Guest Contributor

PlanS: Does publishing have a Plan B?

In September, eleven research funders in Europe announced ‘PlanS’ to make all scientific works free to read as soon as they are published. How has the publishing industry reacted, and what does the future hold?

Go to the profile of David Worlock
Oct 09, 2018
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Plan S was greeted with widespread and intense… silence in the publishing industry. Part of the reaction was governed by the need for rapid analysis to see what it might actually mean. Part of it was sheer disbelief – are taxpayer funded research institutions going to be allowed to create policy which they think is in the interests of science, not business? 

Listening to a lobbyist tackling an industry minister on this topic this week, I had the distinct impression that if the perception of funders is that PlanS is good for science, it will be very hard for commercial interests to change the climate of opinion. 

Nor, I think, will the argument that I have seen from Joe Esposito and others - that making it a condition of funding that researchers publish in non-hybrid journals is a major attack on freedom of expression and scholarly independence - carry much weight in Europe, even if it has more resonance in the USA. 

A funding body that says it is using taxpayers money responsibly when it ensures that the outcomes of research are known to the greatest number of taxpayers who funded it, and at the least additional cost, surely trumps (sorry about that) the commercial sector’s hand. 

While there must be scope for arguing funders into a slower pace – the plan to have this fully effected by January 2020 may be in place as much as anything to concentrate people’s minds – I have little doubt that the attack on hybrid journals is real and will succeed unless direct political action stops it. 

This is not, however, an issue that creates electoral movement, and the political agendas of Europe are pretty full of other things. 

So what does it mean if PlanS succeeds? Matthew Walker, the very knowledgeable analyst at Credit Suisse, points out that the potential effects on two quoted companies that he follows closely are limited. 

At RELX and at Informa, 4% and 2.5% of gross revenues derive from UK/Europe journal subscription revenues. He calculates that at the group operating profit level, the impact could be 5% and 2.5% respectively. The fact that share prices in both companies have fallen 10% since the summer (H1), and that these falls discount this effect somewhat is the shorter term. 

The longer term thought of the EU with $14 bn in research funds following PlanS, as well as Wellcome and Gates, sharpens the impact. Even if we concede that it will take longer and the big players will find a degree of mitigation, the most immediate effects will be felt not where PlanS intended, but amongst scholarly societies and institutions. 

For many of these this could be a disaster. The enlightened few, like the Royal Society of Chemistry, are out there promulgating new business models like Read and Publish. They scored a notable success outside of the UK by engaging MIT in this last month. 

But this is still hybridity by another name. If you are a scholarly society and the whole organisational structure is based around funding derived from journal subscription revenues, PlanS is a threat of potential extinction. 

And some of the other PlanS conditions have equally serious implications. The hybrid journals are not just a target because of widespread fears that they are (often unintentionally) "double dipping" - charging APCs and taking subscriptions which accidentally cover the same content during embargo periods. 

By removing embargo periods and demanding immediate release of content under CC BY licence, PlanS removes the "need to subscribe" requirement. Meanwhile, by threatening to cap APCs by reducing what it will pay as part of research grants, funders could end up in control of publishing margins for a wide sector of the industry. 

Capping APCs will be tough, both in terms of coordination and in terms of content – the increasing need to include data, graphics and video in research content widens the range of charges and makes uniformity across disciplines difficult. Some authors will lose prestige, but few will reject funding because of it. 

There will be winners too. Born-OA players like Hindawi and Frontier, and, since all of this is said to extend to books in time, new players in monograph publishing like Knowledge Unlatched. Apart from buying Gold OA journals quickly (availability strictly limited), what are STM publishers going to do? 

It is one thing saying that PlanS will be slower to take effect than people think, or other parts of the world are different - it is all true – and it is another to say that there will be more mega journals, or that the industry will condense as societies cash in their journal annuity revenues. Or even that there is only space for two big players (a long held belief of my own roundly rejected by most!). But it is harder to turn this into concrete action unless you place it in the context of the current trajectory of change. 

The STM publishing business has known for a decade that the journal door is slowly closing. Those publishers at Frankfurt Book Fair next week who are not gripping the bar of the Hessicher Hof with whitening knuckles and asking for less water in their Scotch will be hurrying around to the UNSILO stand (Hall 4.2 L 86) to see if modelling manuscript evaluation in AI really works. 

Ever since publishers realised that their defensive moat of peer review was breached in a network society by the ability of evaluation to be a continuing process from funding to whenever, important publishers have been investing in scholarly workflow, led by Elsevier, Clarivate and Digital Sciences. 

They are also investing in oversight of continuous review, in research support services, in improving discovery, in creating discipline mapping and bibliographical tools (Wizdom.ai), or in creating the dissemination and impact planning (Grow Kudos) that funders want to bake into research approval and planning. 

The industry is shifting, and PlanS, by speeding change, may be doing everyone a favour.


Originally published on davidworlock.com,1st October 2018.

Go to the profile of David Worlock

David Worlock

Publisher, Consultant

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