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In support of Open Science: IOP responds to the ongoing debate over Science Europe’s Plan S

15 February 2019

Plan S, an initiative that aims rapidly to accelerate the transition to open access scientific publishing, was launched by Science Europe in September 2018.  

The central tenet of Plan S is that: “After 1 January 2020 scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.” The Plan states that hybrid journals, i.e. subscription-based journals which publish individual articles on an open access basis, will not be compliant and it requires publishers to enter into transformative agreements under which they will commit to convert their subscription journals to open access within a short timeframe.

IOP and open access

The Institute of Physics (IOP) is a strong supporter of open science and open access to scientific research. IOP Publishing (IOPP) launched the first open access general physics journal, New Journal of Physics, with the German Physical Society in 1998. It subsequently launched the successful Environmental Research Letters as an open access journal, it has since launched five more open access journals and it will launch five more in 2019. In 2018 IOPP also published more than 40,000 conference proceedings articles on an open access basis.

IOPP has also been a pioneer in offsetting agreements which have accelerated the growth of open access publishing in physics in several European countries, making the first such agreements in Austria and the UK in 2014. Offsetting agreements enable institutions to offset the cost of open access publication in IOPP’s journals against their subscription and licensing fees. More than 90% of articles by Austrian authors in IOPP’s journals are now being published on an open access basis.

IOPP’s subscription journals support hybrid open access publication and in 2018 published almost 1,500 articles on an open access basis, many of them in the context of offsetting agreements. Hybrid open access enables researchers to publish in the journals they believe are the most effective in communicating their research while complying with funders’ mandates on open access publication; this publishing model has been a critical driver of the growth of open access, in the UK and elsewhere, over the last five years.

Our concerns and recommendations on Plan S

IOP recognises the frustration of some research funders, librarians and researchers that open access has not grown more quickly. We support a transition to open access publication of scientific research that maintains the high-quality peer review and high service levels to authors that IOPP practises. However, we also recognise that not every funder, nor every country, nor every research community is yet willing and able to support such a transition and we ask those funders which have endorsed Plan S – known as cOAlition S – to consider the key recommendations that we make below.

  • Extend the timeline for transition. Publishers cannot convert their journals wholly to open access by 2020 or 2023 as required by Plan S. The funders which have endorsed Plan S so far represent a very small proportion of global research funding. A natural transition will occur as more funders, more countries and more research communities support open access.
  • Support the hybrid open access model until a natural tipping point is reached. A transition to open access will be more quickly and effectively achieved by working with the grain of research communities rather than requiring them to publish in open access journals or on open access platforms which have no strong link to their disciplines and which may offer inferior levels of service in the speed and quality of peer review and production. Physics is an international endeavour and hybrid journals enable researchers to publish under different models according to the requirements of their funders and their ability to pay publication charges. As more funders and countries support open access, so a larger proportion of articles in IOPP’s journals will be published on an open access basis and they will be in a position to convert. The average number of hybrid open access articles in IOPP’s subscription journals in 2018 was 6%; they will not be at a natural tipping point in the current Plan S timeframe.

    We recognise the concerns of funders and universities that hybrid open access publication might be seen to enable publishers to charge twice, once for publication and once for access, so-called double-dipping. IOPP offsets much of its hybrid open access income locally in the context of offsetting agreements and offsets the remaining hybrid open access income globally by adjusting the pricing of its journals.  We do not double-dip. We actively seek further offsetting agreements which will enable us to transition more of our publishing to open access.  The success of transformative agreements will be measured at local level, in the proportion of a funder’s or country’s outputs which are published on an open access basis, as IOPP and Austria have shown is possible.
  • Support high-quality peer review. The largest component in the cost of journals publishing is in the people, processes and systems needed to support high-quality peer review and the management of high-quality journals.  Plan S proposes to cap Article Publication Charges (APCs) and if it does so at too low a level it risks undermining this most critical part of the publishing process.  A low cap will incentivise quantity over quality, favour very large commercial publishers with economies of scale over smaller learned society publishers and fail to recognise the differences in peer review standards and services between journals. It will prevent very large numbers of researchers from publishing in the journals that most effectively validate and communicate their research findings.
  • Recognise the dependence of green open access on subscription publishing. Plan S states on the one hand that green open access with no embargo and under a CC BY licence is compliant; on the other hand it appears to want to put an end to subscription publishing. Plan S funders must recognise that without subscription publishing there can be no green open access, and that there can be no subscription publishing if the publisher is required to give away its entire investment in peer review and strong journals immediately on publication and under a licence which allows anyone else to use that investment, including for commercial purposes.
  • Address the issue of new funding flows under a complete transition to open accessThere is no recognition in Plan S of the fact that the costs of scholarly publication will be differently distributed in a complete transition to open access.  Under the subscription model the costs of publishing are shared between research-intensive and less research-intensive institutions and countries, and between the public and private sectors. Under a wholly open access model those costs will fall largely on research-intensive institutions and countries, almost entirely in the public sector. The costs for some will rise significantly; the costs for others will fall.  How will funders manage the redistribution of publication costs in complex ecosystems of public and private funders, public and private universities and corporations, with so much scientific research undertaken across national boundaries?

Plan S and the United Kingdom and Ireland

Plan S has been endorsed by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). The endorsement by UKRI is of particular concern given it has come before it has completed its on-going review of UK open access policy.  UKRI has since told learned societies and publishers that Plan S will be ‘an input’ to the review.  IOP therefore trusts that the review will be open and impartial, will invite a full contribution from learned societies, universities, research communities and publishers and will take a wide range of evidence as to how effectively the current open access policy is working and in what ways that policy might be improved, and do that before making any further commitments.

IOP notes the recent publication by UKRI of Professor Adam Tickell’s independent advice to Government on UK open access policy, including his answer to the question of whether the UK is on track to have almost all its scientific outputs published on an open access basis by 2020, independent of Plan S. Tickell notes that 54% of UK outputs were available on an open access basis by 2016 and that: “the UK [is] firmly on track for publishing all scientific outputs via open access by 2020”. IOP is concerned that far from improving things, Plan S will put this hard-earned progress at risk.

Risks to UK and Irish science

Learned societies are an integral part of the fabric of UK and Irish science. They play a key role in supporting scientific education, early career researchers, diversity and inclusion, and the overall health of their disciplines and communities. Their publishing operations are critical in supporting these activities, both in fulfilling a key principle of their founding Royal Charters, the dissemination of scientific research, and in providing the additional income that underpins much of their charitable activities.

A leading spokesman for Plan S has said that learned societies should not be funded from their publishing activities, without explaining how they might practically and sustainably replace this. IOP strongly believes that learned societies will and should continue to play a leading role in the registration, certification, validation and communication of scientific research, regardless of whether the underlying business model is subscription publishing, open access publishing or new models yet to be developed; and that it is legitimate for them to make a fair return from the investments they make in their publishing services. Learned societies have long set the standards for scientific publishing and IOP urges UKRI and SFI to recognise the value of both the role they play as scholarly publishers and the much broader contributions they make to science and society.

View the European Physical Society's statement