Scholarly publishing is facing at least three major problems today, only one of which is addressed by Plan S, says Curt Rice. Foto: Siri Øverland Eriksen

Curt Rice: Plan S doesn’t go far enough

Open access. The work of implementing Plan S might not be worth the effort if we don’t shake up the publishing system in even more fundamental ways.

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From the perspective of researchers, universities, and governments, our international system for scientific publication is broken in at least three ways. Plan S is designed to address one of these, but if it doesn’t address the other two, it may not be worth the effort.

Plan S intends to address the problem of access to publications. Plan S insists that research results not be made available only to those who can pay for access. This puts researchers everywhere on equal footing when it comes to being able to read, evaluate and use the results of their international colleagues, and it makes research results available to non-researchers who for whatever reason may be interested in them. I support this ambition for complete open access of research results.

If the price of implementing Plan S is that we continue to allow commercial publishers to break the backs of even the wealthiest universities in the world, then we haven’t eliminated a basic threat.

Curt Rice

Requiring all publications to be published as open access has nothing to do with the «paying three times» argument, which it does not eliminate. We’ll still pay researchers to do the research, we’ll still (nominally) pay researchers for the time they use to review and edit articles, and we’ll still pay to see the results in print. The latter is done in Plan S not through subscriptions but through APCs (article processing charges, paid by the authors or their grants, or waived for those who cannot pay), as is standard in the open access model. It’s still three times.

An under-appreciated point in the Khrono debate about Plan S is the possibility that it will force traditional subscription-based journals to convert to open access. This is the stated goal of the so-called Berlin declarations and presumably a goal of Plan S. In the U.S., the requirements of the NIH (National Institutes of Health) have profoundly affected the behavior of publishers and there’s no reason to expect less of Plan S if most of Europe signs up (or, better yet, China!). Therefore, the debate about creating new Open Access journals of sufficient quality within a few short years is insufficiently nuanced.

The problems Plan S does not intend to address involve profit margins for publishing houses and the quality control that the peer-review system is intended to effectuate. It’s unnecessary to repeat the well-established facts about disproportionate and unethical profit margins for the big scientific publishers. Even wealthy universities in the U.S. find themselves struggling to buy the publications their researchers want. Plan S won’t fix this. Although the fee cap for an APC has yet to be established, no matter what it is, it will always be a point of negotiation with the publishers and it will have to be revisited regularly, just like subscription costs. The simple and overarching problem with traditional publishers that Plan S cannot solve is that they have no incentive to lower their profit rates and will resist every effort pushing them to do so. As long as Plan S touts cooperation with commercial publishers, and as long as the professoriate assigns massive prestige to a few journals, it won’t contribute to solving this much deeper problem.

The second and scientifically more serious problem that Plan S fails to address is the need for a reconception of the peer review process. I won’t go into the many failures of the quality control system called peer review as it is practiced today, but I recommend that interested readers peruse or read the fascinating work showing a positive correlation between Impact Factor and rates of retraction. Last week’s news of a group fabricating 20 articles and getting at least seven into various journals underscores this problem.

The solution to our broken quality control system requires open science, a reconception of the peer review process including the robust post-publication review advocated by DORA, and easier publication of replications and negative results, all topics of more lengthy articles elsewhere.

Making research freely available is important, but Plan S doesn’t go far enough in fixing this broken system. It’s a good start and I applaud the Ministry and Research Council for their efforts. But if the price of implementing Plan S is that we continue to allow commercial publishers to break the backs of even the wealthiest universities in the world, then we haven’t eliminated a basic threat. Furthermore, if public confidence in science continues to erode because inter alia of a broken quality control system, then we will have to forgive politicians, the general public or others who freely access our results should they begin to wonder if perhaps they are getting exactly what they pay for.

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