Academic Publishing News

Plan S in chaos at Berlin APE conference

Plan S, designed by the former EU Commissioner Robert-Jan Smits, became a complete and chaotic mess where everyone, including the members of the signatory cOAlition S of research founders, does whatever they want. I learned all that while participating at the Academic Publishing Europe (APE) conference in Berlin, on 15-16 January.

The boldest Open Access initiative ever,  Plan S, designed by the former EU Commissioner Robert-Jan Smits, became a complete and chaotic mess where everyone, including the members of the signatory cOAlition S of research founders, does whatever they want. I learned all that while participating at the Academic Publishing Europe (APE) conference in Berlin, on 15-16 January.

The show I was personally part of was comedy gold (pun on Gold OA intended), and it played in front of all the big scholarly publishers. It started with Smits played the conquering hero on whose command publishers jump to attention, reticent scientists beg for mercy, and funding agencies rejoice. His Plan S with its ten commandments seemed an inevitability, and a success story, endorsed by everyone who matters.

Smits, after congratulating himself, mentioned in passing an Open Letter organised by some “chemists” (he meant the initiative of the Swedish chemistry professor Lynn Kamerlin, which originally started on my site and became a signature campaign with over 1600 supporters from various fields of science and even humanities. But that letter was not important to Smits, as he then also mentioned the other Open Letter by Michael Eisen (that one actually made no reference to Plan S, yet was strongly endorsed by Frontiers and gathered over 1900 signatures). Then Smits educated the audience that it is the chemists who are the problem, because according to him, physicists are very much in favour of Plan S. The poor man confused Gold OA publishing with preprints, which are indeed most popular in physics while rather an obscure novelty in chemistry.

The next bit of the keynote speech was amazing. Smits declared summarily all scientists criticising his Plan S as “fake news”-spreading trolls. He namely presented these three categories of criticisms:

  1. “Genuine concerns” of scholarly societies who need help to transition to OA publishing
  2. “Fake News”, literally, this was the expression Smits use to describe claims that Green OA is made virtually impossible under Plan S or that free-to-publish Diamond or Platinum OA was not actively supported
  3. Trolling references to academic freedom or accusations that Plan S would promote predatory publishing, which according to Smits are only introduced to destabilize the debate

Researchers are definitely not someone Smits has much respect for. When questioned from audience why he didn’t go to talk to the scientific community before imposing Plan S, Smits answered that he very much did, because he received support from academic librarians whom he sees as representatives of the scientific community. I personally can imagine certain OA librarians on Twitter who will rejoice to be appointed as official speakers for all of sciences, but I am not sure if scientists agree being represented like this.

Scholarly societies got off slightly better, for them Smits still sees a future, provided they “bite the bullet” and go OA. Smits explained that learned society journals make “too much money” which they use for things he apparently doesn’t approve of, like student fellowships or teaching activities. Under Plan S, Smits said, the non-profit societies will “need a new business model”, and otherwise join transformative agreements. Later at a panel discussion, Smits gave societies and scientists this lesson on their way:

“It’s not what Plan S can do for you, its what you can do for Plan S.”

Plan S is presently at the “Consultation” stage, where everyone is invited to submit feedback until 1 February 2019. Smits however said in his talk that the consultation only serves to “provide clarity”, as nothing will be changed in the structure of Plan S itself. Well, that is reassuring.

To render everyone acceptant of Plan S inevitability, Smits even claimed new funders were joining cOAlition S “as we speak”. He didn’t name any, and how many of them per hour were joining. He did admit that Germany was not part of cOAlition S, but he explained that Germans are committed anyway, by pursuing the strategy of flipping journals. Only it turned out, also that was not true.

Already during Smits’ victorious keynote talk, the facade started to crumble. The feared sanctions and punishments which the scientists would be facing for daring to publish in forbidden subscription journals? Smits announced a “trust-based approach”, with little monitoring. I am not sure what he meant to convey here – whether there will be no sanctions for Plan-S non-compliance at all, or that he rather invites scientists to report on each other to cOAlition S authorities. Maybe both?

Later in the afternoon, during an all-male panel talk, Smits admitted that his cOAlition S and the 10 commandments of Plan S are everything but solid. I heard that surprising news  before during a coffee break, from a British society publisher, but also Smits mentioned that Plan S is “for each funding agency to implement as they see fit”, the cOAlition S signatories will get “fully flexibility”. Basically, this means that the 10 rules of Plan S can mean anything, or even nothing. Every funder can do whatever it wants about OA and call it Plan S, and indeed David Sweeney of the newly fused British central funder UKRI, and one of two partners of Smits tasked with finalizing and overseeing Plan S, confirmed that on Twitter:

But that secret was spilled later in the evening. In his morning talk, Smits tried to convince the audience that none other but the mighty China joined Plan S, while actually no such thing happened at all. China merely voiced support for Plan S and OA transformation in December 2018, but the huge country with its exponentially growing publication output certainly did not join the cOAlition S. The China issue provoked a nasty public incident later on, featuring the Projekt DEAL (an Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany) negotiator Gerard Meijer, Dutch chemist and director of a Max Planck Institute in Berlin. Meijer previously positioned himself as a staunch supporter of Plan S (more here), even if he himself prefers to publish in what he described as “prestige channels” rather then in available OA journals, as he mentioned during the conference panel discussion.

That is how the incident went: in his talk Meijer spoke of a closed (sic!) Open Access conference in Berlin earlier in December, before China publicly endorsed Plan S. There, a Chinese delegate was participating whom Meijer quoted as saying that he got “orders from the highest level” to switch to OA, and that in China orders are always followed through. Meijer did not comment on whether that is a proper way to impose scientific policies or not, but he sure sounded impressed from how high up the order allegedly came.

A member of audience, a Swiss university librarian, eventually picked up on that story. He said that the authoritarian regime in China is not a role model for us and that he prefers democracy. Meijer went livid, what he shouted at the Swiss librarian was loud, angry and sounded like a threat: “Be careful with such statements!“, for Meijer would never ever endorse Chinese dictatorial approach. The audience was shocked, but then another member dared to speak up and told of a paper by his student from China which explains things. There is apparently a good reason why China is so much in favour of Plan S. China publishes many journals, also in English, and their number grows and grows, standing currently at 5% of all English-language STM titles worldwide. There is obviously no way to get western institutions to buy Chinese subscriptions, but Gold OA is a different thing. As the member of audience said, it is “an attempt to gain influence internationally”. One does suspect that we should not rejoice as Smits and Meijer do at receiving support from China on Plan S. Unless publishing in state-owned Chinese OA journals, some of which are basically Party propaganda outlets, is a clever idea for OA transformation in Europe.

Wiley DEAL

Big news came during the morning session. The German Projekt DEAL announced at the conference a Read and Publish OA agreement with the publisher Wiley (actually, Wiley exec Judy Verses announced it first in her talk). The agreement goes beyond OA publishing, and will be published in full in one month, but the publishing aspect is apparently is the usual one: DEAL members pay Wiley a lump sum to retain subscriptions and publish all the papers from their employed authors in such subscription journals in hybrid Open Access, free to read for everyone. How much an individual article will cost then, remains a secret, as the DEAL negotiator Meijer made clear. That this contradicts the requirements of Plan S, where exact article processing charges per paper must be declared and justified, was suddenly not an issue. The triumphant bigmouth Smits looked rather small as he agreed that such a DEAL with Wiley is perfectly Plan S compliant.

Even better, Smits suddenly had no problem with hybrid OA. To stress what happened there: earlier in his morning keynote address, Smits made it absolutely clear that hybrid OA will be temporarily tolerated under Plan S only when a journal subjects itself to a transformative agreement to full OA from 2020 on. Not otherwise, and same for so-called mirror journals, where same editorial team opens a parallel OA platform to compliment an existing subscription journal. Smits described such mirror constructs like “you’ve been taken for a ride” by the cunning publishers, unless the main subscription journal subjects itself to a binding OA transformative agreement.

And this transformation is, as EMBO Press Chief Editor Bernd Pulverer explained, an irreversible process: once a journal agrees to flip to OA, it cannot go back. Now the German DEAL with Wiley is a different one: nobody on Wiley’s side pledged any OA transformations there. Even Meijer admitted to me that Wiley’s chemistry flagship journal Angewandte Chemie announced no plans to flip to OA whatsoever. Yet to Meijer, this model is perfectly Plan S compliant, as he sternly told me. Meijer is definitely not someone who allows dissent, and Smits sure didn’t dare say a word. Thus, if the Germans say their hybrid OA is Plan S compliant, then it is compliant.

Basically, Plan S turned out to be whatever you want it to be. There is a German version where hybrid OA deals are perfectly compliant, a Chinese Communist Party version of global dominance, a Dutch puritan version with hardcore OA mandate and punishments for sinning scientists, a British version where everything can happen like with Brexit, and a Smits version, where he is king of open access and everyone in his kingdom except of some trolls and perverts loves him.

Below the belt

Which brings us to the last point I wanted to mention. I did ask Smits about his interactions with the Swiss OA publisher Frontiers, in public. Smits explained the audience instead what a lying slanderous troll I am, who would never criticise Elsevier, only Frontiers. Smits has never visited Frontiers offices (the issue was rather Frontiers visiting him, in his Brussels office). It also turned out I have been spreading “below the belt accusations” about him “from day one”, and also about the Frontiers CEO Kamila Markram and even about her husband, the Frontiers co-founder Henry Markram.

Later on, Meijer also poured scorn over me for my slanderous accusations against Smits. Apparently, I made all those emails up. In any case, the EU Commission denied me their uncensored versions. I hope they contain nothing “below the belt”.

If you also found this Plan S report unfair to the future TU Eindhoven president Robert-Jan Smits, consider donating. I travelled to Berlin conference on my own costs, though the organisers kindly granted me gratis participation. Many thanks to Arnoud de Kemp!


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17 comments on “Plan S in chaos at Berlin APE conference

  1. I keep thinking what is in cause nowadays is the lack of transparency and excessive fees charged by some journals
    As I mentioned before I think the way to go is make available original data and public peer_review and eventually public post_publication review


  2. “Already during Smits’ victorious keynote talk, the facade started to crumble. The feared sanctions and punishments which the scientists would be facing for daring to publish in forbidden subscription journals? Smits announced a “trust-based approach”, with little monitoring. I am not sure what he meant to convey here – whether there will be no sanctions for Plan-S non-compliance at all, or that he rather invites scientists to report on each other to cOAlition S authorities. Maybe both?”.

    Does it mean that DOAJ as a pretender for a sole OA ethics advocacy under plan S (as a sole list of recognized journals) will start adding to DOAj list also subscription journals? This starts becoming a crazy case. DOAJ can not accept subscription journals! Else, it means that DOAJ will not be considered as a sole list of recognized journals under plan S? So, one of the points of plan S is a dead issue already now, before February 1! It is like a circus, this Plan S!


  3. In a whole, Leonid, you should be proud of such an analysis. This is very deep and frank. So, Plan S seems to be born dead, or at least “to be born invisible”. Who heard of plan S? We are. Who saw plan S? Nobody. Absolute disprespect address by promoters of Plans S toward scientists, funders and the community of publishers.


  4. Robert-Jan Smits is a gritty example of an arrogant leadership implementing huge changes without asking the users for advice. These types of bureaucrats, which spend most of their life behind the office desk, make decisions regarding the future of research without any knowledge about it. I am afraid it will be a costly experiment for the society.

    What if these guys could spend time on something far more important for research, like stopping the publishing and indexing of fake science that infiltrates the entire scientific world and ruin the progress of research? More OA nonsense publications will make it worse.


  5. I think Morty is totally right
    RJ Smits should focused more on how to solve the so actual problem of fake science publication which seems to be common practice in worldwide respected institution


  6. Since the time of announcement of Plan S all of us understood that this is a revoluion with regard to the pace of changes. I am sure that scholary do not liek any revolutions. They like “evolution”. Any scholarly research takes much more time than Plan S (one year). So, now the picture looks like bureaucrat-revolutionists try to attack scholars-evolutionists with this Plan S. Leonid is absolutely right saying that now this Plan S looks like a chaos (as a product of bureaucrat-revolutionists) and it can not be supported by scholars who aspire to well-ordered evolutionary process in scholarly research. In a whole, situation is much more simple than expected – Mr. Smets is not competent enough to proceed with this plan S in well-ordered way! All around have already realized it.


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  8. It seems that Plan S lost its driving force. Initial supporters of Plan S, including Frontiers mentioned above. I am looking forward to listen to the official statements coming from Frontiers and Hindawi supporting Plan S in a strict way before. What now? Where is the voice of free publishing (sorry, OA publishing)? Where is the voice of OASPA in a whole and its members in particular about statements generated by Mr. Smets concerning perspectives of hybrid journals, a voluntary understanding of main rules of Plan S, etc.? It is absolutely unusual case for free society when independent experts like Leonid come with their analysis and statement first, but large companies and related Association are still silent. Are they disordered with such statements by Mr. Smets or they wait some instuctions from Plan S officials? In any way, it is clear now that free science can be implemented just by free people. I think that scholars worldwide have already understood this wisdom, and Plan S, as it was thought initially, has been left behind.


  9. Just one key fact to disclose. Look at

    This is the official OASPA release made in October after its conference. “One of the key principles announced within Plan S is that publication in “hybrid Open Access” journals would not be permitted, which leaves unresolved questions about whether any allowances for publication in journals that are not fully open access will be permitted in the final implementation plan. While this is likely to be one of the aspects of Plan S that will be widely discussed, OASPA very much welcomes that the focus of Plan S is to implement and support publication in fully Open Access journals”. Does it mean that now OASPA will not support statement by Mr. Smits about free interpretation of the role of hybrid journals within Plan S made by Mr. Smits recently?

    “we (OASPA) not only welcome the ambitious vision put forth by cOAlition S, but we also offer our assistance in developing the forthcoming implementation plan and helping to make this vision a reality”. Did OASPA officials visited recently held Berlin APE conference and was their voice heart or not? And what was this voice about?


  10. One week ago, at the APE publishing conference mentioned above, I met Gerard Meijer, MPI director at Fritz-Haber-Institut in Berlin and one of Projekt Deal negotiators. Our conversation was not very productive. But the next day, on 17.01.2019, Meijer suddenly answered my email from 12.11.2018. I informed him that I would like to publish his email, and whether he prefers to send me a modified version. He never replied since. So, here it is:

    “Dear Dr. Schneider,

    After our encounter at the APE2019 meeting, I thought it might be wise to reply in writing to your e-mail below, that reads as an accusation to me.

    As an active scientist and responsible for a research department within the Max Planck Society, I try to publish high quality research in those journals that are best suited for this work to be published in. The suitability of the selected journals is based on the expectation to thereby reach the right scientific audience, i.e. those that are interested in the kind of research that is being presented in our papers. This audience is represented by the scientists that are in the editorial and advisory board of the selected journal. This is the only selection criterion I use.

    The journals that are best suited for my publications can be non-hybrid subscription journals, hybrid subscription journals or fully open access journals. If there is a choice between equally good venues for our work to be published in, than I publish in a fully gold open access journal or open access in a hybrid journal (these two options are equally good, in my view) but if there is no choice than I also publish in non-hybrid subscription journals; I would actually advise every scientist to do so. As I am particularly unhappy with the way in which Elsevier deals with scientists and their requests, I no longer publish in Elsevier journals, and I do not referee any paper that is submitted to an Elsevier journal anymore. As it is important to me that all my publications are free to read for everybody, I put the final pdf-files of my published articles on my web-site from where they can be downloaded by everybody.

    At the same time, I put a lot of effort in improving and modernising the scientific publication system, because I am absolutely convinced that all the scientific publications should (in a legally allowed way) be freely available to everybody, and that the copyrights should remain with the authors. I am also pushing for a complete transparency of the costs of the publication system. I would like high-quality hybrid or fully open access journals to appear in all fields of science (either new ones or “flipped” hybrid ones), and I am actively working on that. The statement by Michiel Kolman at the APE 2019 meeting that “the value of the academic publishing industry is based on bedrock, and that is the copyright” is unfortunately still true, but this is at the same time a scandal, and this has to be changed. If you, describing yourself as a science journalist, would like to do something “for better science” than your first priority should be that the copyrights remain with the authors. This is what will change the academic publishing industry; the statement of Michiel Kolman is the stament you should have picked up and reacted upon.

    The first of the ten points of Plan S is that the copyrights should remain with the authors. As achieving this single goal would already be sufficient to change the academic publishing industry, I support Plan S. If this is mandated by the funders, things will change. I do not necessarily agree with all of the other nine points, and I think, for instance, that hybrid journals play a very important role in the transition phase in various forms of “transformative agreements”, and I think it is not correct (as formulated in point 9) to state that hybrid journals are not compliant with Plan S; they should be made compliant. Robert-Jan knows very well that I disagree with him on this point, but at the same time he can also count on me as one of the strongest supporters of Plan S, as I consider the final goals of Plan S absolutely correct.

    I am not planning to have a long correspondence with you, and this might be the only time I react to your e-mail. But as I have realised that you are one of those “science journalists” who is not objective, who prefers to pick out certain points out of conversations and discussions that are not representative of the actual discussion as such and who has a strong tendency to write down what he would like to have heard, rather than what is actually being said, I decided to write this to you, so I am hopefully not going to be cited incorrectly any more.

    With best regards,

    Gerard Meijer”


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  12. Yes, a lot of critics is coming to address of Elsevier. The author of the letter above is inspired by idea of OA. We are too. Hybrid journal should survive. That is great too. Transformative agreements should be used as a pathway. That is what we need. But one issue is missed – reseach impact under OA. The author missed to mention his point of view about the standards of quality of OA journals. Who will measure this standard? Who will be a watchdog over a massive of OA journals? In the posts above there was a mention of DOAJ. Is the process of selection of the journal strict enough? How much time does it take for DOAJ to evaluate each journal – one hour, a day, a week, etc? Why so many journals from emerging countries are included if their national publishing practices are still under development? Why does DOAJ include journals which are so young (about a year or two after its foundation)? Does DOAJ respect national journal lists when evaluating the journals? What is the attitude of DOAJ to the issue of predatory publishing? To be frank most of these questions are still not answered by DOAJ to the general public. As a result, sometimes very unexpected cases happen when DOAJ accepts the journal and in a few months or weeks removes it from the list (although this is a strong decision, worth of respect)! Is this an evidence of the strict and reliable process of journal evaluation? When analysing the journals, excluded from DOAJ for last few weeks, for example, look at this journal
    It was included at the mid of December and removed at the mid of January (just in a month). The reason disclosed by DOAJ – Has not published enough articles in last calendar year. But it was clear when evaluating the journal in December that this reason is obvious. Why was this journal added to DOAJ? It is obviously that it was a mistake by DOAJ team. Other cases that could be checked up about the journals aded to DOAJ are the cases when there is Editorial misconduct (when the Editors use the journals for self-publishing), or when the Editorial team is composed of many members who have not research expertise in the scope of the journal.
    These days, general public is concerned with other issues to discuss about OA and Plan S, for example the role of hybrid journals and green OA. But someday we will get to the issue of OA journal quality and OA journal list and…..are we ready to talk about it in public?
    Therefore, the author of the letter above was in touch just of those issues related to OA which are on surface now, which are easy to outline and discuss. Let us wait some time to discuss more critical issues, and probably, les convenient issues related to Plan S.


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