To meet the ‘Plan S’ open-access mandate, journals mull setting papers free at publication

Plan S, the funder-backed scheme to require free online access to scientific literature, aims to shake up the subscription journals that have long dominated scholarly publishing. Now, some publishers are considering an approach they hope will both comply with the plan and maintain their subscription income: allowing authors to post manuscripts in public archives as soon as their papers are published.

Currently, most journals charge for subscriptions and keep online papers behind a paywall for at least several months. But the Plan S funders, who will release final rules this month, insist that scientists who receive their funding publish without a paywall or waiting period. One way for scientists to comply with the plan, which is backed by 15 European government funders and four foundations, is to publish in a journal that collects fees from authors to cover free access—the “gold” model of open access.

Some publishers fear they wouldn’t earn enough through author fees to remain financially viable. So, according to John Sack, founding director of HighWire in Los Gatos, California, which provides web hosting for nonprofit scientific publishers, many have warmed to another compliance option: “green” open access. In that model—permitted in the draft version of Plan S, unveiled in September 2018—Plan S–funded authors could deposit free-to-read papers in public repositories without a waiting period. The journal would continue to collect subscription fees, and the mechanism could benefit some authors who lack funding to pay for gold open access.

In recent months, HighWire surveyed 27 nonprofit publishers and found that they rated green open access without an embargo period more favorably than other options, including switching their subscription-based journals to entirely gold open access.

“It seems like green open access would be a viable way for us to continue with the subscription model” while accommodating funder mandates such as Plan S, says Nancy Winchester, director of publications for the American Society of Plant Biologists in Rockville, Maryland, which publishes two subscription journals that offer gold open access. “We would give it serious consideration.”

The draft form of Plan S allows open-access archiving of a prepublication version of an article called the author accepted manuscript. It contains changes in response to peer review but lacks features of the published version such as a designed layout, hyperlinks to referenced articles, and supplementary materials. Few publishers allow archiving a paper’s published version because it carries the most commercial value. But many, including AAAS (publisher of Science), now allow the author accepted version to appear in public repositories—such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s PubMed Central—albeit typically not until after an embargo period of 6 months to 12 months.

Plan S requires more openness: No embargo is allowed, and publishers have to give up copyright to the freely accessible articles. Plan S calls for a “CC-BY” license, which allows others to distribute and reuse content if they simply cite the original source. Even so, some publishers judge that offering Plan S–funded authors green open access without an embargo is the least threatening option for compliance because only an estimated 3.3% of the world’s scholarly papers were written by authors who receive support from the Plan S funders and fall under its requirements. The United States has indicated it will not join Plan S, although it continues to require public archiving of federally funded papers within a year of publication; China’s funders have expressed support for Plan S’s goals but have yet to formally sign on or announce rules to implement it.

At least 30 publishers already offer green open access with no embargo, although almost all retain copyright, says Stuart Taylor, publishing director for the Royal Society in London. The Royal Society, which publishes eight subscription journals that offer gold open access, adopted that policy in 2010. Last year, the society began to offer the CC-BY license.

The move has not hurt business, Taylor says. “We haven’t seen any effect on attrition rates” of subscribers. “I’m convinced that’s because the final published version [of articles] is superior,” and readers are willing to pay for that.

Bill Moran, publisher of the Science family of journals in Washington, D.C., says offering Plan S–compliant green open access is “an option we’re looking at.” But AAAS doesn’t know how many researchers would use that option and what its financial consequences would be, he says. Those answers might not come until 2024, when Plan S takes full effect. (Science‘s News section is editorially independent of AAAS.)

Other publishers think the approach would lead to a dire and unsustainable loss of subscription revenue. Selective journals employ professional editors and incur high costs even before a manuscript is accepted, says Steven Inchcoombe, chief publishing officer at Springer Nature in London, which publishes Nature. Green open access entails giving away that effort, he says, adding that its impact on subscriptions and revenue hasn’t been sufficiently tested on a large scale.

Unlike some other publishers, Springer Nature views gold open access as more sustainable, Inchcoombe says. The publisher is offering “offset” deals to universities that reduce subscription fees by the amount that the institution pays to publish its scientists’ articles open access. University libraries, however, worry about the rising costs of such deals.

*Correction, 15 May, 2 p.m.: This story was updated to correct a statistic; 3.3% represents not the fraction of authors who receive support from Plan S supporters, but instead the fraction of scholarly papers with such authors.

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