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Radical open-access plan delayed a year as revised effort seeks more support

Plan S, the program to crack down on scientific journals’ paywalls led by European research funders, has fleshed out and relaxed some of its rules in revised implementation guidelines published today. The update addresses many concerns raised by researchers, librarians, and scientific publishers about Plan S’s rollout, allowing more time before full, immediate open access (OA) is required and dropping the proposed cap on publishing fees that funders will pay to journals.

The architects of Plan S “have engaged in a good quality dialogue” with the people and institutions that are going to deal with the plan’s consequences, says Lidia Borrell-Damián, director for research and innovation at the European University Association in Brussels. As a result, the revised guidelines seem “much more nuanced and more realistic” than the initial set, says astrophysicist Luke Drury, former president of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

Still unclear is whether the changes will convince other funders to join the movement. And the plan’s fiercest detractors are unmoved. “The changes are cosmetic and trivial. They more or less ignored the critique,” says Lynn Kamerlin, a structural biologist at Uppsala University in Sweden who co-authored an open letter against Plan S in November 2018 that now has about 1800 signatories.

Launched in September 2018, Plan S is a radical proposal to mandate full and immediate OA to scientific papers stemming from research funded by cOAlition S, a group of 19 public and private funder organizations that back the plan. After 2 months of heated debate, cOAlition S released draft implementation guidelines for public scrutiny; the draft received about 600 responses—mostly from Europe, but including 75 responses from the United States and eight from Argentina.

In the updated rules and guidelines, the essence of Plan S remains the same, but some technical requirements have been relaxed. The update includes a later deadline for full, immediate OA and provides clarity on ways scientists can comply with Plan S.

One of the main changes is a 1-year extension: Plan S rules will now apply to calls for research proposals by cOAlition S funders starting in 2021, instead of the previously announced 2020 kickoff. Considering the time necessary to start those research projects and publish results, this means the mandate will apply to papers published starting in 2022 or 2023, John-Arne Røttingen, chief executive of the Research Council of Norway in Oslo and one of the leaders of the task force in charge of the update to Plan S rules, told journalists this week.

In another big change that several critics had called for, Plan S shelved—for now—the idea of capping the amount funders will pay for article-processing charges (APCs), the fees some journals charge to publish OA articles. Instead, the funders say they will require price transparency from publishers—a breakdown of what’s behind APCs so that researchers can compare publishing venues before choosing one.

“It is significant that Coalition S listened to feedback that different approaches to peer review, as part of publishing, require different APCs,” said Bill Moran, publisher of the Science family of journals in Washington, D.C. (Science’s News section is editorially independent.)

Many publishers are happy to provide such transparency about their fees, says Niamh O’Connor, chair-elect of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers in London. “This will help us to show people what those costs are; it’s not uncommon for authors or referees to wonder about them.”

Plan S funders for their part hope more transparency will allow authors to make more efficient, “evidence-based” decisions rather than choosing based on journals’ perceived reputation and quality.

This is a secondary goal for cOAlition S—not only to make publishing more open, but to shake up the research assessment system. To do so, cOAlition S funders now say they will implement principles by 2021, such as those of the 2012 San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, which states that research should be assessed on its own merit and not the journal in which it was published. The coalition’s members won’t be required to sign the declaration itself, although some of them already have.

“Shifting the research assessment culture is the biggest stumbling block,” says Drury, who authored a response to the draft Plan S guidance by All European Academies, a federation of European academies of sciences and humanities. Plan S funders will need to be explicit and proactive to enact such profound change. For example, funders should back initiatives to develop new metrics so that scientists can stop relying on journals as proxies for a paper’s quality when evaluating a grant application. “They need to set a road map with a clear timeline,” says Gareth O’Neill, a linguist at Leiden University in the Netherlands and outgoing president of the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers; actions could include bias training for evaluators.

The revised guidelines also spell out Plan S funders’ support for the Open Access 2020 Initiative, which aims to shift money from journal subscriptions to OA publishing through “read-and-publish” deals between publishers and consortia of institutions. These agreements negotiate a price for researchers at a group of institutions or in a whole country to read and publish OA papers for an overall fee, instead of paying individual APCs and subscription costs.

These often lengthy contract negotiations “are more manageable for larger publishers,” O’Connor says. cOAlition S says it will develop model contracts to help smaller publishers, in particular, scientific society journals, to enter these so-called “transformative agreements.” It will also try to help smaller publishers with a new “transformative journal” option, in which subscription journals would be compliant and eligible for Plan S funding until the end of 2024 if they commit to increasing OA content gradually, to reach 100% within an agreed time frame. This won’t work for everybody, O’Connor says, but it’s a “positive step” that Plan S now offers compliance routes for smaller publishers.

The updated guidance also clarifies Plan S’s stance on hybrid journals—publications that charge subscription fees to readers as well as APCs for authors who choose to publish OA. Plan S still wants to crack down on what critics call “double-dipping,” and push journals to move to a full OA model. So the cOAlition S funders won’t pay hybrid journals’ APCs, but researchers who pay such fees from another source can be Plan S compliant as long as the final article is freely accessible online immediately after publication.

Finally, Plan S’s revamped rules give more prominence to “green” OA, in which scientists post peer-reviewed papers in OA repositories. The new rules also relax the technical requirements for such repositories.

On the whole, cOAlition S “really seem[s] to have listened to the research community. There are no major sticking points anymore,” O’Neill says. “Now, we’ll watch them, see what works and what doesn’t, and hold them accountable.”

*Correction, May 31, 7:15 a.m.: This story was corrected to clarify Plan S rules for hybrid journals.