Over the next year there will be some major changes to Open Access (OA) policy.  By altering how journal and conference articles are published, these changes are likely to accelerate open science and open research.  This post gives a tour through the main things to watch out for. 

When OA became mainstream a few years ago it arguably didn’t present too many changes for academics. Yes, there were new options to pay for gold OA*. But if you didn’t go down this route, you could still publish in pretty much the same way as you did before. The only added step was that you needed to upload your article to Pure to make it OA. As long as you did this, everyone was happy.

Well, everyone was kind of happy. Yes – the University met its compliance targets and ultimately the research was made OA. However, universities are still paying extremely expensive subscription fees to publishers, while now also paying gold OA fees. I’ve seen many APCs costing around £3,500 per article, with some asking for over £4,000.  Or in other words, universities are producing content for publishers for free, which publishers then lock behind paywalls and sell back to the same universities via subscriptions, while also imposing further embargoes and licencing restrictions.

So the current situation is not ideal.  Publishers can provide valuable services, but their outdated subscription-based business model does not help open research.  The model made sense hundreds of years ago in a paper-based world when the more people accessing journals meant publishers had higher printing costs, but it makes little sense in today’s digital world.

To solve the problems with the current system, an international group of funders have come up with Plan-S.

What is Plan-S?

There appears to be no consensus on what the S stands for. But according to the ‘highly reliable’ source of Wikipedia, it could stand for shock. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is what the plan represents.

Plan-S is a set of 10 principles, which set out the future for publishing academic research. It’s led by the equally mysteriously named cOAlition S.  cOAlition S are a group of major research funders from 13 European countries, including UKRI. It’s also supported by major organisations, such as the World Health Organisation.

Plan-S states –

“With effect from 2021, all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access Journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo.”

While they’ve have not signed up to Plan-S specifically, the US has recently announced their own Plan-S style push towards OA.

What does this mean?

Funders will base their future OA and publishing policies on Plan-S. These funders include post-2021 REF, UKRI funding councils (BBSRC, MRC, NERC, EPSRC, STFC, AHRC and EPSRC), the Wellcome Trust and others. Academics will need to follow these Plan-S based policies when publishing their research.

Plan-S has focused on journal and conference articles, but there may be a version for monographs and books in the long term.  Under current plans, an academic publishing in a journal** will need to either –

  • Publish in a fully OA journal or platform. This usually involves paying an article processing charge (APC) to publish gold OA.
  • Publish for free in a subscription journal and make the article OA by immediately uploading a copy to a repository.
  • For a limited time – Pay an APC to publish gold OA in a subscription journal*. This can only be done if the journal has a transformative agreement in place. A transformative agreement means the journal is committed to becoming fully OA in the near future.

In all three cases, OA needs to be immediate when the article is published and no embargo can be imposed. Also, the academic will retain copyright of their work and the CC-BY licence should be applied (much simpler than it sounds) to allow other people to use it. Less permissive open licences (CC BY-ND non-commercial) will be allowable on request.

Plan-S’s sister declaration is DORA. DORA states that research must be assessed on its own merit, as opposed to the journal in which it was published. Plan-S have said they support of DORA and expect all funders who sign-up to Plan-S to do the same. UKRI and Wellcome have both signed up to DORA, along with most UK universities, including Portsmouth.  This reduces the incentive for publishing in subscription-based journals previous seen as ‘highly prestigious’, which should encourage a move towards a fully OA model.

I’ve very much summarised Plan-S here. Many details are still being discussed and will become clear over the next few months. Such as the requirements for transformative agreements, transparency agreements for APC costs. However, the main point is that how academics publish journal articles is likely to change over the next few years.

So doesn’t this all just make the system very complicated?!  Yes – in the short term. But in the long term, a better and simpler system should emerge.


Long-term goal of Plan-S

The above 3 options are a temporary solution for the transition period.  They aim to nudge, or probably drag incredibly slowly, journal publishing towards a fully OA model, with subscription-based journals eventually having to convert to fully OA.  So eventually I can see only the first option remaining.

This may be accelerated by the increasing number of ‘read and publish’ deals that universities are now seeing. We now pay a single fee to both access and publish articles with some publishers. The more universities that sign up to these deals, the greater proportion of articles within subscription journals that will be OA, and so eventually these journals will convert to fully OA.

So I know the following statement is oversimplified, nuanced business models may emerge and change will not be easy, but I’m going to make the statement anyway, as it captures logic behind what Plan-S is driving towards in the long-term.  In the future, in theory, only fully OA journals and platforms will exist.  University budgets for subscriptions will become budgets for publishing. So, in theory, the system wont be any more expensive for universities and it will mean that everyone in the world can access research for free.


“So I’ll now have to find money to publish, when previously it was free?”

This is the concern I’ve heard most from talking to academics. I understand this concern, but in the long-term it wont be too bad.

We wont be paying APCs for individual articles to be made OA, as the scale is not sustainable for either universities or publishers. Instead, we’ll be paying ‘in bulk’ for deals that let us publish large numbers of articles with each publisher. So while you may need to drop the Library an email to double-check we have a publishing deal with Springer for example, you wont have to complete any lengthy applications for funding.

In a minority of cases when a publisher doesn’t offer a deal, more thought will be needed. However, my personal view is that these cases are not a strong enough argument against the overall shift towards a fully OA based system.


What should I do now?

You don’t need to do anything! Just expect some changes over the next few years.

Although there are likely to be a few more things you’ll need to think about when publishing, your work will be freely and immediately accessible across the world, rather than being locked behind publisher paywalls, embargoes and licencing restrictions.

Unsurprisingly, publishers have not wholeheartedly welcomed Plan-S.  Many publishers are now working towards Plan-S, but there are some practical and significant challenges that need to be sorted out before it becomes a reality.

However, I would be surprised if either Plan-S, or one of its descendants, did not come into force eventually. Regardless of how it happens, it will be characterised by the shift away from the subscription-based publishing model and towards the fully OA model.

Plan-S is due to come into effect January 2021. We’re waiting for the new UKRI OA policy to be released later this year. This policy, which will incorporate Plan-S, will affect both the post-2021 REF and future funding received via the URKI funding councils. We will let you know when further information is released.

The new Wellcome Trust OA policy has been released. This comes into effect from January 2021 and is based on Plan-S.

If you have any questions, please drop me an email emily.davey@port.ac.uk Dr Emily Davey, Research Outputs Manager, University Library


*Gold OA is when a university pays an article processing charge (APC) to make an article OA. It will be OA immediately on the publisher’s website as soon as it is published.  All articles in fully OA journals are gold OA, where as only specific articles (see below) in subscription journals are gold OA.

**Journal types: A fully OA journal is free to access and all of its articles are (gold) OA. It’s the model that makes most sense in the digital world. The ‘catch’ is that you nearly always pay to publish, however, it’s possible that new business models may emerge that reduce this.   Whereas a subscription journal uses the old-fashioned model from the paper-based world. You pay to access, but you can publish for free. To complicate matters though, you can also pay to publish (gold OA) in a subscription journal if you want your specific article to be publicly accessible beyond the subscription paywall.  There are other models of publishing and journal types, but for the purpose of keeping the discussion straightforward I’ve focused on the main ones.


Image credit: Open on Flickr. CC-BY-SA