Credit: Rhodes University Library.

Credit: Rhodes University Library.

As of 2020, 11 research funders in Europe will mandate the scientists that they fund to make their work freely available to the public from the moment of publication. Essentially, science funded by these agencies — which together spend €7.6 billion (US$8.8 billion) in research grants annually — will have to be strictly published in open-access journals. The move has been praised by open access advocates but criticized by publishers who stand to lose a significant portion of their income.

Speeding up the transition towards open science

The initiative, called Plan S, is being spearheaded by Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s special envoy on open access, who says ‘S’ stands for “science, speed, solution, shock.” Smits is a respected and influential EU bureaucrat who is regarded as a key architect of the EU’s €80-billion (US$100-billion) seven-year Horizon 2020 research programme as well as its proposed successor, known as Framework Programme 9 (FP9), which will run from 2021 to 2027 and is likely to have a budget of more than €100 billion. Before taking on his new role, Smits had served as director-general of the European Commission’s research directorate for 8 years.

As part of the Plan S initiative, which has been signed by science funders in France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and eight other European nations, scientists are mandated to have their research accessible openly and freely from the moment of publication.

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,” the Plan S statement reads. 

This means the papers authored by scientists funded by Plan S organizations can be freely downloaded, distributed, translated, or reused in any way people see fit. Also under Plan S, the researchers themselves retain the entire copyright of the papers they author. As written, Plan S won’t allow publishing in hybrid journals — which charge subscriptions but which also can make papers open-access for a hefty fee — or in journals that make papers open access after a 6- or 12-month period from the moment of publication.

If they fail to comply, researchers risk sanctions, including the possible withholding of future funding.

“It’s similarly about breaking the power of very exclusive oligopolies,” Smits told Science Business. “A better system is possible, and the shift is unstoppable.”

“It has been a kind of Robin Hood story. We want to take money from publishers’ shareholders and give it back to the labs,” he added.

Robert-Jan Smits. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Robert-Jan Smits. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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In 2016, the European Union announced that starting from 2020, any research that owes its existence in some way to public funding must be freely accessible and reusable. Robert-Jan Smits says the transition was taking far too long, so he initiated Plan S as an immediate response to this challenge. The EU’s research commissioner, Carlos Moedas, extended his congratulations to the funding bodies who committed to open science “and strongly encourage[d] others to follow as soon as possible.”

“The subscription-based model of scientific publishing emerged at a certain point in the history of science, when research papers needed extensive typesetting, layout design, printing, and when hardcopies of journals needed to be distributed throughout the world. While moving from print to digital, the publishing process still needs services, but the distribution channels have been completely transformed. There is no valid reason to maintain any kind of subscription-based business model for scientific publishing in the digital world, where Open Access dissemination is maximising the impact, visibility, and efficiency of the whole research process. Publishers should provide services that help scientists to review, edit, disseminate, and interlink their work and they may charge fair value for these services in a transparent way,” wrote Marc Schitlz, the President of Science Europe, in an op-ed for PLOS.

Plan S research agencies

  • Austrian Science Fund
  • French National Research Agency
  • Science Foundation Ireland
  • National Research Fund (Luxembourg)
  • Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics
  • Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research
  • Research Council of Norway
  • National Science Centre (Poland)
  • Slovenian Research Agency
  • Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning
  • UK Research and Innovation

Many of Science Europe’s 18 other funders are likely to come on board in the weeks and months ahead.

Only around 15% of journals publish work immediately as open access, according to a Nature analysis. As such, Plan S would bar researchers from publishing in 85% of journals, including high-profile ones such as NatureScienceCell, and The Lancet. 

Key principles of Plan S

– 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;
– The Funders will ensure jointly the establishment of robust criteria and requirements for the services that compliant high quality Open Access journals and Open Access platforms must provide;
– In case such high quality Open Access journals or platforms do not yet exist, the Funders will in a coordinated way provide incentives to establish these and support them when appropriate; support will also be provided for Open Access infrastructures where necessary;
– Where applicable, Open Access publication fees are covered by Funders or universities, not by individual researchers; it is acknowledged that all scientists should be able to publish their work Open Access even if their institutions have limited means;
– When Open Access publication fees are applied, their funding is standardized and capped (across Europe);
– Funders will ask universities, research organizations, and libraries to align their policies and strategies, notably to ensure transparency;
– The above principles shall apply to all types of scholarly publications, but it is understood that the timeline to achieve Open Access for monographs and books may be longer than 1 January 2020;
– The importance of open archives and repositories for hosting research outputs is acknowledged because of their long-term archiving function and their potential for editorial innovation;
– The ‘hybrid’ model of publishing is not compliant with the above principles;
– The Funders will monitor compliance and will sanction non-compliance.

Obviously, science publishers were not happy with the announcement.

“Implementing such a plan, in our view, would disrupt scholarly communications, be a disservice to researchers, and impinge academic freedom,” said a spokesperson for AAAS, Science’s publisher. “It would also be unsustainable for the Science family of journals.”

The costs of editing or article-processing will be covered by funders, in order to ensure that works are free to access for anyone and Plan-S will maintain the same quality controls used for established journals.

“We will use robust criteria for where scientists can publish, based on the excellent work done by the Directory of Open Access Journals,” Smits said.

It’s unknown how publishers like Elsevier or Science will adapt. Since 2017, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has required that its grantees publish their research in open science journals. As a result, some prestigious journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences changed their policies to accommodate open access publishing for Gates grant holders. Perhaps these journals will extend these privileges to Plan S organizations as well, or else they’ll lose the opportunity to publish cutting-edge science coming out of some of the best universities and research centers in the world.

But in doing so, organizations elsewhere, like in the United States, would likely demand equal treatment — to stop charging for access to their papers, that is.

It seems like science publishers are quite in the predicament. And even though they might suffer, for the most part, Plan S is a much-needed initiative to speed up the transition of science to an open access model which can only bring good things in society.