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Few open-access journals meet requirements of Plan S, study says

Only a small proportion of open-access scientific journals fully meet the draft requirements of Plan S, the initiative primarily by European funders to make all papers developed with their support free to read, a study has found. Compliance with the rules could cost the remaining journals, especially smaller ones, more than they can afford.

Plan S, which takes effect next year, stipulates that any published research funded by its members must appear on open-access platforms that meet certain requirements. At most, only 889, or 15%, of 5987 science and medical journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) would fully comply with Plan S, according to data gathered by Jan Erik Frantsvåg of the University of Tromsø–the Arctic University of Norway and Tormod Strømme of the University of Bergen in Norway. They published their findings on the Preprints platform on 16 January. Even fewer journals in the social sciences and humanities complied fully: only 193, or 3%, of 6290 such publications.

Frantsvåg and Strømme identified 14 criteria in the Plan S draft rules that journals must meet if participating funders are to permit publication in them. Some rules concern editorial policy, such as that journals must allow authors to retain copyright. Others deal with technical matters—journals must provide full text in machine-readable formats, such as XML, to allow for text and data mining. Of the 14 criteria, Frantsvåg and Strømme could assess only nine criteria using available DOAJ data, which means even fewer than 15% of science and biomedical journals might fully comply with Plan S.

Frantsvåg and Strømme add that a lack of compliance doesn’t necessarily signal a lack of quality. Only one of the nine criteria they reviewed relates to quality: the requirement for some form of peer review. Almost all journals registered in the DOAJ meet this criterion, they report. The DOAJ is a large compendium of open-access journals that meet certain standards of quality control.

The required technical fixes may be too expensive for some smaller open-access journals unless Plan S provides them deadline extensions, exempts them, or helps them develop open-source publishing software that meets the requirements, the study says. That’s especially true for the many open-access journals that don’t charge author fees. Larger publishers will probably find it easier to meet Plan S’s requirements, Frantsvåg and Strømme say. Their journals are closer to full compliance with Plan S than other journals are, thanks to economies of scale and higher revenues.

Frantsvåg and Strømme say they aren’t arguing against Plan S. “But we want to warn that the current timeline will pose a threat to a number of open access journals of good scholarly quality that scholars do not want to lose,” they write. Much of the public debate about Plan S’s consequences has focused on limiting researchers’ ability to publish in traditional, prestigious, subscription-based journals, they note, rather than the plan’s effects on open-access journals.

Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s open-access envoy in Brussels, who is one of the architects of Plan S, wrote in an email to ScienceInsider that existing open-access journals demonstrate that viable, high-quality alternatives to subscription-based journals already exist.

Compliance with Plan S “is a responsibility of the journals, platforms, and repositories themselves,” he wrote. “Our revised implementation guidance, which will be presented in the spring following public consultation, will show that the road to full compliance with Plan S is quite feasible.” (The public comment period ends 8 February.)

The Plan S funders are already providing support to help publishers make the transition, Smits said. The Wellcome Trust hired a contractor this month to help scientific societies that publish both open-access and subscription-based journals develop business models under which they could make all their journals open access.

“For some, [compliance] will not require that much, for others, a bit more will have to be done, as is also mentioned in the study,” Smits wrote. “I am convinced that an increasing number of [open-access] publishers are willing to go that extra mile because they certainly will want to include in their journals the high volume of high-quality research output coming in the future from Plan S grantholders.”