Gareth O’Neill on Open Access and Plan S for Beginners

Gareth O’Neill
Linguist and President of Eurodoc

The Open Access Week is a yearly event which raises awareness and promotes the free, immediate, and online access to scientific research through Open Access (OA) publishing. For Open Access Week 2018, running from 22-28 October 2018, Eurodoc will publish an article each day on various aspects of OA from international experts.

In this final article of the series, Gareth O’Neill, Linguist and President of Eurodoc, explains the basics of OA and a new plan to achieve full and immediate OA by 2020.

The road to Open Access (OA) has been paved with publishing fees restricting research. Libraries have traditionally paid subscription fees to publishers, giving only their own library members access to publishing and reading research in the journals of the publisher. Readers not affiliated with a library have, too often, come face-to-face with paywalls and have had to pay the publisher to access specific publications in their journals. And authors even regularly pay article processing charges (APCs) to publishers in order to publish their research openly.

Publishing in OA

This financial locking in of research has led to criticism and calls to action from the research community as well as innovative tools to bypass paywalls and access shut-in research. A variety of publishing ‘routes’ has arisen, in response, to increase access to research via OA.

The ‘green’ route involves self-archiving by authors in an institutional repository, of a version of the publication, under conditions set by the publisher. This is usually a preprint (the original manuscript submitted to a journal without revisions), or a postprint (the accepted manuscript by the journal with revisions from peer and editor review), and is typically not the version of record (the final manuscript with all revisions and journal formatting and branding).

Unlike the green route, which is free for authors and readers, the ‘gold’ route usually charges authors to make the version of record immediately open on a publisher platform. The problem with gold is that there is no standard fee across journals, with some charging reasonable APCs, and others charging exorbitant APCs. This issue is compounded by the lack of transparency in the actual costs of publishing and the relation between the prestigiousness of a journal and APCs. The Journal Impact Factor (JIF) is a good indicator of the esteem by researchers for a given journal, and often of the APCs, but is not necessarily an indicator of quality.

The ‘diamond’ or ‘platinum’ route is essentially the gold route, where the version of record is made immediately available, but crucially without any fees for authors and readers. This is not to say that there are no costs for publishing in such no-fee journals: they are financed from a variety of business models including subsidies from institutions, revenue from fee-based journals, membership dues, advertising, services, endowments, and volunteerism. It is worth noting that the majority of journals publishing in OA are in fact no-fee journals.

A final route of interest is the ‘hybrid’ route, where a closed subscription journal also contains some publications which are immediately and freely available for readers. Hybrid journals were envisioned to be a stepping stone to help publishers transition to OA. Unfortunately, many publishers have not actually transitioned since the introduction of hybrid, but have instead embraced hybrid as a steady and profitable business model. Which can also involve ‘double-dipping’ when a journal generates revenue from both subscription fees and APCs.

There are other important issues related to publishing in OA. Researchers are generally not aware of the licencing options available to them, and do not always retain the copyright to their publications, or are even forced to transfer their copyrights to publishers. There are often embargo periods, set by publishers on when publications can be made openly available, leading to ‘delayed OA’. Furthermore, the focus of OA is typically on journal articles, and not on books, which are traditionally printed and can involve higher costs than articles. And the peer review process in OA is itself seldom in a form of Open Peer Review.

Publishing via Plan S

It is with all these issues in mind, that a coalition of national research-funding organisations, supported by the European Research Council and European Commission, launched their ‘Plan S’ to achieve full and immediate OA to research publications by 01 January 2020. Plan S does not aim to totally reform the scholarly publishing industry, but instead selects and sets radical limits on current publishing models in order to speed up the transition to OA. The plan consists of 10 principles which are meant to be pragmatically achievable within the stated time frame, and has unsurprisingly been met with praise and criticism from all sides.

There are five radical limitations in Plan S which are important for researchers who are funded by one of the coalition members signed on to Plan S: (1) Researchers must retain copyright: transferral of copyright to publishers is not allowed and publications must be issued under an open licence; (2) There must be immediate access: publications must be immediately available without any embargo period; (3) There must be full access: publishing in hybrid journals is not allowed; (4) Self-archiving of preprints is postprint conditional: preprints are allowed if a postprint is immediately available upon publication of the final version of record; (5) There is a cap on the APC per publication: only APCs below the cap are allowed. A publication must adhere to all these limitations to be compliant with Plan S.

Criticisms of Plan S have focused on these limitations, as well as vagueness in some of the principles, and the lack of reference to other important aspects of OA. There are three main points of contention: (1) Plan S focuses on gold publishing: this route does not disrupt the pay-to-publish business model and there is no mention of diamond/platinum publishing; (2) Plan S restricts the options for publishing: the restrictions placed on copyrights and licences, embargo periods, hybrid journals, final versions, and caps for APCs greatly limit the actual journals currently available for researchers to submit publications; (3) Plan S restricts academic freedom: the choice to not only pick what to research but where to publish research is a basic tenet of academic freedom as is the choice for a given open licence. Needless to say, there are already many opinions for and against these points of contention.

The principles of Plan S will now be further developed by an Implementation Task Force under the coalition members of Plan S. Eurodoc has, together with Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) and Young Academy of Europe (YAE), issued a statement of support with recommendations for Plan S. Our broader academic concerns related to Plan S are that there needs to be training and support for researchers in Open Science and especially OA and Plan S. And that the academic reward system needs to move away from JIF and reward researchers for Open Science in research and career evaluations. Lastly, all stakeholders now need to get involved in Plan S: researchers, institutions, funders, and publishers!


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License.