10 talking points on scientific publishing: From Plan S to industry disruption – what’s in store for open science?

Back in January 2019, we launched a series of interviews about scientific publishing and open access. The debate was sparked by the publication in September 2018 of ‘Plan S’ – the European Commission initiative to ensure that from 1 January 2020, all scientific publications reporting on the results of publicly funded research are immediately available in Open Access. The ISC’s Lizzie Sayer has collated some of the most interesting talking points about this topical subject.

On 31 May, a revised version of the Plan S guidelines was released, addressing many of the points raised in our interview series and by the scientific community more widely. Most significantly, the revised guidelines postponed the introduction of Plan S by one year, providing more time to transition to the new system. The revisions and the extended timeline have been broadly welcomed, but debates on how to improve the scholarly publishing system are by no means resolved.

Here’s ten key talking points from our blog series that we think will continue to be of interest:

  1. First of all, everyone agrees that the scholarly publishing system needs to change
  2. And that open access publishing – in principle – is of enormous value
  3. Unsurprisingly, cost is a thorny issue
  4. We mustn’t forget the diverse realities of publishing worldwide
  5. There’s a need for change in the rewards and incentives for researchers
  6. If open access publishing is the tip of the iceberg, open data is the vast hulk lurking underwater
  7. The debate on licensing looks set to run and run
  8. Monographs are also not sorted
  9. There’s huge possibilities for innovation, but costs don’t disappear
  10. There may be new opportunities for learned societies

1. First of all, everyone agrees that the scholarly publishing system needs to change

There was little disagreement that scholarly publishing needs to be reconsidered and reformed. Our first interviewee, Plan S architect Robert-Jan Smits, outlined just why the current system is untenable: the public purse is hit three times with the costs of scientific publishing while a small number of publishing houses reap the benefits. What’s more, researchers in poorly funded institutions – particularly in the global south – may be excluded from reading or publishing in the world’s most prestigious journals because of costs. At a time when we need expertise from all over the world to tackle global challenges such as climate change, barriers to participation in the scientific enterprise are seen as indefensible.

The publishing industry itself also acknowledges the need for change, suggesting that the impetus should come from the demand side. That would mean researchers increasingly choosing open access, and funders providing incentives in grant requirements.

Others call for an even more radical shake-up of the publishing model, reminding us that good science doesn’t necessarily come in story-sized chunks. Why then should publishing remain anchored to a centuries-old model?

2. And that open access publishing – in principle – is of enormous value

Far from being a divisive topic, our interviews revealed a broad acceptability and support for Open Access, in principle. Plan S has created fresh momentum around open access discussions and the number of national funding agencies joining cOAlition S have given the initiative real clout. While the details of how to get to universal open access are far from agreed, we’re no longer having debates about whether open access is a good idea per se.

3. Unsurprisingly, cost is a thorny issue

However, the questions of who should pay, how, and how much remain unresolved – several interviewees supported a transition towards a more service-oriented model where the costs reflect the resources required (meaning lower profits for publishers). Does there need to be a market-based solution in the first place, asked Dominique Babini.

It follows that moving from a pay-to-read to a pay-to-publish model will disadvantage researchers working in poorer countries and institutions, who may not be able to finance expensive Article Publishing Charges (APCs). cOAlition S are currently exploring the idea of discounting or waiving fees for researchers from middle and low-income countries, but the fact that a couple of middle-income countries publish a comparatively large number of scientific articles complicates matters. What’s a fair APC when funding is so inequitably distributed?

The latest iteration of the Plan S guidelines argues for publication fees that are ‘commensurate with the publication services delivered’, and for transparency on how fees are structured. From 1 January 2020, publishers will be expected to price various services such as peer review or copy editing, ideally per journal that they publish, but at a minimum across their whole business. Such transparency is intended to help funders make decisions on what fees are appropriate, with cOAlition S keeping the route to potential fee-capping open for the future. However, questions have been raised about whether requiring this kind of transparency from commercial enterprises might fall foul of the EU’s competition guidelines.

These are all big questions of political economy. Don’t expect them to be resolved any time soon.

4. We mustn’t forget the diverse realities of publishing worldwide

Dominique Babini of CLACSO – the Latin American Council of Social Sciences – inspired us all with the strength of open access publishing in Latin America, where scholar-led initiatives, public universities and government organizations have prioritised repositories and driven up quality on open access journals in the region. Robin Crewe, former President of the Academy of Science of South Africa, and Xiaolin Zhang, former Director of the National Science Library in Beijing and a key advocate for open access in China, both made the case for local solutions for open access publishing. While Plan S was originally envisaged as a European initiative, it’s made ripples worldwide. But we should keep in mind the existing systems and initiatives supporting widespread open access in other areas of the world.

See also:

5. There’s a need for change in the rewards and incentives for researchers

Of course, all of our interviewees were concerned by the importance of publications for scientific career advancement, and the double bind between the need to publish and to preserve the quality of publications. At the heart of this concern was the fear that a narrow focus on high-impact publications as proxies for scientific excellence means that researchers who publish less frequently in high-impact journals – whether it’s because of the cost and language barriers, or because they’re tied up with teaching work or on precarious contracts – may be disregarded for tenure and promotion.

Other downsides include an over-emphasis on research to the detriment of teaching in universities, pressure to publish leading to ‘salami-slicing’ the same research, and the growing number of predatory publishers looking to profit from it. Robert-Jan Smits decried ‘the obsession with the journal impact factor’, but we also heard that in time-pressured recruitment and evaluation processes, reviewers often default to looking at journal titles rather than the content of published articles.

However, Sabina Leonelli identified some signs of positive change within individual universities, and we heard more about the work done by Open Science Policy Platform on indicators for open science. Qualitative indicators and assessments not based on numerical capturing can be good alternatives to journal impact factor and citation counts. But they can be challenging to implement for some institutions, and real change would require a significant number of institutions to sign up.

At the same time, we heard how the solution to this issue could come from science publishing systems themselves. New technologies offer opportunities for more interactive reviewing systems, incorporating regular feedback from researchers themselves across a range of different criteria. Making a go of these new Trip Advisor-inspired systems for peer review will depend on a critical mass of researchers getting involved, which hasn’t happened yet. The conundrum of how to evaluate scientific research persists.

We should also expect more details about how national frameworks for evaluating the impacts of research (and researchers) will interact with Plan S in countries that have signed up.

6. If open access publishing is the tip of the iceberg, open data is the vast hulk lurking underwater

There’s general agreement that open data is a good thing, and that as much data as possible should be openly shared, but how to do it is less clear.

Plan S ‘strongly encourages’ open access to research data but doesn’t go into specifics. This may be a pragmatic decision: there can be ethical and scientific concerns about which data should be shared, and it often needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, the guidelines state that data should be ‘as open as possible and as closed as necessary’. In our interview with Sabina Leonelli, she argued that a useful first step could be for researchers to explain their choices around what data they’re sharing – and what they’re not sharing. Steven Inchcoombe from Springer Nature took us through his experience with publishing open access data sets, admitting that they’ve ‘lost an awful lot of money on these initiatives’, but suggesting funders’ requirements for data management plans are starting to drive innovation in making experimental data sets findable and (re)usable.

See more:


7. The debate on licensing looks set to run and run

The revised Plan S guidelines envisage the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license being used as a default, but the more restrictive CC BY-ND [no derivatives] licence may be used on a case-by-case basis, when approved by the funder. Issues around third-party copyright tend to affect disciplines where reproduction of existing content (images, for example) is common, such as in art history. Recent research has also uncovered differences in the ways in which medical journals attribute CC BY licenses, finding that most leading medical journals do not offer researchers reporting commercially-funded research the possibility to be published open access under a copyright license that allows unrestricted reading and reuse of the content.

8. Monographs are also not sorted

In many disciplines – particularly in the humanities and social sciences – monographs remain hugely important. A monograph is a book-length study of a specialist topic, typically written by one author. They’re challenging to make open access, because of the cost and issues around including copyrighted third-party content such as text or images which might have high fees associated with them.

However, models for publishing open access books are being established, with new presses opening and existing presses starting to offer open access options. In addition, libraries are grouping together to co-finance open access monographs through publishers like Knowledge Unlatched or through the Library Publishing Coalition.

One benefit is that OA seems to help with circulation. A 2017 Springer Nature study found that OA books receive 7 times more chapter downloads in the first year of publication, and are cited 50% more than non OA books over a 4-year period.

cOAlition S have confirmed they’ll issue a statement on how Plan S principles apply to monographs and book chapters by the end of 2021, so expect more lengthy discussions on this topic soon.

To find out more, see:

9. There are huge possibilities for innovation, but costs don’t disappear

Online technologies offer new possibilities to share research and get rapid feedback from peers. That can open the door to online versioning and re-versioning, potentially improving transparency around peer review processes and hopefully making it easier to determine the reliability of results.

Online pre-print repositories have proven their worth in theoretical physics and astrophysics, and other disciplines are starting to experiment with them. Along with efforts to support fast sharing of ideas from primary research, could we be on the cusp of far more dynamic models for sharing research in the pre-print world?

Nevertheless, Martin Eve warned not to underestimate the staff required for online publishing, nor the marketing budget required to publicise new platforms. Where scholarly publishing might once have required a typesetter, today it might need a web developer, but online publishing has certainly  not done away with the need for expertise and resources.

10. There may be new opportunities for learned societies

As Luke Drury reminded us, learned societies – of the kind that make up some of the ISC’s membership – were once the lynchpins of scientific publishing. Preparing learned societies’ publications was the mechanism for identifying and publishing valid research, but many academies and disciplinary societies have since outsourced this process to professional publishers.

Some societies still involved in publishing through a hybrid model for open access feel threatened by Plan S’s insistence that hybrid journals set out their plans to publish more open access articles over a fixed period of time. Michael Spedding, Secretary General of IUPHAR (International Union of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology) described the revised Plan S guidelines as “mixed news” for not-for-profit professional societies that use the APCs from their hybrid journals to reinvest in research.

However, we also heard that diversification in types of scientific publishing could benefit the learned societies able to leverage their networks to curate editorialised versions of the latest publications, delivering the kind of accessible syntheses that many readers want. What’s more, there are proven models that could work for learned societies looking to move into open access publishing, as Martin Eve explained.

Perhaps the most lasting effect of Plan S will be that it has jump-started a conversation on how scientific publishing can really deliver for its main audiences today. That explicit acknowledgement that something needs to change may open the way for experimentation and a renaissance in the scholarly publishing enterprise.

Do you have any comments on Plan S, open science or science publishing in general? Follow us on Twitter and get the conversation going or get in contact if you want to contribute more fully to this discussion.

Photo by Lysander Yuen on Unsplash


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