Plan S: Are the Concerns Warranted?

Blog by Olmo van den Akker. A Dutch version has been published by ScienceGuide.


Plan S is the ambitious plan of eleven national funding agencies together with the European Commission (cOAlition S) to make all research funded by these organisations publicly accessible from 2020 onward. Since its announcement on September 4th 2018 the plan’s contents and consequences have been widely debated. When the guidelines for the implementation of the plan were presented at the end of November some aspects were clarified, but it also became apparent that a lot of details are still unclear. Here, I will give my thoughts on four main themes surrounding Plan S: early career researchers, researchers with less financial backing, scholarly societies, and academic freedom.

The consequences of Plan S for early career researchers

Because of the low job security in the early stage of an academic career it is possible that early career researchers will be negatively affected by Plan S. Plan S currently involves 14 national funding agencies (including India that announced their participation on January 12th) and draws support from big private funds like the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Combined, these funds represent not more than 15% of the available research money in the world.

This relatively small market share could hurt young researchers dependent on Plan S funders as they will not be allowed to publish in some prestigious, but closed access journals. When researchers funded by other agencies can put these publications on their CV they would have an unfair advantage on the academic labour market. Only when Plan S or similar initiatives would cover a critical mass of the world’s research output would the playing field be levelled.

A crucial assumption underlying this reasoning is the continuation of the prestige model of scientific journals. However, Plan S specifically expresses the ambition to change the way researchers are being evaluated. Instead of looking at the number of publications in prestigious journals researchers should be evaluated on the quality of their work. This point has been emphasized in the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA).

DORA has been signed by more than 1,000 research organizations and more than 13,500 individuals worldwide, indicating that the scientific community wants to get rid of classical quality indicators like the impact factor and the h-index in favour of a new system of research assessment. One way to evaluate researchers is to look at the extent to which their work is open and reproducible. Plan S strongly supports open science and could therefore even be beneficial to early career researchers. However, it should be noted that cOAlition S should play a proactive role in this culture change. The fact that so many people signed DORA does not mean that they will act on its principles.

The consequences of Plan S researchers with less financial backing 

It is expected that Plan S will cause many journals that currently have a closed subscription model to transition to an author-pays model where the author pays so-called article processing charges (APCs) to get their work published open access. Many researchers have raised concerns that Plan S would make publishers increase their profits by increasing their APCs. Because researchers are forced to publish open access they are also forced to pay these higher APCs. For researchers with less financial backing (for example from smaller institutions or developing countries) the increased APCs may be unaffordable, which would crowd them out of science. However, there are several counterpoints to this scenario.

First, Plan S involves the condition that journals make their APCs reasonable and transparent. If this condition is met, it is expected that journal APCs go down. This is illustrated by the fact that many open access journals that have no or very low APCs. This was underscored by a white paper of the Max Planck Society that shows that an open access system with APCs comes with significantly lower cost than the current system. To attain this scenario, it is important that cOAlition S monitors that journal APCs are indeed reasonable and transparent. Commercial publishers have a lot of market power and will undoubtedly try to artificially increase their APCs. cOAlition S has already announced that they will develop a database like the Directory of Open Access Journals, in which researchers can find journals that comply by the demands set out in Plan S. Hopefully, the necessity for journals to be included in that database will make sure that they set affordable APCs.

Second, representatives of cOAlition S have already clarified that they will instate a fund that can help researchers pay due APCs. This fund will be available for funded researchers as well as non-funded researchers that cannot reasonably be expected to pay APCs. The way this APC fund will be financed is as of yet unclear, but it is clear that individual researchers do not need to come up with the costs of open access themselves.

The consequences of Plan S for scholarly societies

Like regular journals, journals from scholarly societies will have to move from a subscription model to an author-pays model. Representatives of scholarly societies fear that this will be the end of them. Societies would face high investments to make the open access transition. For example, to be Plan S compliant, journals need to make their articles fully machine-readable by transforming them into a JATS XML format. In addition, they need to create an Application Programming Interface (API). Developing a digital infrastructure like this is costly and can be problematic given that societies lose their subscription fees from January 1st 2020.

Therefore, it is essential that cOAlition S plays a proactive role and tries to facilitate the open access transition for society journals on a case-by-case basis. A starting point for cOAlition S could be the results of a study by Wellcome Trust that will investigate how scholarly societies can transition to a Plan S compliant model as efficiently as possible. One possibility is that cOAlition S (partly) subsidizes the transition costs of journals and guides them in developing the required digital infrastructure.

The consequences of Plan S for academic freedom 

One common concern of Plan S is that it restricts the freedom of researchers to determine what and how they do research, and how they disseminate their research results. This academic freedom is guaranteed by governments and academic institutions with the aim of insulating researchers from censorship and other negative consequences of their work. In this way, researchers can focus on their research without having to worry about any outside influence. When Plan S is implemented, researchers can no longer publish in paywalled journals. This would hamper researcher’s freedom to disseminate their research in the way they see fit.

However, one can raise doubts about the extent to which researchers currently do have the freedom to choose where and how to publish their work as researchers’ hands are generally tied by demands from scientific journals. They must abide by strict word limits and specific layout standards, and usually have to hand over their copyright to the commercial publisher. Moreover, to move up in academia, they are almost forced to publish in prestigious journals. Therefore, appealing to academic freedom to criticize Plan S is unconvincing, especially given that Plan S does not place any restrictions on research contents and on the methods researchers employ.

A more ideological point against the academic freedom argument is that academic freedom is part of an unofficial reciprocal arrangement between researchers and society. Researchers receive funding and freedom from society, but in return they should incorporate the interests of society into their decision-making. Publishing in a prestigious but closed journal does not fit with this reciprocal arrangement. Currently, many researchers have access to closed journals because university libraries pay a subscription fee to the publishers of those journals. However, not all researchers can take advantage of these subscriptions because their organisation cannot afford them or because the negotiations about subscription fees were unsuccessful.

Because of the limited access to research results scientific progress slows down. This is problematic in itself, but can have major consequences for research about climate change or contagious diseases. In addition, the subscription fees demanded by publishers is disproportionally high. In 2018, The Netherlands paid more than 12 million euros to one of the main scientific publishers, Elsevier. A big chunk of that money ended up as profit for Elsevier and would not by reinvested into science. Obviously, this practice does not fit with the reciprocal arrangement between researchers and society either.


After their call for feedback cOAlition S was flooded by a wave of comments and ideas about Plan S, of which the mains ones are outlined above. Even alternative plans were proposed with names like Plan U and Plan T, which were often even more radical than Plan S. Although such initiatives are very valuable to the scientific community it is hard to create a new infrastructure for scholarly communication without a large budget and without the support of a critical mass. cOAlition S does have a large budget and is getting increasing support from the scientific community. That’s why I think that Plan S is currently the most efficient way forward, especially because the potential issues with the plan are relatively straightforward to prevent. I have faith that cOAlition S will take the responsibility that follows from intiating this ambitious plan. Let us place our trust as a research community and back cOAlition S toward a more open science.