On Tuesday—Halloween here in the US—cOAlition S released a new open access blueprint, one that, in effect, proposes to dismantle the prevailing journal system. Under an anodyne title (“Toward Responsible Publishing”), the group of (mostly) European state funders and foundations endorsed a future for scholarly communication in which publishers are recast as competing service providers. It’s also in basic alignment with the movement to shift peer review to a post-publication phase—with curation and discoverability detached from the per-title, periodic-release journal system. The third major pillar of the plan is to de-throne the version-of-record article (and, implicitly, the monograph), by granting other outputs (like datasets and reviews) equal footing in the realm of recognition.
The plan, to borrow a phrase from Joe Biden, is a BFD.
In this post, I want to make three quick points, which I hope to expand on soon. The first is that the Plan S initiative represents an uneasy convergence between two strands of the nonprofit, mission-driven OA world: between (1) those who’ve championed scholar-submitted preprints to open repositories, coupled with an emergent post-release review ecosystem; and (2) advocates of nonprofit, fee-free OA publishing, who tend to employ the traditional version-of-record journal and book formats. The distinction, in the bizarre lingo we’ve inherited, is green versus diamond.
I don’t want to exaggerate the differences between these two approaches. There’s a shared belief, most crucially, that the academic community should restore custody over the scholarly publishing system—wrench it back, that is, from the oligopolists. A second shared tenet is that an OA system based on APCs (or their read-and-publish equivalent) is arguably worse than the tolled system it seeks to replace. APC-based OA trades barriers to readers for barriers to authors, with the right to publish meted out according to institutional wealth or national origin. So that’s a lot of agreement: a nonprofit, community-led system that doesn’t exclude authors.
Still, the differences are important. The green route—sometimes termed Publish, Review, Curate (PRC), in that order—aims to replace the journal system altogether. The diamond route, by contrast, seeks to fix that system.1
The rethought Plan S leans green. From the plan’s first Principle:
Authors – and not third-party suppliers, such as publishers — should decide when and where to publish, including versions before and after peer review and the associated peer review reports. Service-related elements (copyediting, typesetting, submission systems, hosting, formal quality checks) can be outsourced.
It’s true that the “Responsible Publishing” vision can probably accommodate diamond journals and book publishers. Curation, after all, is a crucial component of any publish-then-review system. The concept of an overlay journal is one obvious zone of compatibility.
It is, nevertheless, striking that cOAlition S has gone all in on the green route. In the last couple of years, the group has made major investments in propping up the diamond OA ecosystem (up to and including its role in last week’s mega-summit). The new plan, if not exactly a departure, is a significant shift in emphasis.
That’s the first point. My second observation has to do with the plan’s aim to recast publishers as “third-party suppliers.” This vision—of a marketplace of service providers, competing to offer copy-editing, typesetting, and other contract work—is in near-perfect alignment with the approach championed by Björn Brembs, the tenacious German neuroscientist. In a series of posts and articles—most recently in July—Brembs and his allies have pushed for a system in this service-provider mold. When he first floated the scheme, I thought the idea was dead-on-arrival—a noble but quixotic campaign. I was wrong. The first big sign of the approach’s viability came last May, when the Council of Europe embraced what I call Plan Brembs. Tuesday’s Plan S endorsement is more significant still—a system-rattling grant of momentum and legitimacy.
My third and final claim is about the evolution of cOAlition/Plan S. The group’s public embrace of a post-publisher future is a major departure in strategy and mission. Tuesday’s announcement included doth-protest-too-much quotations from Plan S’s original 2018 roll-out, to signal continuity over the plan’s five-year history. In its first few years, however, Plan S was a very different beast. The group treaded cautiously, abandoning a planned APC cap and providing generous exemptions and leeway to the big commercial publishers. Though the first-phase Plan S was undoubtedly well-intentioned, its on-the-ground effect was to pave the road for Springer Nature and co. to charge usurious APCs. An argument can be made, indeed, that Plan S midwifed the so-called “transformative” read-and-publish deal, whose effect has been to bake in an author-excluding OA system. Provisions to permit the oligopolists to run with a double-dipping “hybrid” OA approach—with APC-funded OA articles published in subscription journals—had the (unintended) effect of tightening the corporate bear-hug.
Those concessions to the likes of Elsevier were always meant to be temporary. To its credit, cOAlition has announced sunsetting deadlines, fast-approaching indeed. But the group’s real break with its original strategy came—we can now say, in retrospect—with the 2020 hiring of Johan Rooryck as executive director. A Dutch linguist, Rooryck had a major hand in an early Elsevier journal-flipping. He has worked tirelessly, by all evidence, to shift cOAlition S away from its initial (and disastrous) APC embrace. Prominent among his initiatives have been recent efforts, alluded to above, in support of a nonprofit, diamond OA ecosystem.
The tension between Plan S old and new surfaced in a September opinion piece from Robert-Jan Smits, who had helped establish the group. In many respects the article is a multi-paragraph sub-Tweet aimed at Rooryck. Smits doubles-down on APCs, and lashes out at the May Council of Europe statement—the very vision that Rooryck’s cOAlition S just (in effect) countersigned. The “last thing to do,” Smits wrote, is to “change course,” adding that this is “exactly what I am afraid is happening.” Decrying a “left turn,” Smits made his first-phase Plan S loyalties clear:
It was also surprising that the [Council of Europe] gave the impression with their conclusions to wish to exclude the large commercial publishers, which provide a quality service to the science community. These key players in the world of scientific publishing just need to be forced to change their business model and embrace open access at a fair price.
The just-released Rooryck blueprint is a (long-gestating) riposte. Among other things, the plan makes a decisive break with the APC:
The overwhelming majority of academic journals cover their costs through subscriptions, article processing charges (APCs), or both. As a result, researchers can find themselves unable to access relevant research findings (because of subscription paywalls) or unable to publish (because of APC barriers). We fully recognise that publishing incurs costs, but we believe that all researchers should be able to publish their work as Open Access, without author-facing charges.
In what can’t be a coincidence, Rooryck and Smits are set to meet today, in a “5 Years of Plan S” webinar. In my view, Rooryck, with key allies no doubt, has redeemed Plan S. As with Brembs, I was initially a skeptic, sometimes blaming the group for what I’ve called “friendly fire.” That’s still a good description of Plan S phase-one, now dead. Tuesday’s bold announcement was its obituary.
At today’s webinar, Robert-Jan Smits seemed to endorse the “Responsible Publishing” plan, calling it “Plan S 2.0”. It was a somewhat pained endorsement, qualified by skepticism about the viability of a diamond route. In effect, he blamed the commercial publishers for digging their own graves.