Promoting innovation and reducing inequity in scholarship: Europe’s Plan S for Open Science

Europe is leading the way again1. A group of European science funders has announced the strongest Open Access policy in the world to date. Marc Schiltz, the President of Science Europe, a group of 11 national funding agencies, driven by a duty of care, has committed to the complete elimination of public paywalls in science.

The coalition behind ‘Plan S’, including UKRI (the government body that funds science in the UK to the tune of £6 billion) “will mandate that access to research publications that are generated through research grants that they allocate, must be fully and immediately open and cannot be monetised in any way”. The plan, which was initiated by Robert Jan Smits, the Open Access Envoy of the European Commission, outlines 10 principles, which can be distilled into four essential actions:

  1. By 2020, the final published version of articles will be made immediately Open Access (with a CC BY licence) and copyright retained by the author;
  2. Publishing in hybrid journals is not allowed, even if that journal does not have an embargo period;
  3. Funders will pay a fee directly to publishers for a publication service and this article processing fee (APC) will be capped;
  4. The funders will support incentives for, and the development of, Open Access journals and platforms, including an open infrastructure where necessary.

The devil

In a thoughtful post, Peter Suber, an advocate for and leading expert in Open Access, points to some inconsistencies and weaknesses2 in the plan and its preamble, such as the above statement that publications cannot be monetised in any way, when a closer reading shows that it is access to publications that cannot be monetised. He also takes issue with the coalition’s focus on only one business model, that requiring APCs, when there are a variety of models to support open access, including archiving the final version in institutional repositories and on other platforms (‘green’ OA). Schiltz subsequently clarified the coalition’s support for green OA:

Regardless of whether you think Plan S goes far enough or not, it does attempt to tackle two fundamental problems at once, namely inequity in the communication of science and inequity in the evaluation of researchers. Such inequity results in fewer opportunities for innovation in science, and fewer opportunities for researchers themselves. The plan is bold because it invokes a very concrete action with an incredibly tight deadline (2020), but is perceived as weak because it does not go into sufficient detail about how it will be implemented as Suber notes in his post, the devil is always in the detail.

We already know from the announcement that the devil includes some get-out clauses one for the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS, included in the coalition’s definition of ‘science’), and one for hybrid publishers. Both are pragmatic. The preamble and principles acknowledge that the AHSS are not in a position to move as fast, at least in relation to books and monographs. There will also be a transition period until 2021 for those hybrid publishers of journal articles that can demonstrate they are actively transitioning to full Open Access within a specified period.

There has been a deluge of reactions to Plan S over the past few days. In general, Open Access and Open Science advocates (like Hindawi) are delighted. After two decades of pushing for Open Access against a wall of obfuscation (e.g. ‘publisher FUD’) and slow progress by many of the large subscription publishers, this may finally be the tipping point among policy makers and other stakeholders that will shift the needle from about 25% open access to nearer 100%. Others of course (e.g. the STM) stress caution or even predict disaster that it will restrict academic freedom about where to publish, cause the collapse of scholarly publishing as we know it, and stifle a competitive and functioning market. Nature’s headline3 was “Radical open-access plan could spell end to journal subscriptions”.

A more important point, however, was highlighted by Aileen Fyfe, a historian of Science at the University of St Andrews and lead author of a report4 published last year on the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige, and the circulation of research. She noted on Twitter that reactions so far are about ‘how/whether publishers will respond’, rather than [on] how we really can create/fund/sustain new platforms for efficient circulation of high-quality research.

And this is the crux what does a future that promotes innovation and equity of opportunity in science look like and what role does a publisher have in this?

The only thing we can know for certain about the future is that if we want to promote innovation, this future doesn’t – and shouldn’t – include subscriptions or paywalls to basic research articles.

Promoting innovation

By coincidence, a film documentary, Paywall: the Business of Scholarship, was also released last week. Produced and directed by Jason Schmitt and funded by Open Society Foundations, it consists of interviews with librarians, publishers, Open Access advocates, and innovators and is freely available to view and reuse (with attribution). The film makes no attempt to be subtle but hammers home a powerful point about the role of commercial publishers hanging on to an outdated business model that hinders innovation purely to extract excessive profits for their shareholders from the public purse. The main theme and one I endorse is that it is not just science that will benefit from the free flow of scientific information in a digital age, but society itself at a time when it faces huge challenges, including global warming, environmental degradation, and the spread of infectious disease. And because the public largely pays for this research, they should have access to it without having to pay. As John Willbanks notes in the film “we can make cars that can drive – are you telling us we can’t process the literature better […] to decide which drug to take?”.

The only thing we can know for certain about the future is that if we want to promote innovation, this future doesn’t and shouldn’t include subscriptions or paywalls to basic research articles.

Although a powerful message, the stark dichotomy in the film between commercial publishers on the one hand and Open Access publishers on the other is false. Taken to its natural conclusion, this would stifle innovation in the scholarly market as well as in science itself. Some of the most innovative commercial publishers are Open Access (e.g. F1000, PeerJ, and Hindawi) and some of the largest, most profitable, and most conservative subscription publishers are not-for-profit publishers run by scholarly societies, e.g. the American Chemical Society, IOP, and IEEE. Moreover, the largest subscription publishers5 are now also the largest Open Access publishers6, in large part by capitalising on a monopoly of established subscription journals through a system of perverse rewards for researchers that allows subscription publishers to charge an additional premium to make some articles Open Access. The same oligarchy of large, established publishers entrenched in the subscription landscape is now dominating the Open Access landscape. This is why the clauses in Plan S about restricting publications in hybrid journals and capping APCs are potentially so disruptive. Plan S will not only engender scientific progress per se through promoting Open Access, it will also help drive a more competitive and innovative market in the communication of science.

Reducing inequity

Plan S points out how publishers can help serve science and still run a business by being service providers, not gatekeepers1: “Publishers should provide services that help scientists to review, edit, disseminate, and interlink their work and they may charge fair value for these services in a transparent way”. It is also why the coalition’s support for open infrastructure is important, although the plan falls short of mandating this. If commercial publishers are to have a place in serving the scholarly community and the public good, they need to provide cost-effective services not just around peer review or via Open Access, but by releasing data and metadata, building open source tools and supporting an open insfrastructure7. Crucially, their customers which increasingly will be institutions, funders or national jurisdictions, rather than authors should not be locked in to either big subscription or Open Access deals (e.g. through non-disclosure agreements) as these will only act to further entrench the monopoly in the market7.

This is also the only way that the Scholarly Academy can protect itself from falling into an Open Access system that is as costly and inequitable as a subscription business. Customers need to be able to walk away while retaining all of the products of scholarly research not just the research outputs themselves, but the data about those outputs and the software that, for example, provides the peer review, production and hosting services. This is what protects the Academy from the danger of acquisitions if the scholarly communications infrastructure is proprietary7 increasingly of the emerging innovative platforms in Open Science and the associated data that are often created by researchers such as Bepress, which was bought by Elsevier8, Publons which was acquired by Clarivate9, or Authorea, which has just been bought by Wiley.

Open data and metadata, such as citation information, will also enable greater transparency (and innovation) in the way that researchers are evaluated. Not all science is equal and not all scientists are equally good. But there is a fundamental inequity in a system that rewards researchers only for publications and only for publishing in high ranking, established journals (which are predominantly subscription). The system thus perpetuates itself because those journals that command a higher impact factor not only command a higher price in the market whether Open Access or not but also a reputation that reinforces itself because their perceived prestige inflates the citations articles receive. Researchers then have to publish in these journals to advance their careers at institutions or obtain grants from funders. The system deludes itself that it is meritocratic.  

The disparity in the publications produced by different countries and in the weight of peer review carried by the West10 is also exacerbated by the same system of perverse incentives11 created in the West but now also being adopted by funders and institutions in developing countries. This has led to direct financial incentives in some cases (e.g. in China), which often shocks people, but is actually no more perverse and indeed admirably more transparent than in the US and Europe. And journal rank and impact factor have knock-on effects12, including an increasing amount of fraud in science that is slowly eroding public trust.11,12

The preamble to Plan S acknowledges the problem, but largely places the blame on only one part of the system:

our collective duty of care is for the science system

as a whole, and researchers must realise that they are

doing a gross disservice to the institution of science if they

continue to report their outcomes in publications that will

be locked behind paywalls.

Somewhat disingenuously, many of the publishers objecting to Plan S have stated that authors will no longer have freedom of choice, often considered a fundamental academic right (and enshrined in European law). But as Stephen Curry noted in a recent talk at the inaugural workshop on open citations in Bologna, freedom of choice does not mean freedom from responsibility. And it is not just researchers who have a responsibility, but all the stakeholders involved in the dissemination and evaluation of research, including researchers, institutions, funders, and publishers. In Plan S, the funders go on to acknowledge that researchers may currently be driven to put their work behind paywalls “by a misdirected reward system which puts emphasis on the wrong indicators (e.g. journal impact factor).” And this I think leads to the other most important point of Plan S, their commitment “to fundamentally revise the incentive and reward system of science, using the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) as a starting point”.

Plan S is disruptive – this is not business as usual. That is why it is so important. Click To Tweet

Plan S is disruptive this is not business as usual. That is why it is so important. No government or funder policy, or indeed any publisher policy (regardless of business model), is perfect. What is required now is for all stakeholders to not just embrace the aspiration, but to act on its implementation and work out the details together.

Hindawi already meets some of the aspirations of Plan S we are an Open Access publisher, we actively support DORA, and the I4OC, we are a founding member of OASPA, and we adhere to the COPE principles of Open Access Publishing. We are working with Coko, eLife, and others to create a suite of Open Source scholarly publishing tools1 with open metadata that the Academy can use and reuse. We still have lots to do, but we are actively putting in place changes that will help us get closer to the future. As such, Hindawi endorses Plan S and will join the coalition and aim to implement its aspirations. And we will continue to work for science and society to build a fairer, more innovative, and open future for scholarly research.  



  1. Catriona MacCallum. “An Open Science Future – Europe Leads the Way.” Hindawi Blog (blog). Accessed September 11, 2018.
  2. Peter Suber. “Thoughts on Plan S First See the Plan Itself: COAlition S: Making Open Acc…” Peter Suber – Google+ (blog). Accessed September 11, 2018.
  3. Else, Holly. “Radical Open-Access Plan Could Spell End to Journal Subscriptions.” News. Nature, September 4, 2018.
  4. Fyfe, Aileen, Kelly Coate, Stephen Curry, Stuart Lawson, Noah Moxham, and Camilla Mørk Røstvik. “Untangling Academic Publishing: A History of the Relationship between Commercial Interests, Academic Prestige and the Circulation of Research.” Zenodo, May 25, 2017.
  5. Larivière, Vincent, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon. “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era.” Edited by Wolfgang Glanzel. PLOS ONE 10, no. 6 (June 10, 2015): e0127502.
  6. Piwowar, Heather, Jason Priem, Vincent Larivière, Juan Pablo Alperin, Lisa Matthias, Bree Norlander, Ashley Farley, Jevin West, and Stefanie Haustein. “The State of OA: A Large-Scale Analysis of the Prevalence and Impact of Open Access Articles.” PeerJ 6 (February 13, 2018): e4375.
  7. Peters, Paul. “A Radically Open Approach to Developing Infrastructure for Open Science.” Hindawi Blog (blog), March 12, 2018.
  8. Roger C. Schonfeld. “Elsevier Acquires Institutional Repository Provider Bepress.” The Scholarly Kitchen (blog), August 2, 2017.
  9. Van Noorden, Richard. “Web of Science Owner Buys up Booming Peer-Review Platform.” Nature News. Accessed September 11, 2018.
  10. Vesper, Inga. “Peer Reviewers Unmasked: Largest Global Survey Reveals Trends.” News. Nature, September 7, 2018.
  11. Edwards, Marc A., and Roy Siddhartha. “Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition.” Environmental Engineering Science 34, no. 1 (2017): 51–61.
  12. Brembs, Björn, Katherine Button, and Marcus Munafò. “Deep Impact: Unintended Consequences of Journal Rank.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7 (2013): 291.
  13. Coko Staff. “Hindawi Limited & Coko Announce Partnership.” Collaborative Knowledge Foundation (blog), October 4, 2017.

This post was amended after initial release, to acknowledge Open Society Foundations for the funding of Paywall.

Catriona MacCallum is Director of Open Science at Hindawi.

The text in this blog post is by Catriona MacCallum. It is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.