The announcement in September of Plan S is sending shockwaves throughout the global scholarly research and publishing communities. A joint commitment launched by cOAlition S, an assembly of major European research funders, Plan S seeks to require immediate open access to the coalition’s scientific publications by 2020, a potentially dramatic change to the scholarly communication landscape. How will today’s publishers adapt?

Liz Ferguson, Vice President of Editorial Development at Wiley, sees Plan S as a bid to change both publisher business models and author behavior. And after years of moving slowly toward open access, the key challenge now, Ferguson says, will be speed. There are just 14 months before the plan’s requirements are scheduled to take effect. “You could argue that publishers have had prior warning from the EC’s announcement in 2016,” Ferguson says, “but the reality is that few institutions, funders, and governments had shown much formal commitment to those goals until recently.”

Among the 10 principles set out in Plan S are some game-changers for the scientific publishing, including: authors must retain their copyrights; article publication charges (APCs) must be capped; and strong support for gold open access over subscription and hybrid journals, which currently account for some 85% of the total.

In connection with International Open Access Week, I recently reached out and spoke to a number of publishing executives about how they are dealing with the potential impact of Plan S. Here are five key takeaways:

Understand the Impact on Your Business

Estimates suggest that the Plan S signatories account for 3% of global research output, but this figure will vary significantly across publishers. Will Schweitzer, Director of Product and Custom Publishing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) believes that around 5% of their research article output falls within the scope of the Plan as it stands. “I would consider that to be a significant proportion,” he adds, “so we want to find a model that works.” And as the Coalition is likely to grow over time, the number of authors falling within the scope of Plan S will also increase.

For many publishers, the impact will be felt unevenly across their portfolio of journals. Ferguson notes that it may be particularly acute for some journals in the social sciences and humanities, which tend to have a stronger regional focus. “If you are a journal dealing with U.S. legal research, you may be publishing very little from outside the U.S. and be relatively unaffected. But if you are publishing its British equivalent then the impact could be very significant.”

The effect could be especially pronounced for learned societies, whose financial sustainability often relies on publishing revenues from just a handful of journal titles. Bringing together data on author affiliations and funding sources will help publishers understand the implications of the Plan and help them react accordingly.

Assess New Business Models

There can be little doubt that cOAlition S will accelerate the transition to open access. Yet the scope of Plan S will be limited as long as enthusiasm for open access is confined to Europe. “Open access is growing really, really fast, but it isn’t mainstream globally yet.” Wiley’s Liz Ferguson explains. Tasha Mellins-Cohen, Director of Publishing at the Microbiology Society, agrees. “Europe is a significant force for research,” Mellins-Choen says, “but it is not significant enough to force a global shift to open access by itself.”

That means, in practice, most publishers will have to satisfy European funder requirements while also continuing to operate a subscription model for many of their journals. As Mellins-Cohen notes, simply sticking with the status quo is not an attractive option: “We either have to lose a significant proportion of European authors, or exclude the rest of the world.”

Plan S also commits European funders to providing “incentives” for the establishment of new open access journals and platforms, which may create opportunities for the expansion of open access publishing programs. Flipping existing journals, Schweitzer observes, may be an option for some publications. But is much more difficult for journals like Science, where much of the content is not research articles.

Another option could be to split journals into a subscription version and a compliant OA version. There is precedent for this in the American Mathematical Society’s Series B journals and Elsevier’s Water Research X. Of course, any such journal would have to acquire its own journal impact factor, and there is a risk that funders might consider this a hybrid model, which Plan S discourages.

Nevertheless, the Preamble to Plan S does foresee at least a short-term role for “transformative” agreements, provided their terms and conditions are “fully and publicly disclosed.” And organizers have been at pains to emphasize that the intention of Plan S is not to prescribe particular business models, but that it is up to publishers to come forward with compliant offerings.

Be Ready to Overhaul Your Business Processes

Plan S ratchets up expectations for all parties, with authors and institutions now faced with sanctions for non-compliance, and publishers expected to meet “robust criteria and requirements.”

These are likely to build on Science Europe’s existing Principles on Open Access Publisher Services, which emphasize the need for indexing, open licensing, sustainable archiving and machine readability. However, cOALition S may also look to emulate the Wellcome Trust’s requirements (which are under review again) with expectations around early registration of digital object identifiers (DOI), additional invoicing information, and improved metadata.

In many cases, publishers will need to work closely with software vendors to deliver against these requirements, and offer a seamless experience to authors. Jen Goodrich, Principal Consultant at Copyright Clearance Center, Inc. emphasizes that much of the groundwork for this is in place, for example, though ventures like CCC’s RightsLink Author platform, which automates the collection and management of author transactions.

“Talk to your vendor partners early on,” Goodrich advises. “Many are investing in coordinated, automated solutions that can help publishers meet the expectations of Plan S.”

Communicate with Authors

Some have expressed concern that a two-tier publishing system could emerge as a result of Plan S, with well-funded European authors able to publish open access, and others left out in the cold. Further complications could arise in international collaborative projects, if policies aren’t aligned.

“We could see really difficult issues of fragmentation and communication among scientists,” Ferguson says, “and all we can do as publishers is patch and stitch as best we can.”

Authors will also need help navigating various submission processes, and selecting appropriate journals, and licenses. Be ready: for the industry as a whole, a renewed push for Gold open access could create unwanted opportunities for “predatory” journals to emerge.

“If there is going to be a continuing push to open access then we’re going to need to get an awful lot better at educating academics, and everyone else, about what makes a decent journal,” says Mellins-Cohen. Services like the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and initiatives like Think-Check-Submit are likely to become ever more central to this process.

Watch this Space

With organizers seeking to secure additional signatories to the Plan both in Europe and abroad, and an implementation plan due to be released before the end of the year, the future of Plan S still has some twists and turns to come. Among the key questions outstanding:

  • The level of the APC cap, which could present a major challenge for highly-selective journals?
  • The role of repositories in the implementation of Plan S?
  • The latitude permitted for transitional arrangements, such as ‘Read and Publish’ deals, as well as for outputs such as monographs?
  • How will the proposal that authors retain copyright of their publication be enacted in practice?

As ever, the devil will be in the detail, but make no mistake: the countdown to ‘S-Day’ has already begun.

Rob Johnson is Founder and Director of Research Consulting, a mission-driven business working to improve the effectiveness and impact of research and scholarly communication. He is lead author of the 2018 STM report, which provides an overview of scientific and scholarly journal publishing.