My Response to Plan S

Last year, a coalition of funders launched Plan S with the aim of making full and immediate open access a reality. It has generated a lot of heat and light in the industry. cOAlition S invited feedback. Here’s mine.

1. Publishing has been hi-jacked by the reputation economy.

The central problem with today’s scholarly publishing model is that it has been hi-jacked by what I call the ‘reputation economy’. This is to say that a researcher’s career and funding prospects are closely tied to where the researcher has published, not to what s/he has published. This is plainly illogical and in today’s digital world it is now possible and affordable to measure at a granular (i.e. article) level. Until the link between promotion, appointments and grant funding and where one publishes is broken, it will be very hard to change researchers’ ambition to publish in today’s ‘top’ journals. This, in turn, gives the owners of these journals tremendous market power and I don’t see Plan S realistically being able to topple this power until the link between where one publishes and the reputation economy is broken. Logically, there is no reason why there should be a link. The purpose of publishing is to share and disseminate findings — and one’s career prospects should be judged not on where you publish but on the quality and relevance of the research you’ve done, what you’ve found.

2. Publishing is a bundle of services: as the low-cost airlines showed, unbundling can open up markets.

Publishing today is a ‘bundle’ of services (paid for either by e.g. a subscription fee or by APCs). You describe a very complex (and expensive) bundle in your requirements. As the low-cost airlines showed when they took on the ‘full-service’ airlines, bundles are inefficient because not every component in the bundle is equally needed or valued by consumers. Some parts of scholarly publishing (e.g. making content free to read by everyone) may be more valuable that others (e.g. making content machine-readable). You may care to read a paper that explains why unbundling might be key to unlocking open access here.

3. The central problem isn’t open access, it’s that scholarly publishing costs more than available funds.

After a lot of thought, I have come to the conclusion that the central problem concerning open access isn’t open access, it’s that the growing cost of publishing continues to outstrip the willingness of funders/institutions to pay for the publishing system as it is today. In the absence of an increased willingness to put more money on the table, there is only one solution: the publishing system must change. In this paper, I present the argument (including reasons why I think Plan S isn’t the solution) and propose a possible way forward.

4. Finally, why not do it yourself?

If funders wish to make the findings of the research they’ve funded open access in the way you describe, then I don’t see what the problem is: just do it. Make it a requirement of your grants that researchers must publish their findings on a platform built and maintained by you. This would not curtail academic freedom any more than decisions to grant funds do. It would mean you could build a platform to any specifications you think are needed and you would be in control of costs and could make them as transparent as you choose. It would also mean you would be able to invest in making sure that the research results find a broad audience and generate the impact you seek.