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Open play

Latest detail on Plan S brings a shake-up a step closer, says Sarah Richardson in this week’s Research Fortnight leader.

The publication this week of a raft of detail on how the open-access initiative Plan S will work in practice has inevitably spurred a search for the devil within. But much easier to spot—to the credit of those working on the implementation—is the clarity given by the latest missive.

By confirming that researchers can comply with the plan by making a version of their paper available immediately in a repository, known as green open access, those tasked with creating the implementation for Plan S have put to bed any notion that the 17 (and counting) funders signed up to the initiative would only support open access where the author pays a charge for publication.

This move will mean researchers funded by Plan S signatories can continue to publish in subscription journals, as long as the manuscript accepted for publication is also available freely, and immediately, elsewhere. But the plan’s architect, Robert-Jan Smits, moved swiftly this week to deny any suggestion from demon-hunters that this was a watering down of the original proposals.

Instead, he said, the original announcement had been deliberately high-level, not explicitly discussing the specific compliance of various models. And while the detail revealed this week leaves the door open to subscription publishers retaining the exclusive ability to publish the version of record of research, it will leave them under huge pressure to justify fees based on the value they bring in the editing process alone. For some disciplines, this may be easier to do than others: in a recent response to Plan S, for example, the British Academy, whose own journal is open access, was at pains to describe the value of editing in the humanities and social sciences as “by no means minor”.

The one area where those behind the plan appear to have ducked a question—over the setting of a cap for article processing charges, which will now be hit into touch pending a study of open-access costs and fees—can be reasonably characterised as a suitably evidence-based approach to what is one of the plan’s most divisive aspects. The growing clamour of voices concerned over the impact of Plan S on lower-income researchers’ ability to publish will be especially keen to see the outcome of this process.

What the latest detail does do is put the ball firmly in the publishers’ court. Faced with the prospect that their subscription fees will only be charged on the basis of editing changes made to an author’s manuscript, publishers must decide whether it is viable for them to continue to charge or whether—particularly in the case of hybrid journals, in which publication will only be supported for a transition period—whether the time has come to flip to full open access.

The likelihood is that for many, that’s where the ball will remain for the time being, as publishers play a waiting game to see how the proposals start to affect behaviours in practice.

But the clock is ticking, and the latest plans have kept Plan S on track to be the huge shake-up in scientific publishing that its masterminds set it out to be.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight