For over 3 centuries traditional subscription based publishing has been the predominant mode of dissemination of scientific information. However, in the last two decades, with the overwhelming spread of information over the internet, the traditional publishing model has been getting disrupted by models in the open access band. Open Access is a means which enables research output to be distributed in digital form free of cost, there are many forms of open access, usually denoted by color bands, and each of them have varying degree of free access. The open access movement in last two decades has gained strength, in 2016 the worldwide share of subscription only journals was less than 40%, the majority of the journals published, ~45% of them work in hybrid model – journals that are usually subscription based but also publish open access articles under certain conditions.
A recent development in the scientific publishing industry is the Plan S of Europe. Launched in September 2018, Plan S is an initiative for Open Access publishing, if passed into a regulation the plan will require all scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants to be published in compliant Open Access journals or platforms. The plan is supported by cOAlition S, an international consortium of research funders. The plan also restricts researchers from publishing in hybrid journals, unless they are under a transformative agreement which states that the journal will go full open access within a time frame. Plan S states that Open Access is Foundational to the Scientific Enterprise, its preamble document says ‘no science should be locked behind paywalls!’.
Note: Green open access is permitted under Plan S. Green open access is a provision wherein the manuscript of the article or the published paper, published in any kind of journals is deposited in an approved open access repository, free for download and reuse under a CC-BY licence
Plan S is a powerful declaration, it’s supported by the European Commission, major national research funding agencies across Europe and publishers as well. Guided by ten principles, If the idea sees the light of the day it will have repercussions in scientific publications in Europe, and later around the world. Access to public funded scientific research literature will be free, and as per the plan free for translation and reuse as well.
Despite the noble intent the proposal has not been received well by all in the scientific community. Opposition to the proposal has two facets to it:
- Albeit having achieved significant success in its movement, open access has faced criticism concerning the peer review system, which is at the core of scientific publishing. The argument is that the pay and publish system in open access leads to inadequacies in the funding necessary for a powerful peer review system and editing of published articles, hence producing low quality output.
- Scientists are rewarded on how much they publish and where they publish, traditional subscription based journals, owing to their legacy, wider reach and a strong peer review system hold higher significance within the community. And hybrid journals, which are basically subscription journals occasionally publishing open access, provide them with the juncture of both worlds. Hence the major concern of the critics of Plan S is that barring hybrid journals, along with pure subscription journals would leave researchers with no choice as it would mean almost 85% of leading journals would be rendered non-compliant.
More than 600 researchers, including two Nobel laureates, published an open letter calling the plan ‘too risky for science’, ‘unfair’, and ‘a serious violation of academic freedom’ for the scientists affected. Letter coordinator Lynn Kamerlin, a biochemist at Uppsala University in Sweden spoke to Nature about her problems with the plan. She says she firmly believe in promoting open science, but not in the way Plan S is doing it. Her concern is that Plan S could restrict its researchers from publishing in more than 80% of journals — many of them the most well-known and influential in her field.
Institute of Physics, the professional body and learned society for physics in the UK and Ireland, says that it’s a strong supporter of open science and open access to scientific research. While acknowledging its support for Plan S, IOP also realises that not everyone in the research community is willing to and able to make such a radical transition in such a short period of time. They have come up with key recommendations to cOAlition S for open access transition, they are
- Extend the timeline beyond 2021
- Let more funders and more countries endorse open access and a natural transition will occur
- Support hybrid open access until a natural tipping point is reached
- Support high-quality peer review
- Recognise the dependence of green open access on subscription publishing
- Address the issue of new funding flows under a complete transition to open access
Need for open access
Subscription based publishing has almost been a monopoly in the hands of few large publication houses. The cost of subscription has been on the rise since last 30 years and it’s rising way faster than inflation and prices of other commodities. The rising costs have had consequences, not just for financially weak institutions, even the likes of Harvard can’t afford them, in 2012 A memo from Harvard Library said that they could no longer afford the price hikes imposed by many large journal publishers, which billed the library around $3.5m a year. Harvard encouraged its faculty members to make their research freely available through open access journals and to resign from publications that keep articles behind paywalls.
Access of research literature is crucial for developing nations, it plays a significant role in technological innovation and various governmental research, the rising costs have had drastic implications to researchers in low income countries. Placing the public funded research literature behind high paywalls is not sustainable for the global scientific advancement. Open access extends the bridge of opportunities towards moderately and poorly funded institutions and developing countries, it levels the playing field for everybody. Plan S of Europe is a necessary initiative in this direction, it will be a landmark victory for the open access movement and their supporters. However, at its current form and enthusiasm, the plan may not be practically implementable for the majority of researchers and publishers, the right solution would require a little restraint in the enthusiasm and an openness to recommendations, like the ones made by the Institute of Physics.