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Fighting the good fight: Plan S and the quest for open science


Just recently, it was announced that the University of California will stop paying to subscribe to journals published by Elsevier, the world’s largest scientific publisher. This call is in line with the push towards open access (OA), which I have mentioned in a previous post during Open Access Week. This announcement came during an already conflicted environment where national university consortiums and state universities in Germany and Sweden have terminated their subscription with Elsevier because of an unsatisfying traditional subscription-based price model. As a Swedish researcher, this means that as of 1 July 2018, I can no longer reach journals belonging to this publisher. Despite some critical utterances from effected researchers not having access to these journals in the usual way, many seem to take a positive view and support the termination of the agreement and the move towards OA. On a personal note, not being able to reach relevant and important scientific journals obviously makes my research harder, but I do believe that it is necessary to take on this fight in order to find a publishing and distribution model that makes science freely available, since much of the research is funded by taxpayers.


The Dilemma

Today, we have to navigate coexisting models of traditional publishing and OA, where universities not only pay for the license but also make the research available through fees for OA, known as an article processing charge (APC), which has spurred a rapid increase of costs for both reading and publishing. While scientific publication is in the middle of a transition from publication in traditional subscription-based journals to OA and general openness, the financial model is still based on the traditional model, with payment of fees to the publishers. In addition to these license fees for reading, publishers have also begun to charge for online publication in different forms, either direct access or with an embargo period. The basic Swedish argument here was that universities were happy to pay for the publisher’s services, but not to read that which Swedish researchers have produced themselves, i.e. they are willing to pay for OA publishing, but in exchange would like a lower fee for reading access in order to prevent further cost increase.


A plan for open science or a hindrance to scientific integrity?  

The European initiative Plan S is the latest step in the development towards OA and the feedback has been enormous with responders from over 40 countries. Why? Because Plan S, backed by the European Commission and the European Research Counciland supported by the international consortium of research funders cOAlition S, not only pushes for OA in general terms but also sets an unusually tight timeframe considering the current scientific publication landscape. Plan S namely requires that from 2020 and onwards, scientific publications resulting from research funded by public grants provided by participating national and European research councils and funding bodies must be published in compliant OA journals or platforms.

For that reason, Plan S has stimulated a vigorous debate among its more critical responders. While most are positive in the overall strive for OA and open science, some opponents mean that the devil is in the details, worrying that a rushed implementation of Plan S could restrict its researchers from publishing in a high volume of journals not yet fulfilling the OA demands of Plan S. This would entail many high-impact journals with a traditional publication model having no financial incentives for a hasty readjustment to OA.  There is also a worry that this would make scientific collaboration harder if European researcher must comply to the OA demands from Plan S, while for instance their American colleagues need not. Yet another concern is that the already increasing problem with the growing misuse of OA and predatory publishing will only increase if Plan S is implemented in its suggested form. Obviously, PLOS, as one of the pioneers in OA, endorses Plan S and on the occasion of the launch of cOAlition S, the preamble was simultaneously being published by PLOS in both PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine among other scientific outlets. These shifts are fully aligned with PLOS’ original mission to advance science together by sharing work as rapidly and widely as possible – all PLOS journals are fully compliant with the new mandates.


What about early career researchers?

In the middle of this debate of a swift move towards OA are the young researchers. It is not yet clear what will happen and this worries ECRs feeling the pressure to publish but not knowing how they will be evaluated if they can only publish in OA journals from 2020 on. Publishing in a renowned OA journal may cost over $5000 which can be a problem if you have limited project funding or belong to a smaller institution with limited financial resources. For that reason, there should be systems in place to help deal with the individual costs of OA publishing. If I for instance were to receive funding from our Swedish Research Council, they already require OA when publishing my findings and therefore also approve of additional costs for this when applying. We also have a system within my university where I can apply for help with the article processing charges from the University Library.

It is therefore of great importance that ECRs get the support they need when they partake in this fight for open science and OA, since they are in a much more vulnerable situation than established senior researchers. Otherwise, this push for OA could create a precarious situation for many of them. Many posts here on the PLOS ECR blog have touched upon the importance of mentoring and a supportive PI, and it cannot be stressed enough how vital these aspects are when trying to establish a scientific career. Exactly what will happen for young researchers as a result of Plan S, and when, remains unclear at the moment but in the meantime it is imperative to find support in the fight for open science and to put pressure on those structures that hinder this development.


Featured Image belongs to the flickr account of biblioteekje and is used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Creative Commons CC license.



Adriana Bankston (February 28, 2019). What I learned through fundraising for my favorite non-profit. PLOS Blogs: PLoS ECR Community.

Alex Fox & Jeffrey Brainard. (February 28, 2019). University of California boycotts publishing giant Elsevier over journal costs and open access. Science. Vol. 363, 1023.

Andreas Vilhelmsson. (October 26, 2018). Open Access Week 2018: Time to stand up for sciencePLOS Blogs: PLoS ECR Community.

Andreas Vilhelmsson. (October 27, 2017). Open Access Week 2017: It’s time to do something about predatory publishers. PLOS Blogs: PLoS ECR Community.

Holly Else. (July 19, 2018). Dutch publishing giant cuts off researchers in Germany and Sweden. Nature. Vol. 559, 454-455.

Inna Sevelius. (September 17, 2018). We must take control of publication costs. Curie.

Marc Schiltz. (September 4, 2018). Science without publication paywalls: cOAlition S for the realisation of full and immediate Open Access. PLoS Biology16(9): e3000031.

Marc Schiltz. (September 4, 2018). Science without publication paywalls: cOAlition S for the realisation of full and immediate Open Access. PLoS Medicine15(9): e1002663.

Muhammad Hamza Waseem. (January 17, 2019). NatPhil – A Memoir of Mentoring. PLoS ECR Community.

National Library of Sweden. (May 16, 2018). Sweden stands up for open access – cancels agreement with Elsevier.

PLOS. (February 10, 2019). PLOS Provides Feedback on the Implementation of Plan S. PLOS Blogs: The Official PLOS Blog.

Swedish Research Council. (April 30, 2018). The Swedish Research Council requires open access


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