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Open Access and Plan S: 5 key activities

The emerging Coronavirus (COVID19) has once again highlighted the need for researchers to have unfettered access to the research literature.  A recent article in the Guardian argued that “hiding research papers behind a subscription paywall, could be killing people”, whilst a group of US patient and disease advocacy organizations stated that “information critical to health should no longer be held hostage by arcane publishing”.

However, despite such concerns and calls for change,  and after more than 15 years of Open Access (OA) mandates, declarations and discussions, some 75% of the world’s research literature is, on publication, only available to paying subscribers.

Although in the case of COVID19, publishers have been quick to provide access to previously paywalled research on this topic – for example, see responses from Wiley and Elsevier – a much better solution, and one which works across all disciplines at all times, is to support a world when all research is open access. This is what Plan S is seeking to do, and why 24 research funding organisations are supporting this initiative.

In this short piece Robert Kiley, Head of Open Research at Wellcome and interim cOAlition S Coordinator provides an update on five key activities cOAlition S is currently supporting.

1. Growing the cOAlition S membership-base

cOAlition S is a group of funding agencies which have agreed to align their OA policies with Plan S. Currently there are 24 members, including UKRI, the Gates Foundation and the European Commission, including the European Research Council. We recognise, however, that if we are to be successful in bringing about a global change in the way research is disseminated, we need more funders to support Plan S.

Over the last few months, we have secured the support of the WHO/TDR, the South African Medical Research Council and the Aligning Science Against Parkinson. We continue to work with many other agencies, encouraging them to consider the potential benefits OA can deliver.

Working with US funding agencies remains a high priority and the rumoured Whitehouse Executive Order appears to be well-aligned with Plan S. We are watching this with interest.

2.  Supporting researchers

Some researchers have expressed concerns with Plan S, fearing that if their publication choices are reduced, then this may negatively impact on their likelihood to secure future grants and tenure.

This concern has arisen as Plan S is explicit in saying that OA publications costs (typically Article Processing Changes, APCs) for articles published in subscription journals will no longer be funded, outside of Transformative Agreements. Researchers, however, can still seek to publish in subscription journals, as long as they make a copy of their research article (either the accepted manuscript or the published version) freely available without an embargo and with an open licence.

It is also worth stressing that funders who align their OA policies with Plan S make clear that when assessing research outputs as part of a funding decision, they will value the intrinsic merit of the work and not consider the publication channel, its impact factor or other journal-based metrics.

Within cOAlition S we have also established a task force to monitor the effects of Plan S. As early career researchers feel especially affected by Plan S, representatives from the Global Young Academy, Eurodoc, Young Academy of Europe and the Marie Curie Alumni have joined this group to ensure their voice is heard.

In advance of the Plan S policy coming into effect, we will also provide a simple web-based tool in which researchers can determine how to comply with this policy at any specific publishing venue. An Invitation to Tender to build this tool has been published. We anticipate that we will appoint a contractor within the next three months and have a live service running by Autumn 2020.

3. Supporting learned societies

Plan S, with its explicit commitment not to fund hybrid open access fees, requires subscription publishers to reassess their business models. This affects all publishers but is felt more acutely by learned society publishers, many of whom rely on publishing revenue to support their other activities, such as awarding grants and organising meetings.

To help learned societies explore alternative models, Wellcome in partnership with UKRI, commissioned Information Power to look at this issue. The subsequent report and supporting toolkit identified outlined 27 potential business models society publishers could adopt.

The Transformation Agreement model – in which funding from library subscriptions and funder APCs is used to provide institutions with access to all subscription content, whilst allowing research articles authored by researchers at subscribing institutions to be made fully OA – is gaining traction. By way of example, within the past 3 months, both the Microbiology Society and the Biochemical Society have negotiated such agreements, thus ensuring that a growing volume of their published output is OA.

The Wellcome, in partnership with HHMI, has also launched the Learned Society Curation Awards which seeks to support learned society publishers who want to explore new ways of signalling the significance of published research outputs in an open and transparent manner.

4. Engaging with publishers

cOAlition S continues to engage with publishers, encouraging them to develop publishing options in line with the Plan S principles.

As discussed above this includes supporting the development of Transformative Agreements, such as “Read and Publish” and “Subscribe to Open” arrangements.

We have also developed a set of criteria to encourage individual journal titles to transform to OA. Known as “Transformative Journals” (TJ’s), any journal which commits to a set of KPI’s can continue to levy APCs and where they are fair and reasonable, expect cOAlition S members to meet these. A consultation on the proposed criteria for TJ’s closed in early January and we will report on the outcome of this before the end of March 2020.

Support for fully OA journals and platforms continues to be a key part of the Plan S strategy.  Recognising, however, that a single, global APC price for any given journal may not always be the most equitable way to cover publishing costs, we have started to discuss with a number of OA publishers the idea of linking the APC to the purchasing power parity (PPP) of different countries.

5. Developing price transparency

In 2017 it was estimated that the annual revenues generated from English-language STM journal publishing were $10bn. As around 3m articles are published every year, this suggests that the average revenue from every published article is around $3,333.

Leaving aside whether in an online world this sum is fair or appropriate, the current publishing model provides little or no transparency as to what the customers – libraries, funders and researchers – receive for this money.

To address this, Wellcome and UKRI, on behalf of cOAlition S, contracted Information Power to develop a framework through which publishers could price the services they provide. The draft framework seeks to breakdown the price charged into seven discrete “service buckets” such as “% of price from submission to desk reject or acceptance” and “% of price for peer review management”.

To determine whether it is feasible for publishers to provide this level of data and whether this information is of use to libraries and funders, the framework will be piloted in the first quarter of 2020. 10 publishers have agreed to join this pilot including Springer-Nature, Brill, PLOS the Company of Biologists and EMBO Press.

More information?

This post has just given a snapshot of the activities we are engaged with to support the implementation of Plan S.

If you have any questions or need any more information, see the cOAlition S website and use the Contact Us form for asking additional questions you may have.


Original article published on LinkedIn on February 18, 2020



Robert Kiley

Robert Kiley is Head of Open Research at the Wellcome Trust where he is responsible for developing and implementing the open research strategy. Over the past decade, Robert has played a leading role in the implementation of Wellcome’s open access policy and initiating the development of OA journal eLife, the publishing platform Wellcome Open Research and the Europe PubMed Central repository. Since March 2019, he has also assumed the role as cOAlition S Coordinator. Robert is a qualified librarian and is a member of the Board of Directors for ORCID.