanent, and Kernohan suggests total expenditure on APCs could triple in real terms from the 2016 figure, to £818million by 2028 if gold OA achieves 100% take-up. Something has to give, and a policy initiative is keenly awaited.

Robert Harington (American Mathematical Society) asked ‘Plan S: what about researchers?’ on the LSE Impact Blog on 17 January 2019. On 21 January 2019 University College London (UCL) said Plan S was “heavy-handed”, the Plan S coalition should engage more with universities and researchers, and the requirements of individual subject areas need to be more precisely understood, as Ashleigh Furlong reported for *Research on 21 January 2019.

Jeffrey Brainard wrote in Science on 25 January 2019 that scientific societies supported by journal subscriptions describe Plan S as “an existential threat … Many journals now follow a hybrid model, publishing individual papers open access for a fee but deriving most of their income from subscriptions … Plan S’s requirements will disproportionately hurt the journals that many societies publish … Such journals typically have high [APCs] … and the societies typically have lower profit margins than … commercial publishers … The largest, Elsevier, based in Amsterdam, publishes more than 2500 journal titles; scientific societies each publish at most a few dozen.”

Steven Inchcoombe of Springer Nature said Plan S might put Nature out of business, as Rachael Pells reported in Times Higher Education on 13 February 2019: “All the focus [of Plan S] is on the supply side and we think a lot more focus should be on demand – by which I mean the researchers themselves, and other funding agencies that are not yet signed up with Plan S”. Springer Nature then resorted to special pleading, saying titles such as Nature should be treated differently under Plan S: the cost per article of in-house professional editors and the high refusal rate means average APCs are between €10,000 and €30,000 (£8,770 and £26,300), which would be “very difficult” to recover via an article processing charge. 

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) summarised the tsunami of responses to the cOAlition S’ call for feedback on the Guidance on the Implementation of Plan S, writing for The Scholarly Kitchen blog on 11 February 2019, picking out seven themes:

  • Clear support for the transition to open access and the goals of Plan S.
  • Concern that the implementation guidance reflects models that work for STEM but will negatively impact HSS scholars.
  • The technical requirements for publication, repository, and other platforms are poorly thought out.
  • The predicted effects on small, independent, and society publishers raise concerns for the viability of these publishers.
  • Setting a fair and reasonable APC sounds fair and reasonable but it is also likely impossible.
  • Scholars and organizations in the Global South object to being told what they want.
  • The timelines are not feasible.

Martin Szomszor, Head of Research Analytics at the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), part of the Web of Science Group, blogged on 14 March 2019 for The Impact Blog about findings from ISI’s The Plan S footprint: Implications for the scholarly publishing landscape, asking four key questions:

  • Without carefully paced transition to allow for the emergence of new titles, is there a risk of unusual constraints and disjunctions in publishing opportunities in affected subjects? 
  • Might restructuring the spread of well-cited papers have unplanned contingent consequences?
  • How can the shift to Gold Open Access and associated APCs be managed equitably to protect the positions both of unfunded researchers in G20 economies and of a wider spread of authors in emergent research regions, especially given the collaborative nature of academia?
  • There are many small publishers, including those linked to learned societies, who publish an important part of the Plan S funded output in serials central to their discipline. Will transition be more difficult for them and, if so, can this be managed effectively but flexibly?

Jon Tennant (independent) wrote for The Impact Blog on 5 March 2019: “The whole point of Plan S was to disrupt the status quo and transform the world of scholarly publishing. If it yields to those who it is trying to disrupt, at the cost of the greater good, than that’s not exactly progress. Open Access is not a business model, so let us stop treating it as such. I believe that science can help us shape the world to be better, and can help solve the enormous problems that our planet currently faces. I do not believe that having it under the control of mega-corporations and elite individuals or institutes helps to realise this, or is in the principles of fundamental human rights.”

Richard Poynder (independent), who has been called the “chronicler, conscience, and gadfly laureate” of the Open Access movement, wrote for The Impact Blog on 6 March 2019: Plan S and the Global South – What do countries in the Global South stand to gain from signing up to Europe’s open access strategy? He noted thatPlan S raises challenging questions for the Global South … To succeed, Plan S will need other countries to commit to the initiative. To this end, Plan S architect Robert-Jan Smits spent considerable time last year lobbying funders around the world. But should countries in the Global South sign up? Perhaps not … legacy publishers would have little choice but to replace current subscription revenues with article-processing charges (APCs) … Plan S would lead to a near universal pay-to-publish system. APCs range in price from several hundred to over $5,000 per article. This is unfeasible for the Global South and so researchers would be excluded in a different (but more pernicious) way than they are under the subscription system: free to read research published in international journals but unable to publish in them.”

Clearly Plan S poses a host of difficult moral, ethical and financial challenges for all learned societies, including SRHE. Like most societies SRHE joined in a collective response from the Academy of Social Sciences response in February 2019, to which SRHE Director Helen Perkins contributed significantly. That response said:

“3. The AcSS supports the principle of open access as an important public benefit. A key question though is how best to implement this principle, and how to balance it against other principles (academic excellence, autonomy and freedom). Balancing open access is not just a question of balancing one principle against another but considering how in practice open access can be broadened, while not undermining the conditions for producing excellent research and ensuring that an appropriate degree of academic autonomy is supported.

4. Like many other respondents, the Academy of Social Science has concerns about the method and speed of implementation proposed both by cOAlition S and, in the UK, UKRI. We are concerned that these plans are still accompanied by little detail in many important areas, and little empirical evidence about possible effects on the wider systems and structures within which academic research in produced (as well as consumed), or of the effects on different disciplines. We do not believe that ‘Gold’ access is the best solution in all cases; we think that Green (and hybrid) journals are capable of meeting aspirations for wider access.

5. We believe that cOAlition S, and in the UK, UKRI and others, should engage more widely with a range of stakeholders to consider relevant evidence about systemic effects, looking also at distributional effects (between early career and established researchers; research in different parts of the world; and researchers from different disciplines) and a range of possible
unintended consequences, including the effects on the social sciences. This should inform proposals about how to implement aims to improve open access, but would require changes to the timetable announced by cOAlition S.”

The British Academy response in February 2019 was blunt:“ … our initial response … set out our concerns about Plan S’s antipathy to hybrid journals … these concerns are not allayed by the new Guidance. … cOAlition S’s hostility to all forms of hybridity will have precisely the opposite result to its stated intentions.” Meanwhile Euroscepticism persists in Brussels, with Robert-Jan Smits, described as the European Commission’s ‘open access envoy’ declaring there is ‘something fishy’ about publishers setting up mirror journals to get past Plan S proposals about hybrid journals, while publishers protest that mirror journals are simply a necessary part of hybridity.

Echoing Brexit, it seems the divide between the proponents of Plan S and the defenders of the status quo has not diminished, and the initial response to the deadlock may well be to extend the deadline. Elites may be divided, but no doubt they will still emerge unscathed; the price of any change will be paid by marginal communities in the North and the global South. With Brexit many academics, bolstered by overwhelming academic belief in the rightness of their cause, have seized on every shred of evidence to dismiss the alternative. Will Plan S be able to exploit its superficial appeal to the evident rightness of open access, or will academics be willing to engage with the difficult ethical and moral questions which Plan S poses? It may be time for the Creative Commons to take control.

SRHE News Editor:  Professor Rob Cuthbert  

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics