European funders detail their open-access plan

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Science  30 Nov 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6418, pp. 983
DOI: 10.1126/science.362.6418.983

Plan S, the contentious program 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 this week, the funders explain how grantees can abide by Plan S. But some critics say the document—which is up for public discussion for 2 months—remains too restrictive.

Debate about Plan S has often been acrimonious since it was unveiled (Science, 7 September, p. 957), but both sides were hamstrung by a lack of detail. Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission's open-access (OA) envoy and one of the creators of Plan S, admitted at a news briefing in London to a “lack of clear communication” about the plan.

Now, 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 OA journal or platform. They can also publish in a subscription journal, provided they make a final peer-reviewed version or accepted manuscript immediately available in an OA repository. Finally, contrary to earlier indications, grantees can publish in hybrid journals, which charge subscriptions and also offer authors a paid OA option, but only if the journal commits to flip to full OA.

The guidance should quell fears about Plan S's restrictiveness, Smits said. This month, an open letter, now signed by about 1400 researchers, slammed Plan S for its impact on hybrid journals published by scientific societies, 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 agreements by the end of 2021 pledging to shift to full OA within 3 years.

The architects also addressed criticism of 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 publish OA papers. The letter's authors saw the promise as a needless concession to for-profit OA publications. But John-Arne Røttingen, chief executive of The Research Council of Norway in Oslo, who co-led the group that developed the 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.

“I am glad to see that … feedback from the community has been listened to,” says Niamh O'Connor, chair-elect of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers in Watford, U.K. Society publishers will need to find strategies “to adapt and thrive under Plan S,” she says. But a spokesperson for AAAS, Science's publisher, says the guidance is only a modest improvement, and Plan S “still jeopardizes” its journals.

Structural biologist Lynn Kamerlin, who co-wrote the open letter, says the guidance still limits researchers' freedom to publish. “It's a step in right direction,” she says. Still, funders and publishers should negotiate the specifics, “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 does not say exactly how compliance will be monitored. Røttingen said funding agencies probably won't complete payment of research grants to scientists who don't comply.

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

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