The best laid Plan S...

Since its publication, Plan S has generated a great deal of discussion. While it is perhaps easy to dismiss publisher concerns about the practicalities of implementing proposals as expected opposition from vested interests, dismissing similar concerns from authors, and even other funders, is more difficult. It highlights the fact that views on how to transition to Open Access (OA) are not uniform and the solution is not as clear cut as those backing Plan S think.

No one is saying that the current system is perfect, but as the leading OA publisher (Springer Nature is responsible for 30% of all immediately accessible OA articles globally), our experience is telling us that what is being proposed will not benefit the whole research community. National funders—like the 11 which have signed up to Plan S—are, understandably, concerned with ensuring that research they fund can be accessed immediately on publication. It is therefore unsurprising that they are focusing on a national, in some instances regional, solution. But science is global and publishers like Springer Nature operate globally. Scientists need to be able to submit their work to the most suitable journal, and we need to be able to accept and publish research from authors all over the world. We also need to be able to provide the community with a range of journals; doing so requires a range of business models. Therefore, we question the underlying assertion that hybrid and subscription-based models of scientific publishing are no longer necessary or appropriate.

For example, there are plenty of circumstances in which the subscription model is the most practical means available to fund journals—in some social sciences, for instance, or review journals in general—and it is the only model that currently works for highly-selective journals with substantial news, analysis and review content, like research journal Nature. For such journals, it is fairer to spread its costs across its many readers than its few authors, as would occur under an OA model.

In addition, hybrid journals, which enable authors whose funders require them to publish OA to still publish in the journal of their choice, have an important and ongoing role to play as we transition to OA. Crucially, they are agnostic to funder policy, an important characteristic given the incredibly mixed picture internationally for OA funding. Hybrid journals—with their stable income via the subscription model—mean that we have been able to support the take-up and growth of OA in this complex market in a sustainable way. Finally, they make the impact of transition sustainable. Without this mixed model approach, the cost of facilitating OA options would be significantly greater. To support the global research community, we would need to create new OA journals to mirror our 1,900 subscription hybrid journals; we could not simply adapt all of the existing journals, as it would add substantial cost, time, risk and disruption to the whole research ecosystem.

We have evidence to support this position, having commissioned two reports to look into the impact of hybrid journals. The first was a UK case study (77% of Springer Nature UK corresponding authors were publishing their research with us via Gold OA). The report demonstrates that without being able to publish OA not just in our 600 pure OA journals but across almost the whole Springer portfolio of nearly 2,000 journals, as well as in our pure OA journals, the percentage would have been closer to our global average of 30%.

The second report, based on a global analysis by Digital Science of more than 70,000 articles, highlights that far from publishing OA in a hybrid journal being somehow a “lesser” option, OA articles in hybrids receive high levels of citations and downloads, and broader impact. They are actually more widely used than subscription articles in such journals. The analysis showed that OA articles in hybrid journals were downloaded, on average, 1.6 times more by users at academic institutions (compared to non-OA articles), and four times more by users overall.

Without the flexibility provided by hybrid journals, and indeed the continued availability of delayed OA (Green) on fully subscription journals, cOAlition S-funded authors will have a reduced choice of journals in which to publish. Equally, the idea of Article Processing Charges (APC) price caps limit the value that publishers can afford to provide and encourage commodity behaviour—the opposite of what is needed as publishers seek to strengthen their controls and resources addressing research integrity. Surely a vibrant, transparent and diverse market, with many competing publishers is the best way to ensure good solutions and value for money.

So why, in the face of this evidence, are Science Europe and the funders backing Plan S so convinced that their approach is the right one? Particularly given that the plans as they stand will result in cOAlition S-funded authors having a reduced choice of journals in which to publish?

Our call to Science Europe, and the members of cOAlition S, is simple. Look at the evidence, consider the global environment in which researchers are operating, and work with us, authors and other funders to reach a truly international consensus as to how the publishing of research will be funded in the future. Work with us to turn the principles set out in Plan S into a real plan of action.

Steven Inchcoombe is chief publishing officer of Springer Nature