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Plan S: What will the implications be for The Society?

News and Views

Plan S: What will the implications be for The Society?

News and Views

Simon Rallison, Director of Scientific Programmes, The Physiological Society


Widening access to the scholarly literature increases the literature’s value to society. Keith Siew’s article “The open science movement” (Physiology News 107, Summer 2017) passionately and persuasively makes the case for openness and transparency in academic research.

The movement has usually marched behind the banner of open access (OA) to journal articles, demanding that all research papers should be available for anyone to read and re-use immediately they are published. Why should access be rationed when it costs no more to let everyone read an article than it does to keep the article behind a paywall?

Since the first commercial OA journals were launched in the late 1990s, there has been a steady migration from subscription to OA. 
In 2018, 19% of articles were published as Gold OA (OA immediately on publication), either in fully OA journals or in “hybrid” journals, former subscription journals that publish OA papers alongside articles still only available to subscribers. A small number of the fully OA journals are former subscription titles that have “flipped” to OA.

This migration has, however, been too slow for many people’s (including Keith’s) liking. The OA advocates suspect the commercial publishers of deliberately dragging their feet in order to protect the high profit margins their subscription journals deliver. A succession of developments, each at the time heralded as a tipping point, have come and gone: PLoS ONE, institutional repositories, funder mandates, SciHub and others. Suddenly though, the fox is well and truly loose in the hen house. The latest initiative looks like being a genuine gamechanger.

Plan S, driven by Science Europe, was launched in September 2018. Fourteen national research-funding bodies across Europe (with UK Research and Innovation by far the largest) set out conditions for publication of the research they paid for. Non-compliance could lead to sanctions, including withholding instalments of grants.

Although Plan S was short on detail, the intent was very clear: to pull down the temple of subscription publishing and stop the publishers (and indirectly the societies) taking so much money out of the system. Publishing in hybrid journals would no longer be countenanced; only fully OA journals would in future be acceptable. That future wasn’t far off either: January 2020.

While Plan S snowballs (the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust have now aligned their own policies with it), through consultation with the publishers and societies Plan S’s sponsors are joining up the dots. There will be some flexibility in the timing of implementation if journals are on a clear path in transforming from subscription to full OA. Although a figure hasn’t been set, there may be a cap on how much journals are allowed to charge for OA publication.

There are of course serious implications for The Journal of Physiology and Experimental Physiology, both of which are hybrid journals (Physiological Reports was born fully OA). Currently, only 5% of articles published in J Physiol and Exp Physiol report work funded by Plan S signatories, but being unable to publish research paid for by MRC and BBSRC (or even work done in any British university, as Research England [the former HEFCE] comes under UKRI) would be a severe blow. On the other hand, a transition to full OA would almost certainly put a dent in the journals’ financial return to The Society and therefore our ability to pursue our charitable activities.

While we make plans to secure the journals’ financial future, developments are coming thick and fast. Our publishing partner John Wiley & Sons have just announced their ground-breaking, Plan-S-compliant agreement with Projekt DEAL, a national consortium of academic libraries and funders in Germany. The innovation is that what the institutions are paying for is turned on its head. The finances of the DEAL deal (as it were) are based on how much a university publishes, not on what its faculty and students read. Between them, the publishers, funders and libraries may have got some way towards squaring the circle.

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