Plan S and the Humanities

Funders Push Harder on Open Access

Seth Denbo | Mar 11, 2019

In recent weeks, something called Plan S has caused no shortage of doom mongering among some people and emancipatory zeal among others. In brief, Plan S is a global strategy coming out of a group of funding agencies in Europe, called cOAlition S, to move academic journal publishing to an open access model. Plan S mandates that funded research be published under open access—that is, that it be freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection and licensed as CC BY under the Creative Commons suite of licenses. In addition to national funding bodies in 13 European countries (including France and the United Kingdom) and one African country, Plan S has received endorsements from four foundations, including Wellcome and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. When Plan S is implemented in 2020, researchers receiving funding from these entities will be expected to publish their work in journals that are fully open access.

The Gates Foundation

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of four foundations to have endorsed Plan S. Jack at Wikipedia/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Funders that have adopted Plan S see it as a vital step in the process of making “full and immediate open access to research publications a reality.” But questions remain about the appropriateness of Plan S to all academic publishing models. In February, the AHA sent a letter to cOAlition S noting that several provisions of Plan S, “as applied to the humanities,” are “likely to limit scholarly discourse, even close some doors.” But why should US-based historians care? What are the likely implications of the mandate for scholars to publish in open access journals, and how will Plan S affect scholars and journals in history?

Origins of Plan S

The Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) declaration in 2002 is often seen as a watershed moment in 21st-century academic and scientific publishing. The declaration was meant to address several big problems in the publication of scientific literature, including the length of time it took to publish an article and the rising costs of institutional subscriptions to scientific journals owned and controlled by for-profit publishers.

The solution to these problems, according to the authors of the declaration, lay in open access digital publishing. The Budapest declaration promised a more equitable, fluid, affordable, and, of course, open route to publishing scientific research, which would “lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.”

Initially, the movement toward greater open access was largely driven by scientists. In the 17 years since Budapest, much has changed. Many journals in the sciences, and even some in the social sciences and the humanities, have changed policies and, in some cases, business models to comply with expectations to move toward open access. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) at Lund University in Sweden lists over 12,000 titles, more than 100 of them in history. Many of these journals charge authors what’s known as an article processing charge (APC) to make their work open access. On the Scholarly Kitchen blog, David Crotty, editorial director for journals policy at Oxford University Press, has characterized this growth as “evolutionary”—a slow but steady increase that has brought significant changes without entirely overturning the world of scholarly publishing.

Progress toward greater open access has not been fast enough for some of its proponents.

Despite this movement, progress toward greater open access has not been comprehensive or fast enough for some of its proponents. Over half of all academic articles are still published in subscription-based journals. Furthermore, big scientific journal publishers like Elsevier and Springer Nature have monetized open access to such an extent that they have to date taken in over €50 million in APCs. Plan S is the latest effort to spur action toward greater open access.

What Is Plan S?

Plan S applies to all journal articles funded by cOAlition S members, no matter what discipline they’re in; it does not distinguish between journals in the sciences, humanities, or social sciences. (Monographs will also be subject to the same restrictions at some undetermined point in the future.) Initiatives that are based on the imperatives of scientific research and communication, but that nonetheless expect compliance from humanities and social science journals, have long characterized open access policy. The highly influential 2012 Finch Report, commissioned by the UK government, on expanding access to research publications, for example, favored “gold” open access, in which APCs cover publication costs, as a business model. The report’s recommendations were based on the assumption that researchers would have large-scale grants to defray publication costs. Other possible routes to openness that had better potential to work in humanities publishing—so-called green open access, which would allow for the publication of an article in a subscription journal with an “open” version made available in a repository of some kind—were viewed as less desirable.

Plan S continues this “one size fits all” approach to open access. The basic requirement of the plan is that “after 1 January 2020 scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.”

Open access requires more than simply making a digital version of the article available online for free. It also often directs authors to release their work under a public license that allows for broad reuse. Increasingly, the only license that many open access mandates will accept is CC BY, a Creative Commons license that only asks users to give creators “appropriate credit,” but allows commercial reuse or the creation of derivatives of the original article without any requirement to seek permission.

Plan S signatories, by requiring authors to publish in open access journals or venues, go beyond these two basic requirements. Crotty characterized this as a “deliberate attempt to accelerate change,” like “throwing a comet into a complex ecosystem in hope that it will produce mammals, rather than mass extinction.” Only a very small number of journals currently meet the criteria laid out in Plan S—one recent study found that less than 9 percent of journals listed in the DOAJ are currently compliant. Risky and audacious, Plan S will make publishing in most journals off limits to researchers funded by agencies and foundations that endorse the plan.

Plan S and the Humanities

Many humanities scholars, in addition to those in the sciences who work on a different funding and research model than biomedicine or other well-funded fields, argue that policy about how and when something should be made open access should take a more flexible approach to defining openness, and should take into account disciplinary distinctions. Essentially, critics argue, Plan S has no provisions for handling diversity within the academy.

Many experts on scholarly communication also say that the expectation that authors publish in journals that are entirely and immediately open will only further benefit large for-profit science publishers that have the resources to shift business models. Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science, recently wrote that she has been quoted “estimates in the range of $1 million per journal” to transition to full open access. Few, if any, humanities journals published by societies like the AHA and smaller nonprofit publishers have these kinds of reserves.

Part of the reason some observers think that Plan S favors large publishers is the bias toward APCs. Last September, André Costopoulos , vice provost and dean of students at the University of Alberta, wrote that Plan S “keeps commercial publishers firmly in control of the landscape.” While not an absolute requirement of the mandate, the plan is likely to lead to the creation of more “gold” open access journals. In fields with little available research funding, scholars are less likely to be able to pay APCs, which vary greatly from a few hundred dollars to thousands. (According to the Office of Scholarly Communication at the University of Cambridge, the average APC paid by the university between January 2017 and March 2018 was £2,147, or over $2,800.) As the AHA letter states, APCs would exclude “our colleagues who are independent scholars, faculty in community colleges and other higher education institutions that lack significant financial support for research, or employees of museums or even parks.” 

Critics argue that Plan S has no provisions for handling diversity within the academy.

Plan S also creates a potentially harmful expectation, critics say, for authors to publish their work under a CC BY license. While Creative Commons exists to encourage sharing (articles in this magazine are published under a CC BY-NC-ND license), limiting all scholarship to a CC BY license disadvantages scholars in history and the humanities. In the November 2016 issue of Perspectives, Rick Anderson explained why such open licenses might be of concern to historians. One problem, for example, is that a CC BY license could allow a poor or misleading translation of an article to be published without the copyright holder’s permission. A more flexible approach to CC licensing would give copyright holders more control. For example, a license that allows broad reuse of the entire article, but expects commercial users or those looking to use parts of the work to seek permission, would be much more in keeping with the intrinsic needs of historians.

Not all scholars are against Plan S. An open letter with 1,900 signatures, published on the website of open access pioneer and University of California, Berkeley, genetics professor Michael Eisen, praises the coalition and the move by funders to accelerate the transition to open access. The signatories, the letter states, “recognize that funder mandates may superficially limit our publishing options in the short term, but believe they will lead to a system that optimizes what we really care about.”

Responses from humanities societies, however, are generally much more doubting of the long-term effects of Plan S. Stringent regulations like Plan S coming from European funders threaten to fracture the international community that is so vital to excellent historical scholarship. When scholars are unable to publish in the journals where the scholarly conversation is happening in their field, scholarship will inevitably suffer.

Plan S itself is nascent, and it’s not clear yet how it will be implemented. At a recent conference in Berlin, its architects made it clear that each agency that signs on to Plan S will be allowed leeway in implementation. As funders put Plan S into action—by 2020 for journals and further in the future for monographs—historians should keep themselves informed about the ways the mandates will change the landscape of scholarly communication.

Seth Denbo is director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives at the AHA. He tweets @seth_denbo.

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