Plan S Divides The Global Scientific Community: Part 2: Critical Voices In Opposition

by | Feb 15, 2019 | 0 comments

Nancy Herther

by Nancy K. Herther
(This is Part 2 of a three part series. Click here to read Part 1 and here to read Part 3.)


Over 1600 independent scholars have signed a letter in which they are openly critical of Plan S as it stands today. The plan, the letter asserts, “as currently presented by the EU (and several national funding agencies) goes too far, is unfair for the scientists involved and is too risky for science in general. Plan S has far-reaching consequences, takes insufficient care of the desires and wishes of the individual scientists and creates a range of unworkable and undesirable situations.”

Amongst those problems, these hundreds of researchers assert, include: The exclusion of so many hybrid (society) journals, especially in the field of chemistry; not taking into consideration of large size discrepancies between many scientific disciplines;  the “strong focus on the Gold OA publication model, in which researchers pay high APCs for each publication, the total costs of scholarly dissemination will likely rise instead of reduce under Plan S”; the “strong focus on the Gold OA publication model, in which researchers pay high APCs for each publication, the total costs of scholarly dissemination will likely rise instead of reduce under Plan S”; and their expectation that large parts of the scholarly world are unlikely to agree to Plan S.

“Taken together,” the letter assets, “Plan S is a serious violation of academic freedom [by] strongly reduced access to (and possibilities to publish in) suitable scientific journals of high quality, with a direct consequence that it also strongly restricts our choice of countries with which we can conveniently collaborate with or sustain lasting exchange programs.”

“Researchers should have the freedom to choose publication venue,” the letter reads, “and while complying with open access mandates, to also choose how papers are made open access, in a way that contributes to minimal increased costs for the publishing system while not impinging on academic freedom or jeopardising internationalisation in research and higher education.” They urge taking “into account the full landscape of ways that papers can be made open access, and not just the very narrow definition provided by Plan S, including the hybrid ban, and the fact that peer reviewed pre-prints such as [those] allowed by the ACS are currently not an obvious compliant solution.”

In addition, they demand that cOAlition S signatories “take responsibility for the implications and risks Plan S may have for the European research landscape”, and “take every possible action in the implementation stage to prevent these potential and unintended consequences.”

ATG contacted many of these researchers across the globe to get a sense of the issues they see arising from this international plan.  Chemist Anna Krylov is the Gabilan Distinguished Professor in Science and Engineering  at the University of Southern California and believes that “if passed, it will cause long-lasting significant damage to science worldwide.” The current publishing model, Krylov believes, “The current model incentivize the publishers to maintain high quality and rigorous peer-review processes because if the quality of the journal goes down, the universities will drop the subscription. Plan-S will incentivize publishers to publish more paper, because they will be paid for each paper, whether it is good or not. I believe the outcome of will be a disaster. The PIs, and not the politicians or administrators, should decide in which journals they publish the results of their research. These decisions require deep domain specific understanding of the state of the art in the field.”


Rick Anderson

In January, Scholarly Kitchen cook ,and signatory of the letter, Rick Anderson published an erudite discussion of the Plan S conundrum in the form of a dialogue between famed detective Sherlock Holmes and his friend and colleague Dr. Watson. Using this unique approach, the famed detectives debate the implications of Plan S for researchers, publishers, institutional repositories and the future of research.

“The plan, as presented in the open letter,” Rick Anderson believes, “paints Plan S “as currently presented by the EU (and several national funding agencies) goes too far, is unfair for the scientists involved and is too risky for science in general. Plan S has far-reaching consequences, takes insufficient care of the desires and wishes of the individual scientists and creates a range of unworkable and undesirable situations.” I’d be interested in the reactions you have gotten – and the number of folks from Norway and other areas of Europe equally against the Plan S at it stands.”

“The reactions have been interesting,” Rick Anderson explains. “Of course, over 1600 researchers have now signed on [to the open letter], indicating a significant amount of agreement with the concerns it raises. On the other hand, there have also been expressions of anger—bordering on outrage—in response to the letter from some in the open access movement. The irony of that reaction is that the letter itself explicitly expresses support for open access; the concern expressed in the letter isn’t with OA itself, but with one particular plan. Unfortunately, the supporters of Plan S have tended to defend it as if Plan S itself were synonymous with OA—the most egregious example of this conflation being the rival open letter authored by Michael Eisen and marketed as an expression of support for Plan S, even though the letter never mentions Plan S.”

Given the experience with the Fair Access to Science & Technology Research (FASTR) legislation in Congress and the lack of widespread support for common OA/repository standards, is there a chance for easy adoption of this in the U.S. anytime soon? Even if this were to achieve acceptance in Europe? “In a word, no,” Rick Anderson believes. “Two major things militate against Plan S’s success in the United States: First, a very strong tradition of academic freedom that explicitly includes the right to “full freedom… in publication”—a right that is difficult to square with the kind of comprehensive restriction on publishing behavior that Plan S represents.”

“Of course,” Rick Anderson continues, “there’s nothing to stop individual funders and even (in theory, at least) institutions from adopting Plan-S-style requirements: if you control research funding you have the right to put whatever conditions on its use you wish, and if you have hiring and firing authority over researchers you can certainly tell them that publishing on an OA basis is a condition of continued employment. But the resistance to such restrictions would be unusually strong in the US, evidence of which we can already see in the complete lack of mandatory OA policies among US institutions of higher education. (With the exception of Duke University, where a true OA mandate has been imposed – but not by its faculty on themselves. Instead, it was imposed by faculty on graduate students. Which in itself is pretty telling, when you think about it.)”

“Second,” Rick Anderson continues, “the radically decentralized nature of higher education in the US. Unlike European countries, the US does not have a centralized ministry of public higher education; instead, we have upwards of 70 departments of higher education scattered around 50 states. Also unlike European countries, our public-sector IHEs (Institutes of Higher Education) have competition from an extensive array of private institutions. This means not only that there is no overarching coordination of higher education in our country, but also that there is competition between states and, within states, between institutions for top faculty. This competition, combined with a strong tradition of faculty governance, tends to make it harder for any individual institution or even a particular system of higher education to enact policies that risk alienating faculty—as severe restrictions on publishing behavior (e.g., Plan S) inevitably would.”


Another signatory of the letter is Eduardo Franco, James McGill Professor and Minda de Gunzburg Chair of the Oncology at McGill University. He explains to ATG that “I hear both sides of the debate. I would like to be cautious about rupturing the centuries-old model of subscription journals. I saw what the onset of OA did in unleashing the plague of predatory publishers out there. Not all consequences of OA were good.”

“To some extent,” Franco continues, “the compulsory OA model that Plan S leads to creates inequalities. Not all articles are funded by an outside source. Most academics have small budgets. Review articles, commentaries, and other forms of non-empirical research findings are not funded. Often enough, as editor I see situations when the author withdraws a paper because s/he learns later that one of the journals I edit has an OA fee that they cannot afford. Take the example of academics in developing countries who have small or no budgets to conduct studies. Much of the science they produce is of low cost by necessity and frequently funded out of their own pockets. These people must rely on subscription journals. It is the only way that they would be able to afford a publication.”

Chemistry is one field that sees less advantage in Plan S over the current system. Robert Crabtree, distinguished Conkey P. Whitehead Professor of Chemistry at Yale believes that “as far as I understand the Plan and as it applies to Chemistry, I think Plan S may be bad for us by upsetting the commercial and scientific society publishing business model and/or shifting the costs of publication from the worldwide library systems to individual research groups. A better solution as I see it is to have an executive summary of each chemistry paper made available for public consumption while keeping back the full technical details for the published paper which would be kept behind a pay wall. If someone really wanted to know the details, they could contact the author, whose email would appear on the summary. Imagine what will happen when half the world works in the traditional system and half in the new. Someone in one system might be reluctant to collaborate with someone in the other if their publishing models differ.”

Anna Morozovska

Another of the signatories of the open letter from hundreds of scientists is Anna Morozovska, the leading scientific researcher in physics at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.“ I do not know ANY low or even middle-low income country, where the institutions will agree to pay OA-APC for their authors,” Morozovska contends. “In Ukraine this is forbidden at all. Hence Plan S can simply exclude most of the authors from low and middle-low income countries from the full-right participation in publication process in high profile international OA journals.”

“I am a very strong opponent of the Plan S, mainly because the most important part of its implementation (that publications will be free for individual Authors, but the institutions should pay APC) looks for me as a 100% unrealistic populism,” Morozovska asserts. “In Ukraine I hear only very negative comments, from a deep disappointment to a deep shock.”

Can the supporters and sponsors of Plan S win-over of the world by 2020? In the last part of this series we talk with the supporters of Plan S and work to dispel critics and what they see as misinformation about their scheme.


Nancy Herther is Sociology/Anthropology librarian at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.

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