Today saw a major development in scholarly publishing policy as a group of eleven European national research funders – including UKRI – and the European Commission have formed cOALition S to implement a bold new open access policy – Plan S:

The funders are making a commitment that:

“By 2020 scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants provided by participating national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.”

There are at least three radical aspects of Plan S: authors are being required to retain copyright and to publish under an open licence (preferably CC-BY); the funding of OA APCs (where applicable) will be standardised and capped across Europe (and I assume this means a per paper cap); and the ‘hybrid’ model is not compliant.

This is an important new initiative that will build on the experiments around OA over the past 15 years and help to promote the wider dissemination of publicly-funded research within Europe and beyond. The commitment of these major funders to share more widely the fruits of the research they fund is hugely to be commended.

There is already some significant analysis of Plan S online (and as one might expect some of the most detailed and incisive comes from Peter Suber. But three points immediately strike me:

  1. Licensing

The requirement for authors to retain their copyright and only publish with an open licence is a very strong one. Many have felt that the root of a lot of problems with existing scholarly communications systems stem from the fact that authors give their copyright or exclusive licences away to publishers. It will be interesting to see the reaction of authors if they feel that their copyright is being ‘taken’ from them in some sense by this policy, especially as the relationship between researcher and publisher is one where the funder has no formal role. Of course, here in the UK implementation of the UK-SCL could help as a mechanism to aid researchers in compliance – allowing institutions to provide a green OA-compliant route while still allowing the authors to retain their rights.

  1. No Hybrids

This will prove to be, I suspect, one of the most controversial aspects. Certainly, in the UK the relative high OA levels over the past few years have been achieved through authors publishing OA in subscription-based hybrid journals. Already, the publishers are lining up arguments that any restriction on hybrids would impinge on the ‘academic freedom’ of researchers.

Some in the library community may feel that there is a lack of nuance in a blanket ban. Many of us feel that there is a difference between, on the one hand, Elsevier with their lack of any real offsetting deals and, on the other, Springer with their Compact arrangement which appears reasonably priced and administratively simple to manage. Does Plan S treat both of these models similarly and ban them both? If so, are we happy with that, or is there an argument for making a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ hybrid?  Perhaps the distinction is between country/publisher deals such as SpringerCompact and author/journal arrangements, such as with Elsevier.

  1. UKRI

Of specific interest to the UK is the fact that our main research funder, UKRI, is included as one of the signatories.  Earlier this year, UKRI announced a review of their OA policy and we are expecting that to start later this year or early next.  However, they are now a member of this coalition and have signed up to Plan S.  It would appear clear that, at the very least, UKRI is signalling an intended direction of travel. In their statement today noting the launch of cOAlition S they say:

“This ambition [Plan S] provides the groundwork for UKRI’s forthcoming review which will consider the implementation issues, taking advice from all stakeholders.”

Thus it would appear that the review will centre on the implementation of a Plan S – type scenario and the principles underpinning it, rather than on the nature of any policy UKRI should adopt.

For me this raises an interesting question about what we could call the ‘end of the post-Finch consensus’.  Open access policy in the UK over the past decade (and especially since 2010 when David Willetts became Minister for Universities and Sciences) has been driven by consensus amongst all of the stakeholders – academics and their learned societies, funders, institutions (including their libraries), publishers, etc. The epitome of this consensus-building approach was, of course, the Finch Report and subsequent UUK OA Coordination Group. Many have felt frustrated that the level of compromise required to maintain consensus amongst all of the stakeholders has meant that we have not always been as bold and innovative as we might otherwise have been.

In this case, UKRI has certainly reached the decision to support Plan S and to set it as an ambition outside of any stakeholder consultation or discussion either within the UUK OA Group or more widely. Is this a new phase in the UK’s approach to setting OA policy? Those of us frustrated by the consensus-driven compromises of the past few years may welcome a more robust and independent approach.

So, an important shift in the move towards greater open access. One that will be welcomed within the library community, especially as it signals that UKRI is minded to be bold in its review. But, as ever, the details will be vitally important.

David Prosser, Executive Director, RLUK