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Libraries often pay the article-processing charges of some open-access journals.

European funders detail their open-access plan

Plan S, the contentious plan that a group of European science funders hopes will end scholarly journals’ paywalls, has fleshed out its rules—and softened its tone a bit. In seven pages of implementation guidance released today, the funders explain how their grantees can abide by Plan S rules come 2020, when it goes into effect. But some critics say the document—which is up for public discussion for the next 2 months—remains too restrictive.

The guidance outlines three ways researchers can comply with Plan S, which is backed by national funding agencies of countries including the United Kingdom, France, and Austria, as well as private funders including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They can publish in an open-access (OA) journal or platform. They can also publish in a subscription journal provided they also make a final, peer-reviewed version or accepted manuscript immediately available in an OA repository. Finally, contrary to earlier indications, grantees will be permitted to publish in hybrid journals, which charge subscriptions but also offer an OA option, but only if the journal has committed to flip to a fully OA model.

The guidance aims to explain practicalities and “sets things straight,” said Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s OA envoy and one of the creators of Plan S, at a news briefing in London today. Referring to the often-acrimonious debate that has emerged since Plan S was released on 4 September, he admitted to a “lack of clear communication” from his side.

The new guidance should quell fears about Plan S’s restrictiveness, he said. Earlier this month, an open letter, now signed by about 1400 researchers, slammed Plan S’s crackdown on “high quality” hybrid journals published by scientific societies, such as the American Chemical Society, saying it would block access to their “valuable and rigorous peer-review system.” The guidance now leaves room for hybrid journals, as long as they sign “transformative agreements” by the end of 2021, pledging to shift to full OA within 3 years.

The architects also addressed the plan’s commitment that funders would pick up the bill for reasonable article-processing charges (APCs), the fees that some journals charge authors to have their papers published OA. The letter’s authors saw it as undue focus on, and a financial gift to, for-profit OA publications. But John-Arne Røttingen, chief executive of The Research Council of Norway in Oslo, who co-led the task force that developed the implementation guidance, denies this: “Plan S is not about one particular business model,” he said. “We are neutral and want a plurality of actors,” including fee-free OA journals.

Linguist Gareth O’Neill, president of the Brussels-based European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, sees the implementation guidance as a positive step: “They have listened to the research community and taken concerns on board. What you see now is moving towards a compromise.”

But structural biologist Lynn Kamerlin, who wrote the open letter, says the guidance still limits researchers’ freedom to publish their work. “It’s a step in right direction,” she says, but “I’m afraid [it gives researchers] a false illusion of choice. … This is something that funders and publishers should negotiate rather than putting researchers in the crosshairs,” adds Kamerlin, who works at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Røttingen said the funders will commission an analysis to find out which disciplines need more OA outlets, and then offer financial incentives to create new journals or flip existing ones to OA. Another study will focus on APCs, which Plan S pledges to standardize and cap.

The guidance document, approved unanimously last week by the 16 funding bodies that have signed on to Plan S, does not say exactly how compliance will be monitored. Røttingen said sanctions will likely mean funding agencies don’t complete payment of research grants for scientists who don’t comply.

The note gives funders some leeway with the implementation timeline. Starting 1 January 2020, the rules could apply to existing grants, to newly awarded grants, or “at the very least,” to new calls for research proposals.

Anyone who wants to provide feedback on the implementation guidelines can do so online until 1 February 2019.