The Redemption of Plan S

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.

Postscript

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.


  1. I have a foot in both camps, as a director of a diamond OA press and co-lead of the MediArXiv server. 

‘An Initial Scholarly AI Taxonomy’

Adam Hyde, John Chodacki, and Paul Shanon, writing on FORCE11’s Upstream on seven key roles that “AI” could play in a scholarly publishing workflow:

  1. Extract: Identify and isolate specific entities or data points within the content.
  2. Validate: Verify the accuracy and reliability of the information.
  3. Generate: Produce new content or ideas, such as text or images.
  4. Analyse: Examine patterns, relationships, or trends within the information.
  5. Reformat: Modify and adjust information to fit specific formats or presentation styles.
  6. Discover: Search for and locate relevant information or connections.
  7. Translate: Convert information from one language or form to another.

It’s a useful breakdown, but I’m stunned—given the authors and outlet—that there’s no mention of commercial exploitation. Scholarly publishing is dominated, of course, by a for-profit oligopoly, one that mines scholars’ behavior to bundle into proprietary prediction products. As a flurry of recent announcements makes clear, Elsevier and co. are charging into the post-ChatGPT future—with the aim to expand their surveillance-publishing footprint at the expense of scholars and universities. In the real world, the seven Upstream verbs—to extract, to discover, to generate, and so on—will be turned on us.

‘Article defending private-equity involvement in autism services retracted’

From Retraction Watch:

An article that proposed potential benefits of private equity firms investing in autism service providers has been removed from the journal in which it was published.

The author

is founder and CEO of the Behavioral Health Center of Excellence (BHCOE), a company that offers accreditation for organizations that provide ABA services, and she co-founded the Autism Investor Summit, an annual meeting focused on the business side of autism services. She is also an advisory board member for Calex Partners, a firm that provides advice on mergers and acquisitions for autism-related businesses.

Blatant self-interest, but that wasn’t the issue. She seems to have had, um, a ChatGPT problem:

The article titles provided in 22 of the references do not appear in the cited journals’ table of contents or in Google search results.

‘The Tiny, Grammar-Bound Island’

The Hedgehog Review hero image with books by Susanne Langer

My colleague Sue Curry Jansen and I, writing for The Hedgehog Review draft the neglected philosopher Susanne Langer as AI critic:

Our modest objective here is to add a historical dimension to the critical toolkit by highlighting the work of a profoundly underappreciated thinker, whose work advances and thickens the limits-of-language case. Although she was a prolific scholar, Susanne K. Langer’s best-known work was Philosophy in a New Key (1942), published fifteen years before the term “artificial intelligence” was coined. Yet her indictment of the linguistic completists of her day holds up remarkably well; indeed, we can read a prescience, sometimes uncanny, into her paragraphs about the world beyond paragraphs. 

protocols.io has been bepressed

Announced in July, Springer Nature’s acquisition of protocols.io didn’t attract much attention:

protocols.io will form part of Springer Nature’s expanding Solutions business which is committed to providing researchers, and their institutions, with a comprehensive suite of tools and services designed to bolster their success, enhance their impact, and boost productivity. 

It should have: protocols.io is the latest-rule-proving example of the well-intentioned for-profit schol-comm startup: at some point or another, you will be acquired, even if—maybe especially when—you repeatedly declare your mission-driven independence. The verb is to bepress:

to acquire a small, values-driven for-profit by an oligopolist publisher. Coined by Elsevier in 2017. See also: Ubiquity Press.

Diamond Open Access Fund

Per Pippin, writing in LSE Impact on a Diamond Open Access Fund:

Read-and-Publish deals are likely to be short lived; they were, after all, supposed to be ‘transitional deals’. The public money that has so far been spent on these deals could be better invested in this kind of fund when these deals come to an end. This would be truly transformative.

One can quibble with the funding figures that Pippin floats—and with his breakdown of costs. But his core point, that collective funding is the only road to OA that doesn’t exclude authors, is unassailable. The toughest nut to crack is funders’ habitual (and, in some cases, legal) commitment to single-unit, per-work support.

Jeff Pooley is professor of media & communication at Muhlenberg College and director of mediastudies.press, an open access scholarly publisher.

pooley@muhlenberg.edu | press@mediastudies.press

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