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From the Scholarly Kitchen

Plan S: Impact on Society Publishers

By Michael Clarke. Originally published in the Scholarly Kitchen on December 5, 2018

Last week cOAlition S released guidance on how they anticipate their open access (OA) mandate, Plan S to be implemented. While this implementation guidance provides many new details about the plan, it has not provided reassurance to anxious society publishers. The stated (and laudable) aim of Plan S is to achieve “full and immediate Open Access to publications from publicly funded research,” but the prohibition against publishing in hybrid journals is not needed to accomplish that aim. Any funder that wishes to can simply stipulate publication in gold (or platinum) OA or hybrid journals and the goal of full and immediate OA would be met. The primary objective of Plan S appears instead to be to achieve a “definitive shift towards new models of academic publishing.” To shift towards something means to shift away from something else. In this case the shift consists (as James Phimister has noted) of attempting to eliminate the commercial viability of subscription journal publishing (the prohibition against hybrid journals makes no sense in any other context). It is also clear that the cOAlition S vision of the future of scientific and scholarly publishing is at odds with the values and practices of most society publishers.

Is the “S” for “societies” or will society publishers get run over?

Scientific society publishers have, over a great many years, developed publishing models that work well for the communities of research, practice, and scholarship that they serve. These models are supportive of OA while recognizing that for many authors, an article processing charge (APC) is a barrier to publication. Therefore, society journals tend to publish hybrid titles, providing authors with a choice. For authors who wish to have their work immediately accessible via liberal reuse licenses, gold OA options are readily available. For those authors who cannot, or do not wish to pay an APC, society journals nearly all support green OA with embargo periods ranging from 3 to 24 months, depending on the field (the sciences usually have shorter embargo periods whereas humanities are typically longer). Often self-archiving of accepted manuscripts is possible even sooner. The green model not only provides author choice but aligns with federal policies in the US and much of the rest of the world.

Societies also tend toward a diversified approach to publishing that spreads the costs associated with journal publishing across a great many organizations. By continuing to offer subscriptions to hybrid journals, society journals can still collect subscription revenues from the many institutions that produce little or no research. These include corporations, community colleges, many liberal arts colleges, hospitals, health systems, government agencies, and various other entities. Subscription revenues from these sources — along with reprint and permissions revenues — allow societies to maintain lower subscription costs for academic libraries and to offer lower APCs to researchers and their funders. The Plan S vision of the future of publishing would eliminate all of these revenues and options, turning corporations, health systems, hospitals, community and liberal arts colleges, and government agencies into free riders. At the same time, Plan S favors a “one size fits all” model, shifting 100% of cost burden to APCs.

While in theory Plan S supports “diversity of models and non APC-based outlets,” in reality such models (other than the hybrid model which Plan S seeks to eliminate) are not presently available to society publishers. How is a society to continue to operate its journals with no subscription revenues, no permission and reprints revenues, and no APC revenues? Further, while Plan S technically supports green OA, the combination of a zero embargo and the mandated CC BY license is unsustainable for the vast majority of hybrid society journals.

This misalignment between Plan S and societies was evident — even to Robert Jan Smits, the principal architect of Plan S — before the release of the implementation guidance. What the implementation guidance makes clear is that Plan S (if widely adopted) will harm society publishers even more than commercial publishers. There are three reason for this:

Transformative Agreements. First and foremost, Plan S reinforces commercial publishing packages by supporting “transformative agreements,” which it explicitly defines to include the “read and publish” model. As I have discussed previously, the read and publish model is a publisher Big Deal that has become even bigger by including APCs as well as subscription journals. Society publishers, with only a few exceptions for the largest societies, simply do not have big enough publishing portfolios — or sufficient sales and marketing staff — to negotiate such deals. Such transformative agreements are complex deals that require a great deal of time and analysis to price and even more time to negotiate. Further, a consortium or institution is only going to be interested in portfolios of a certain size — if relatively few of their researchers publish in a particular society’s journal, what is the point of a read and publish deal?

It is true that cOAlition S intends for such deals to be of limited duration while a publisher transitions to an OA-oriented model; they are not meant to be a permanent state. But it also says that “contract negotiations [for read and publish deals] need to be concluded before the end of 2021, and contracts may not last for longer than three years.” Thus, publishers have until 2025 before journals in a read and publish deal may cease to be compliant with Plan S. Much can happen in seven years (including an extension or elimination of this deadline), and in the meantime the largest publishers will continue to solidify their market positions at the expense of smaller independent players.

Prohibiting Mirror Journals. Second, by prohibiting “mirror journals,” Plan S privileges publishers with large portfolios (we will leave aside for now the practical questions with regard to how one determines what is and what is not a mirror journal). A commercial publisher can offer authors a number of attractive alternatives in a broad editorial cascade. A society publisher is unlikely to have a broad portfolio and establishing new standalone journals is a much more expensive and time-consuming activity than establishing mirror journals, which can leverage the same editors and editorial board. Further, without a large editorial cascade (which commercial publishers, due to their scale, have in abundance), it is much more difficult to start a new gold OA journal as it is challenging to find a sufficient number of authors who are willing to pay to publish in a journal that has no track record and no impact factor.

APC Caps. Last, while the Plan S implementation guidance did not yet proffer an APC cap, it does indicate that one is coming: To help inform the potential standardisation of fees and/or APC caps, cOAlition S will commission an independent study on Open Access publication costs and fees (including APCs).

A cap — or “standardization” — on APCs will lead inexorably to a homogenized market. The publishers that will thrive in such a market are those with economies of scale that publish a high volume of papers and, due to a broad editorial cascade, are able to publish a large percentage of the manuscripts they receive. Commercial publishers like Frontiers, for example (whose influence on the development of Plan S is the topic of some speculation), publish a high volume of papers and have relatively high acceptance rates. Society publishers, by contrast, are community-centric and tend to publish more selectively. Niche, selective portfolios with low acceptance rates do not have the economies of scale to thrive with “standardized” APCs as they are by definition non-standard journals. So the forthcoming standardization, if implemented, will further privilege commercial publishers.

If broadly adopted, the result of Plan S will be to drive more societies to seek publishing agreements with commercial publishers. Societies will seek publishing license agreementsin order to gain access to publish and read deals, broader editorial cascades, start-up funding for new gold OA journals, and increased economies of scale — and to get some insulation from market risk. At the same time, publishers offering such agreements will be able to point (and rightly so) to market uncertainty and deteriorating prospects for the subscription business to offer societies diminished financial terms. Some societies will no doubt decide to pull up stakes entirely and sell their journals to commercial publishers — likely at a discount.

While I doubt that pushing more societies into relationships with commercial publishers is the intent of Plan S, it will (if broadly adopted) be the outcome. This further market consolidation is unlikely to serve the interests of the research community, which benefits from a variety of options and approaches. While a great many societies partner successfully with commercial publishers, it is a unique aspect of scientific and scholarly publishing (as compared with other media industries) that there are also many independent, not-for-profit alternatives. The question is whether the Plan S funders are willing to throw these independent societies under the bus in pursuit of the goal of undermining the commercial subscription business.

A simple change in implementation would better support scientific and scholarly societies: If Plan S can provide a carve-out for the “transformative” deals of commercial publishers, it can similarly provide a carve-out to support society-published hybrid journals (without instituting APC caps). This would also help refocus Plan S from (to paraphrase Bernd Pulverer’s cogent analysis) increasing the proportion of gold OA journals (which is ultimately an irrelevant measure) to increasing the proportion of OA articles.

Society leadership and society members are encouraged to provide feedback on Plan S and its impact on their society journal programs here:

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