The world debates open-access mandates

(4 January 2019)  How far will Plan S spread?

Since the September 2018 launch of the Europe-backed program to mandate immediate open access (OA) to scientific literature, 16 funders in 13 countries have signed on. That’s still far shy of Plan S’s ambition: to convince the world’s major research funders to require immediate OA to all published papers stemming from their grants. Whether it will reach that goal depends in part on details that remain to be settled, including a cap on the author charges that funders will pay for OA publication (Science, 30 November 2018, p. 983). But the plan has gained momentum: In December 2018, China stunned many by expressing strong support for Plan S (Science, 14 December 2018, p. 1218). This month, a national funding agency in Africa is expected to join, possibly followed by a second U.S. funder. Others around the world are considering whether to sign on.

Plan S, scheduled to take effect on 1 January 2020, has drawn support from many scientists, who welcome a shake-up of a publishing system that can generate large profits while keeping taxpayer-funded research results behind paywalls. But publishers (including AAAS, which publishes Science) are concerned, and some scientists worry that Plan S could restrict their choices.

If Plan S fails to grow, it could remain a divisive mandate that applies to only a small percentage of the world’s scientific papers. (Delta Think, a consulting company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, estimates that the first 15 funders to back Plan S accounted for 3.5% of the global research articles in 2017.) To transform publishing, the plan needs global buy-in. The more funders join, the more articles will be published in OA journals that comply with its requirements, pushing publishers to flip their journals from paywall-protected subscriptions to OA, says librarian Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, the chief digital scholarship officer at the University of California, Berkeley.

Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s OA envoy in Brussels, who is one of the architects of Plan S, says publishers have stalled by emphasizing the need for broad participation. “The big publishers told me: ‘Listen, we can only flip our journals [to OA] if this is signed by everyone. So first go on a trip around the world and come back in 20 years. Then we can talk again,’” Smits recalls. “Some people try to do anything to keep the status quo.”

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