Reflections on Plan S

Note: A shorter, edited version of this was published in parallel on the LSE Impact Blog.

No one disagrees with the idea that freeing up scientific knowledge to the public is a good thing for society. Around 25 years ago, this principle crystallised around the term Open Access (OA), and the birth of the modern, and very much evolving, movement. This was catalysed by the invention of this thing called ‘the internet’, which was in essence designed by scientists for the rapid and near-free sharing of scientific information.

Since then, it is now estimated that about 28% of the total scholarly literature is legally OA in one form or another, with the pace of growth increasing in recent years. However, the rest remains locked up behind expensive paywalls often operated by large, private companies. Depending on how you look at it, this statistic is either a total catastrophic failure, a huge resounding success, or well, not something you should be concerned about. For OA supporters, myself included, I think the general consensus is that we can do better. But why is such an ideologically simple thing so difficult to achieve?

Enter Plan S. Plan S can perhaps best be described as a funder-led and politically-motivated scheme to accelerate the transition to a fully OA world. The greatest success of Plan S so far is that it has substantially broadened the dialogue around OA, and 1000s of pages of ink, and countless tweets shared, debating it. Never in the history of OA has there been such vocal, and often fiery, debate from such an extensive range of actors in the research and communication sector. Recently, the call for feedback on the implementation guidelines deadline passed, and this useful summary by Lisa Hinchcliffe helps to identify some of the major content themes that have characterised much of the public elements of this debate. Even now, while drafting this on a flight from Berlin to New York to discuss this with members of the publishing industry, India has announced on Twitter that they are joining Plan S, and the OA drums are beating ever louder.

Rachael Pells also wrote in THE about her experiences investigating Plan S as a journalist, exposing perhaps quite a murky tone to some of the debate. This inspired me to reflect on the last several months of discussion around Plan S. My motivation for writing this comes as someone who supports OA in principle, and has been in this space for many years and under a number of different hats (researcher, policy wonk, publishing tech startup and communications, public speaker, editor, peer reviewer, etc.), and I hope that my experiences here might be useful in helping to frame and expose some of the context around Plan S. What follows here is my attempt to critically reflect on the tone and nature of the debate, and discuss in the context of the history and wider implications of a shift to an OA world.

History cannot be ignored

I am a geologist and palaeontologist. One of the key principles of our research is that the past is the key to the present is the key to the future. This applies to rocks and fossils just as much as it does to OA. In the EU, there has already been a strong push for OA under Horizon 2020 – something announced now back in 2013 (and even earlier with FP7 before it in 2008). OA (just not under this name) has been firmly on the agenda in Latin America, thanks to the likes of REDALYC (2002) and SciELO (1997) for more than 20 years now, pre-dating even the foundational Budapest Open Access Initiative (2001). The National Institute of Health’s OA policy in the US was a hot topic of debate back in the early-mid 2000s, and became a mandate in 2008. PLOS was founded in 2000. If you are new to the debates around OA, it is not because they were not happening. Plan S did not come out of nowhere. Anyone within academia or in the publishing world who is shocked or surprised by Plan S and its timing has clearly not been mindful of the historical evolution of OA in the last decade or so. The foreshadowing has been there for some time now.

Debates around OA policies are also not new, and neither are tensions between the major actors. We know that back in 2007, publishers such as Wiley, Elsevier and the American Chemical Society hired PR ‘pitbull’ Eric Dezenhall to create a smear campaign against OA, equating it with government censorship. When the UK was drafting the highly influential ‘Finch Report’ (published in 2012), we saw how commercial lobbyists progressively weakened the policy, the ramifications of which are still being felt today and were highly criticised by the BIS Select Committee at the time. The point is that, with this history in mind, Plan S did not come out of nowhere, and is not really that novel or radical. This, however, does not mean that it is not timely.

History has an annoying habit of repeating itself

So, Plan S is just the latest in a long string of highly polarised political movements and debates around OA. And it seems that we are in the midst of watching history repeat itself, but with some key differences.

What we are seeing, as before, is the clear surfacing of vested interests, and not just those which are commercial. Academic status and institutional privilege are rearing their ugly heads to beat down those who might challenge them. Not for the first time, we are seeing these interests being pitched against the principles that scholarly knowledge deserves to be a public good. This exposes the incredible tensions that exist in this space, and further, over whether knowledge (replace with education, health, etc.) should be allowed to be exploited by private entities to the detriment of all others. Given this scope, it is perhaps entirely expected that often emotions run high, especially when channeled through social media, which has become an apparent hub for many debates around OA. Such responses are entirely human, and for those who have dedicated their lives to fighting for democratic access to knowledge, watching the same vested interests at play with Plan S as have been seen before, is probably infuriating.

I feel it too, regularly, and empathise with those views completely. However, I also empathise with other views too. Publishers want to make money – in exchange for a service. Senior academics who have built a career on publishing in traditional journals might feel that disrupting this undermines their status. Learned societies need revenues generated from publishing to sustain other activities for their members. It often feels like OA is fighting a battle against a corporate monolith, where even the smallest victories take an incredible amount of effort, but ultimately end up feeling like we have lost. We might have won the ideological and practical cases for OA, and are slowly progressing it, but we have not enforced the principles of OA and created a system for equitable access to research. Thus, Plan S for many could be seen as a way to accelerate the move towards a more ethical system of research communication, and therefore any criticism of the practical aspects of it could be seen as stifling the more fundamental ideological or principled progress of OA.

Science and politics are completely discrete, right?

A further point is that, I feel for many, this has exposed how policy processes and communications around them tend to operate. A simple open question – did anyone really believe that Robert Jan-Smits (et al.) thinks Plan S is perfect, a utopic vision that will cover all cases and scenarios, and magically solve all our problems in scholarly publishing? Absolutely not, hence the reason why there is an open consultation. It seems a lot of the fury, especially again via social media, has been directed at this lofty pinnacle on which Plan S has been artificially placed. Plan S is imperfect, and it always will be. Just like every other policy ever drafted in the history of humanity. But the power of Plan S is that it is not a single path to OA, but illuminates many potential pathways, to help capture much of the diversity in publishing practices. Working this out among all the different groups involved is going to be bumpy, but ultimately worth it.

What I want to know is, where was all of this resistance before, especially from academics? The scholarly publishing system has for a long time been systemically unjust. Hybrid OA, impact factor abuse, APCs, ridiculous subscription costs – all creating a system of financial and knowledge discrimination for researchers – have all been around since long before Plan S was even just an idea. Plan S has just amplified these and got recognition for them, and in turn become a focal point for angst at these issues. But if you think APCs are an unjust system, face your anger towards publishers who impose unfair and lofty APCs; if you think the impact factor is a terrible way to evaluation researchers, aim your frustrations at those in charge of evaluation criteria. Plan S is not the enemy. What it feels like is a potential solution to a lot of problems we face, and there are going to be trade-offs involved in this. I feel we can all be more introspective about this, about what our motivations for engaging in the debates are, and for whom and what are we being mindful of the impacts for.

I think it is fair to say that Open Access has, by and large, become divergent from its original principles. Again, we can see this in many of the discussions that revolve around ‘We agree with Plan S, in principle, but not with the method of implementation.’ This is a key point. The fact that we spend more time talking about things like OA business models, compliance, mandates and policies, shows us that the current actors in this space are not effectively implementing the principles of OA. It also perhaps explains why many researchers historically have remained apathetic, or even antagonistic, towards OA. This tension again arises due to the fact that we are considering many large publishers (vendors) as ‘stakeholders’, rather than service providers. I mean, crikey, just look at the response from Springer Nature to Plan S, saying that some elements of it are “unacceptable”! What utterly bizarre power dynamics are at play here. This is not lobbying; it is a private company attempting to directly exercise control over public policy. Imagine McDonald’s telling policymakers that eating fruits and vegetables are unacceptable, and that we all have to eat their burgers or the industry will suffer; or Shell saying that combating climate change is not possible because it harms their profit margins. Their statement is what is unacceptable and unethical.

What is the consequence of all this? We are not designing the system that we want to, and need to, create in principle, and modelling the industry around that. We are asking what is possible with the current actors, and as history shows us, this often lies in direct conflict with the fundamental principles behind OA and scholarship more broadly. I again do not understand why we are letting private and vested interests interfere with a public good, and why we are asking their permission over what we can do with our knowledge. It’s like tobacco companies shaping industrial policy, rather than adapting to the needs of their consumers. Goodness, what a nightmare that would be. Why are private companies allowed to dictate what we are or are not allowed to do with public money, because it interferes with their financial status? This violates so many democratic principles, and leads to so many of the problems in this space.

Yes, I still have questions

The consultation process, and the wider discussions around Plan S, lead to more important questions. I get the sense that there are still a huge number of voices that are not being heard. One thing I have found strange is statements along the lines of ‘Plan S will have a negative impact on junior/global south/underfunded researchers’, but with those statements typically coming from established western researchers or organisations. Indeed, EURODOC, perhaps the most representative statement from junior researchers so far on Plan S, shows widespread support for Plan S. When Latin America released AmeliCA recently, it was a beautiful moment which hopefully shocked many western researchers into realising that we are far, far behind in our understanding and implementation of OA (or at least approaching it from a very different angle). These voices are so important in challenging the western hegemony and colonial aspects of the present scholarly communication industry, and should be taken as two of the most critical elements of the debate. Wider discussion is obviously great, but we also need to be cautious in equating the online discussions via traditional and social media with the real discussions, many of which will be over coffee, in lab rooms, and not visible.

Following this, it seems very problematic for organisations who submit feedback on behalf of others (e.g., memberships), and claim (directly or indirectly) to represent voices that were neither consulted during the process, or directly endorse the statements made. This is perhaps especially so for organisations, such as some learned societies, that have the problematic double role of both representing their memberships as well as their interests as publishers. How are we to know what processes led to the drafting of these statements? This is a dangerous way in which to wield power, and there is little holding those organisations accountable for such activities. It also raises enormous questions about how to practically appraise statements made about Plan S. How are we supposed to be able to differentiate between fallacious or misinformed statements and propaganda, from those which are based on solid, empirical evidence? This represents a major challenge in challenging vested or conflicted interests again, and potentially has major impacts on the public discourse around Plan S. Samuel Moore explains how these issues can directly and problematically influence policy, in the context of the UK OA policy development, with policymakers often selecting evidence that supports their intended policies.

The voices of experts who have spent decades exploring scholarly communication have been put on the same levels as those who perhaps might not appreciate the wider contexts of Plan S, or the history and culture behind it. OA and scholarly publishing are incredibly complex topics, and require familiarity and understanding with an incredible number of viewpoints. This also means that it is difficult to distinguish between statements made on hard, empirical evidence, and those which simply represent opinions (or conflicted interests). I do not doubt that those who have the fun task of going through all the feedback submissions have a process in mind for sifting through it, but the point is that much of the damage to the public dialogue around Plan S could have been done by then. All voices obviously deserve to be heard, but often online it seems like a lot of statements are more reactive than reflective.

What is so special about Plan S?

Why has Plan S seemingly struck such a nerve? It is amazing how people turn a blind eye to issues until it affects them, or becomes part of their reality. Apathy is a comfort only the comfortable can afford. Plan S, again seemingly by design, seems to have to had such a huge impact because academics (in particular) have woken up and realised OA actually affects them. It has exposed comfort with the status quo, it has revealed privileges and skewed power dynamics that have remained largely unchallenged until now, and has shown that OA is no longer something that can be ignored or relegated to an afterthought. Plan S might actually work, and after years of combat and obfuscation, and paying nothing more than lip service to OA, Plan S is the shock factor that this is real, is going to happen, and is going to affect us all – and might not be on the terms of that status quo.

7-8 years ago, when I was starting in this space, we used to have long discussions about how to engage more researchers in the debates around OA. It seems the solution was simple all along – let them know that this is going to disrupt things in their lives, and it is no longer going to be business as usual.

And this is what is largely new. Previously, OA has been something that can be often ignored, or simply considered as a policy one can choose to abide by. All of the other accompanying tensions around public versus private, appropriate expenditure of public funds, how OA impacts different communities and demographics, how to reform research evaluation, what the best ‘model’ for OA is, have now been surfaced again but with an incredible amount of engagement that was not apparent before in this space. These debates, and the demand to adhere to the principles of OA, have been met with more immediacy now thanks to Plan S, and helping to draw more academics into understanding the bizarre, and ridiculously complex, world of scholarly publishing – which, by and large, is not something that most researchers have any sort of formal training in. However, what also seems to characterise a lot of these discussions again is that for those entering the debate, they perhaps are not appreciative that it has been happening for a long time already, and has a rich history of research and in-depth discussion. And I think this again leads to a lot of emotional tension between different actors, many of who feel like they are just having the same discussions over and over again.

Summing up

This is not an exhaustive list of the issues concerning the current Plan S debate. Neither do I believe that they fully accurately characterise the full reality of the debate. This is simply my personal reflections after watching, and being part of, the debates for some time now. Based on the above, I feel deeply concerned about how the different information being shared about Plan S, and more broadly about OA, is having an impact on the understanding of the issues, as well as the development of Plan S itself.

Much of this probably revolves around the sensationalistion or hyperbole of a lot of the communication, and the continuous amplification of negative or polarised messages by the media. I have seen so many sweeping generalisations made by respected researchers on social media, and often heartily retweeted by their colleagues, that I feel the dust on Plan S shall never settle. However, perhaps this is more broadly reflective of how our current media and communications systems operate, and we need to be collectively more cautious about the power structures and imbalances that they are giving credence to. Do you know how difficult it is to challenge a Professor or multi-billion-dollar corporation in public, no matter how wrong you know they are? Do you know how often this difficulty means that critical voices opposing the status quo remain sadly silent? We have seen the amount of damage that the erosion of the UK OA policy has had before, and it feels like we are in the process of dooming ourselves to this again. It is virtually impossible to sift through all the information being produced about Plan S, and it takes an order more magnitude to combat misinformation than it does to create it. Deceit and disorder are the tools of the monopolist.

The whole point of Plan S was to disrupt the status quo and transform the world of scholarly publishing. If it yields to those who it is trying to disrupt, at the cost of the greater good, than that’s not exactly progress. Open Access is not a business model, so let us stop treating it as such. I believe that science can help us shape the world to be better, and can help solve the enormous problems that our planet currently faces. I do not believe that having it under the control of mega-corporations and elite individuals or institutes helps to realise this, or is in the principles of fundamental human rights.

11 thoughts on “Reflections on Plan S

  1. The second-to-last sentence confuses me a bit. Did you perhaps mean those “against” Plan S instead of those “behind” it (ie., the backers, cOAlition S, etc)?

    1. Firstly, thank you for reading to the end, Toma! Much appreciated.

      I do mean those who back it, so Science Europe, RJS et al. For example, are they going to continue to let private interests erode scholarship and suck money from the public purse? Or will they simply say enough is enough, and they are going to invest in a non-profit scholarly infrastructure. I don’t expect them to clearly answer this, but actions speak louder than words 🙂

        1. Good call. And yes, that was a nice post from them. Have simply deleted that last sentence now. Thanks!

          1. Thanks, Toma! Wanted to try and write something that hadn’t been done yet, and that hopefully others will find useful in understanding more of the debate. I expect the future to be just as interesting/complex too 🙂

  2. Small economies, with an only modest investment in science, are in dire straits. The National funding agency cannot afford Plan-S. Grants would stop. Instead, we carry-on with our consortia around “b-on” and pay subscriptions in bulk. The funding agency orchestrates. Researchers have lost the power to negotiate except for things like discounts in APCs. The contract with b-on is exclusive for 5 years. With this, plan-S will not include Portugal for quite some time, and publishers do not see b-on as a tough negotiator.

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