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Plan S must stick to its principles, says its initiator

Robert-Jan Smits is concerned about EU science ministers’ actions around open access

The initiator of the Plan S open-access initiative, Robert-Jan Smits, has urged the group of funders implementing it to stick to its founding principles.

Under Plan S, a group of mainly European research funders requires that papers reporting work they have funded must be made openly available immediately and under certain conditions, such as that authors retain the rights over their work.

With the aim of accelerating the transition to full open access, the plan was developed by Smits, a former European Commission director-general of research, in his final year at the EU institution as its open-access envoy.

In an opinion article published on 4 September to mark five years since the launch of the initiative, Smits pleads with funders to stand by the original intentions.

“My plea to the science community and science funders, including the members of Coalition S and science policymakers, is to stick to the principles of Plan S and stay the course,” he said.

“Taking a new path won’t speed things up. As a famous artist once said: ‘There’s no reason to have plan B, because it distracts you from plan A.’ He probably meant Plan S.”

Stay the course

Smits, who is now president of the executive board of Eindhoven University of Technology, said he was “afraid” that Europe was changing course on open access.

It was “very disappointing” for Smits that EU science ministers’ “hardly mention” Plan S in their recent conclusions on academic publishing.

In what Smits described as taking a “left turn”, the Council of the EU conclusions called for the support of non-profit open-access publishing platforms.

For Smits, non-profit platforms—such as ‘diamond’ platforms that charge no fees to either authors or readers—are “laudable and should be supported”.

But they will “not be the game-changers that are desperately needed to arrive in due course to full and immediate open access”.

Smits stressed that open access is not yet the norm, saying that of the four million scientific papers published each year, some 61 per cent are still behind subscription paywalls.

“The often-heard claim that diamond open access is free to all stakeholders distracts from the reality that there is always a price to be paid for quality open-access publishing, be it through the funder, the academic institution or the individual researcher,” Smits said.

He added that it was “surprising” that the EU science ministers “gave the impression with their conclusions to wish to exclude the large commercial publishers, which provide a quality service to the science community”.

“These key players in the world of scientific publishing just need to be forced to change their business model and embrace open access at a fair price,” Smits said. “And this is what Plan S is all about.”

Plan S evolution

In a blog post published on the same day, Plan S executive-director Johan Rooryck said that the initiative was evolving alongside the open-access landscape.

He reiterated that the participating funders intend to end their support for ‘transformative agreements’ that aim to help shift publishers from subscription to open-access business models. These agreements have had limited impact, Rooryck suggested.

“Instead, [Plan S] will direct its efforts to more innovative and community-driven open-access publishing initiatives,” Rooryck said.

He added that Plan S would, within two months, publish a proposal for moving towards “responsible publishing”, “which aims to foster a community-based communication system for open science in the 21st century”.

This would be followed by a “large-scale” consultation with the community, he promised.

Plan S is also commissioning an independent review of its impacts, Rooryck said. In addition, it is hosting a webinar to mark its fifth anniversary on 2 November, which will explore the evolution of Plan S and the future of scholarly communication.

“The Plan S mission is certainly not accomplished yet,” Rooryck acknowledged. “Looking to the future, we believe there is room for accelerating open access even more and making it more equitable.”

Diversifying strategy

Responding to Smits’ comments, Rooryck said: “We agree…that Plan S should stay the course and continue working to accelerate the transition to full and immediate open access.

“However, it is equally important to remain open to feedback and be prepared to recalibrate our policies in a changing landscape, as needed. We have found that many publishers are not transitioning fast enough to fully open-access business models.

“In this context, we are exploring how to diversify our strategies to make sure that research can be published open access, and in ways in which all researchers can participate equitably.”

Update 4/9 – This article was updated with the response from Rooryck