Academic Publishing Open Letter

Researchers reject APC-based OA publishing as promoted by Plan S

Lynn Kamerlin, Bas de Bruin and their colleagues have been the most vocal critics of Plan S from the very beginning, braving continuous opposition from certain OA leaders. Now that final Plan S guidelines were released, the chemists publish this Open Letter expressing their worry about a possible dystopian OA future.

On 31 May 2019, the cOAlition S of research funders released their revised guidelines on the radical Open Access (OA) transformation Plan S. Main changes are:

  • The deadline has been moved by one year to 2021, to give all involved more time to adjust.
  • By 2024 the latest, all existing read-and-publish agreements with subscription publishers become non-compliant. Only so-called transformative agreements are permitted, which as written means the journals must submit to Gold OA transformation, but in practice can mean anything and nothing.
  • The OA Article Processing Charges (APC) are not capped anymore, but the fees “must be commensurate with the publication services delivered”. Meaning in practice: they can’t be used to fund any other activities of scholarly societies.
  • The requirements for Green OA institutional repositories were softened after cOAlitionS learned that their original requirements excluded basically every single one institutional repository.
  • The hybrid OA in subscription journals is not categorically forbidden anymore, but the cOAlition S funders will not allow researchers to use grant money to pay those fees. Which in Plan S countries like UK and Netherlands basically means academics can only pay hybrid OA fees from their own salary. Or that of their postdocs. Now there is an idea!

Preprints are appreciated, yet they do not replace the final peer reviewed version accepted by the journal, which cOAlition S expects to see published under CC-BY licence, immediately on the day of publication. Which does make me wonder how Green OA is supposed to work after all, if the journals simply refuse to grant a CC-BY licence without payment. One cOAlition S member, Wellcome Trust, introduced a preprint mandate, but only in context of public health emergencies.

Another interesting new point is: cOAlition S expects every grant receiving institution to subscribe to DORA Assessment, i.e. to promise not to evaluate researchers based on journal impact factor or other journal metrics. It is not said that the numeric quantity of OA papers cannot serve as the new readout, maybe it will be? In this regard, it is also worth noting that the Swiss publisher Frontiers (which acted as key advisor of Robert-Jan Smits with his brain child Plan S) also signed DORA assessment. This is what the Frontiers homepage looks like today, so much for signing DORA:


The cOAltion S has not grown much, it now stands at 19 members, plus the European Commission. One Swedish funder, Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, quietly left the Plan S club, while another one proudly joined: Vinnova. However, it seems Vinnova is not accepting the Plan S guidelines unconditionally, but will adjust them to own requirements (as apparently other cOAlition S members plan to do also):

The stated goal of Plan S is to end subscription publishing and make journals flip to Open Access. The cOAlition S even expresses support for the so-called Platinum/Diamond OA, where neither reader nor authors pay any fees. Yet neither is anyone at cOAlition S offering any money to support such journals, so how they are supposed to finance themselves (and often their scholarly societies!) is anyone’s guess.

The worry of the academics behind this new Open Letter is namely that what we will get should Plan S succeed, is a total author-pays OA landscape. The publishing costs will be enormous, and for many research-intensive universities these may easily become higher than subscriptions are now, especially now that all APC caps are off the table with the new revised Plan S. One case I reported on my site offers a glimpse into such a dystopian future, where cost-conscious university executives will decide who can and who cannot publish their research.

Kamerlin, de Bruin and their colleagues published their previous Open Letter on my site in September 2019, it was followed one month later by a signature campaign signed by 1800 researchers (my reporting here). This is their new Open Letter.

Plan S

Researchers reject APC-based OA publishing as promoted by Plan S

Response to the Revisions Made to the Plan S Principles and Implementation Guidance by cOAlitionS

After release of the revised open access (OA) Plan S implementation guidelines (May 31, 2019) we feel compelled to react. In general, we remain unsupportive of drastic top-down measures such as Plan S that could potentially be harmful to researchers (more details below). However, we also recognize some positive changes in the revised guidelines and accompanying rationale.

What we consider positive in the revised guidelines and explanations of Plan S is that:

  1. More time is now available to come to a suitable implementation of the plan, with the start date postponed to 2021. This is particularly important for small scale and non-commercial (society) journals.
  2. Support (financially?) for Diamond/Platinum OA is announced.
  3. The text about hybrid journals and Green OA is clarified. It is clear now that publication in hybrid (and pure subscription) journals is allowed, provided authors either find different funds to pay for OA costs or if they immediately deposit the final author accepted manuscript (AAM)/ version of record (VoR) version of their paper in a compliant repository under a CC-BY license and provided that the author retains the copyright. However, do note that this is beneficial only for those authors that have a broad funding portfolio and access to resources from outside cOAlition S in order to pay for the publication costs associated with following this route!
  4. The technical requirements for repositories have been (temporarily?) softened, facilitating the Green OA route. For some research fields (e.g physics) this offers a viable and readily applicable route to OA compliance. However, for other fields (such as chemistry) this is still problematic, as the number of reputable journals that allow immediate no-embargo deposition of the AAM/VoR under a CC-BY license without the payment of some form of charges remains exceedingly limited.
  5. cOAlition S appears to have created more room for read-and-publish deals such as Project Deal in Germany (but why only until the end of 2024?).

Reading these changes, one might conclude that different stakeholders are invited to come to a reasonable compromise and that there is more time now for such negotiations. Combined, we hope these changes will indeed provide an acceptable route to open access in which both journals and researchers believe, and that journals will either comply and accept the immediate Green OA route or switch to a truly desirable Diamond/Platinum OA model. Both would be acceptable OA outcomes for researchers. However, unfortunately, based on experiences with the impact of existing OA mandates on the publication landscape, the more likely outcome of the combined rules of Plan S is still a widespread “flip” to the (in our eyes) perverse APC-based pay-to-publish OA model instead of the much more desirable Green and Diamond/Platinum OA models.

A positive and desirable outcome of these negotiations (i.e. Green/Diamond/Platinum OA) is by no means a fait accompli, especially in a global publishing market, with a diversity of OA wishes and (absence of) mandates. Most valued society journals operate on a global scale, and hence they have to think globally. They need to deal with a variety of different authors, at both extremes of the OA spectrum and everyone in between. Many (most?) authors don’t want to pay APCs, and most authors who are not bound by the mandates of Plan S probably won’t choose pure APC-based journals voluntarily. They may not have the funds available, have a general dislike of the publication model or would rather spend the available money on research & consumables rather than paying to publish. So authors who are not bound by the mandates of Plan S might simply prefer the subscription (or hybrid) model, as this is the cheapest option for them to publish their work. Where OA mandates do apply outside of the cOAlition S funders, they typically include the Green OA option with an embargo period and without restrictions related to copyrights and licenses. At the same time, journals will also receive submissions from authors facing Plan S OA mandates.

The fact that OA policies and mandates are not globally aligned thus constitutes a problem for journals, making it difficult (if not impossible) for them to comply. Obviously, they would like to keep all clients happy and at the same time they also need to operate in a global competition market. It is therefore not more than logical that the journals initially opt for the hybrid publication model. This is no longer a (financially) viable route for authors under the cOAlition S umbrella (as many if not most cOAlition S funded authors do not actually have the discretionary funds available to pay APC outside of their grants), and hence journals will need to either flip to a full OA model or they will need to accept the Plan S terms for Green OA. That is assuming they will chose to keep the cOAlition S clientele of authors and readers, which is not guaranteed (if they don’t the scientific community will split in regions with different outlets for publishing, and eventually also reading and peer reviewing, which is utterly undesirable). One might ask, at this time, is cOAlition S large enough to enforce such a global flip? And will that ever happen, taking into account for example the explicit statement by new OSTP director Kelvin Droegemeier that effectively rules out the involvement of US federal funding agencies in Plan S [1]? Flipping to a full OA model seems not really an option for our valued society journals as long as most other countries (including big players such as the USA, China & Germany) don’t adopt to the same mandates. Furthermore, it is questionable (on a global scale) if many authors would actually like their society journals to flip to an APC-based author pay-to-publish model. Over the past months of discussion of Plan S, we have, for example, heard many authors say “If I need to pay to publish, I also want to get paid to review”. As such, one might also ask how sustainable the APC-model will turn-out to be, and whether it really is as cost-effective as cOAlition S funders seem to believe [2]. This also means that if big players in the USA and China don’t join, Plan S has clearly failed [2]. If that is the case, we strongly advise funders to pull the plug, well in time, at the latest by 2024.

So what about the Green OA model? Is that an achievable and sustainable OA model? Will Plan S create enough critical mass to get the trains moving in this direction? Perhaps. We really hope so, as we think this is a much more acceptable OA publication model (for authors) than any APC-based pay-to-publish model. cOAlition S made clear that they do not want to consider any embargo period (however short) and that they are not satisfied with the preprint version of papers as a compliant route to achieving OA. That, in their view, “is not full and immediate OA”. Of course, cOAlition S is entitled to their opinion. We just note here that this position creates both cost- and sustainability barriers to OA publishing that are not easy to overcome (effectively strongly steering towards a pay-to-publish APC-based model).

Even if the number of funders joining does grow (as expected by COAlition S), it may still not be easy to convince international journals to accept the conditions for Green OA as defined in Plan S. The envisioned Green OA route in which the AAM/VoR version is made immediately accessible under a CC-BY license constitutes a risk for journals, and in general, Green OA is only viable if supported by subscription revenue, while a stated goal of cOAlition S is actually to abolish subscription journals [3].

“There is no longer any justification for this state of affairs to prevail and the subscription-based model of scientific publishing, including its so-called  ‘hybrid’ variants, should therefore be terminated.” From the cOAlition S website

Furthermore, one might ask if this version of green OA is really a long-term sustainable business model for any journal, as libraries might decide to start canceling subscriptions to those journals in which the (Green) OA content exceeds a certain threshold. This is not an unrealistic scenario if more countries start to adopt the same mandates as defined in Plan S.

That probably means that (society) journals have only one real choice on the long term: Switch to a full OA model in which the journals are paid/compensated for the (real) costs associated with publishing. This is in itself not a bad idea, and this is obviously the idea behind Plan S. However, unfortunately the simplest solution for journals to solve all issues is also the worst possible outcome of Plan S: They might all flip to an (in our opinion perverse) APC-based author pay-to-publish OA model. The APC-based publication models are arguably also the most profitable (for publishers) and hence the least cost-effective (for libraries/funders/authors) OA publication model thinkable, especially now that the cap on APCs has been removed from Plan S. Here, researchers will pay a heavy price, and the current undesirable reading paywalls will be merely replaced by even more insurmountable publication paywalls, thus doing a great disservice to the scholarly communication landscape.

Many (most?) researchers don’t like to work with APC pay-to-publish models at all. Writing a paper is a creative process, and hence it feels totally wrong to pay to publish (invoking also negative associations with “vanity publishing”). More importantly, the pay-to-publish model has inherent quality problems due to its perverse financial incentives. It will either lead to accepting as many papers as possible (high volume journals with a low scientific quality), or maximizing the APCs to the limit (low volume journals with a high scientific quality). The APC pay-to-publish model thus puts the peer review system and scientific quality of papers at risk, and sustaining quality in such a landscape may become financially very costly. In our opinion, accepting and rejecting papers should remain fully decoupled from financial aspects/incentives of publishing, as otherwise it will put us on a slippery road to mediocrity or may even lead to a majority of low-quality publications.

That leaves Diamond/Platinum OA as the only desirable OA model for researchers. The announced support for Diamond/Platinum OA in Plan S is therefore positive, although we feel that the implementation text lacks any details about how exactly cOAlition S plans to support and stimulate (society) journals to transition to Diamond/Platinum OA, and what funds (if any) will be provided to facilitate such a transition. We actually consider read-and-publish deals (such as project Deal in Germany) to be a logical choice to enable society journals to transition from the current (hybrid) subscription model to such desirable Diamond/Platinum OA models, wherein eventually funders and libraries sponsor the journals to provide them with a long-term sustainable OA business model (which we consider to be the most desirable outcome). We therefore think it is disappointing that cOAlition S provides no details about supporting Diamond/Platinum OA and at the same time considers the read-and-publish deals as merely temporality compliant, only until the end of 2024.

Bas de Bruin, Professor, Van ‘t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences, University of Amsterdam

Lynn Kamerlin, Professor, Department of Chemistry-BMC, Uppsala University

Christophe Copéret, Professor, Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, ETH Zürich

Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, Professor, Department of Biology and Biological Engineering, Chalmers University

Etienne Derat, Associate Professor, Institut Parisien de Chimie Moléculaire, Sorbonne Université Paris

Sam Hay, Senior Lecturer, School of Chemistry, University of Manchester

Marc van der Kamp, Research Fellow, School of Chemistry, University of Bristol

Disclaimer and further explanations:

Of course, our interpretations of Plan S are colored by our experiences and our reading is that from the perspective of chemists. A fear for the loss of our valued society journals and our aversion for APC-based OA publishing were our main drivers to protest strongly against Plan S at an early stage. When Plan S was introduced last summer it looked very much like a full ban on hybrid journals, and hence an attempt to replace our valued (hybrid) society journals (ACS, RSC, Wiley/ChemPubSoc) by commercial APC OA journals with perverse financial incentives to accept as many papers as possible with lax quality control mechanisms. Hence, if we would be forbidden to publish in the journals considered to be most valuable and reputable, this could have severe consequences for international collaboration, reputation, exchange of researchers (students, postdocs & staff) and the peer review process, especially if the market share represented by cAOlition S remains a small fraction of the global publishing market. Furthermore, in general, we consider the APC model of OA publishing to be highly problematic (as explained above).  Of course, one might argue that our arguments are based on fear. Fear of what might happen assuming that publishers won’t change their policies. True, we are not fortune tellers. Our predictions are based on logical expectations, but we cannot look into the future and predict with any certainty what will happen. But… neither can cOAlition S or any proponent of Plan S. Hence, we think the discussion remains valid, and the cOAlition S should listen to our worries and warnings. The opinion of researchers simply cannot (and should not) be ignored.

This Open Letter was also published on Zenodo, doi: 10.5281/zenodo.3243309


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17 comments on “Researchers reject APC-based OA publishing as promoted by Plan S

  1. Great info Excelent ,thank you .


  2. Esther-obachi

    I come from Africa & was initially excited about Plan S but got disappointed when I learned that our research output will now b more invisible than ever b4 bcoz we can’t afford to pay to b published


    • Dear Esther, the future may not be as grim as it sounds. First, Plan S does leave (plenty of) room for zero-APC journals, it does not require APC at all. More importantly, I have seen many solutions to invisible research, many far predating the idea of people should be allowed to share articles with, for example, their students, friends, people in your hometown (which subscription journals do not allow). Conferences are held to make research visible. Poster sessions are held to make research visible. They are not an invention of Open Access. Visibility has always been in the hands of the authors. Authors have a long history of writing letters to peers, to make their research visible and discuss their research. Open Access and Plan S is about this: removing our reliance on publishers to make our research visible. With an open license, you and every library in the world, and every teacher in the world, can share your research. Social media, think #altmetrics are doing a great job in making research visible. You do not need a so-called high-APC or even a non-zero-APC journal for that. Regarding “Africa”, despite what the general feeling might be, there are a ton of European/Western scholars that work hard on making African research more visible. I would not claim we are trying hard enough. One project I am involved in is Scholia, where we link authors to research they do. It’s based on open data, using open source software. It takes advantage of ORCID, which you likely already know. Can you please let me know your ORCID, so that I can create you an “Scholia” profile? In fact, I know people who would love to create a “Scholia” profile for your full research institute, for free, zero APC. I would be delighted to make your research more visible.


      • Dear Egon, if I may butt in: you do not see any possibility then for African researchers to publish in same journals as “ours”, should Plan S succeed? As for APC-free OA journals, can you name any in chemistry?


      • Challenger

        Plan S is logical step towards commercialization of science. Few remaining scientists must be finally eliminated from work and leave the space to business managers hunting grant money. All science must be for profit!
        Open access journals will not survive cuts in science funding by the way. Which will be not a big loss anyway for 90% of publications which aim only on making grant money and provide little of scientific content.


    • Dear Esther, is this you? ?


  3. Dear Leonid, what do you mean with “same journals as ‘ours'”? That sounds kinda colonial.

    About your second question, I’m surprised, after reading your post, you ask me about zero-APC OA journals. You mean you wrote this post without checking what zero-APC journals exist? I’m surprised (but do not believe) you have not heard about the two Beilstein journals:

    I think there are other sources, but DOAJ does not seem to list price/cost, and Wikidata only has limited data at this moment:


    • Dear Egon,
      Beilstein indeed has two Platinum OA journals, Organic Chemistry and Nanotechnology. You assume this is the model for other publishers to emulate, because obviously the small Beilstein cannot serve all of the developing world even if they tried. Then would you kindly educate us about the Beilstein business model, ie how their publishing activities are financed? So other publishers can follow suit, to create gratis OA for all? I bet you have not thought this through, as usual.
      Also, thank you for confirming that the scholarly publishing future you envision will consist on one side of pay-to-publish “elite” OA journals you and your western colleagues will be publishing in (congratulations on your recent Perspective paper in Frontiers in Genetics, APC $3k I believe?), while on the other side African researchers are invited to send their manuscripts by email to peers like you in order to get noticed, like in the olden times.
      Finally, I appreciate you calling me out as a white supremacist with a “colonial” attitude.


      • “So other publishers can follow suit, to create gratis OA for all?” Is that not the ideal situation you want too? If not, what kind of Open Science do you want?


      • I asked you to explain Beilstein business model of gratis OA, to see if other journals can emulate it. If you have no clue, don’t use it as example. I hope you write your research papers more informed.


  4. Dear Leonid, you asked me first about zero-APC journals. Despite my suspicion you already knew the answer, I give “any” anyway. I do not know the business model. I wonder how many authors know business models of ACS, Elsevier, Beilstein: please educate me. One thing I learned in the past half year in the “Plan S” discussion that we pay the ACS journals so that they can organize non-publishing activities. Another thing I do not know, so looking forward to your insight, is how many African chemists benefit from the ACS activities which they fund with the ACS journal subscriptions. But I have no idea how this piece of business models translates to Beilstein. But they are zero-APC, which is what you asked me about.


    • Egon, your reply illustrates the Plan S fallacy. You and others just assume that because there are some very rare gratis OA journals, that is a viable model to transform to, no further investment needed. I suggest you first inform yourself how gratis OA journals support themselves. You will discover that some (at ACS for example!) use subscription revenues.


      • So, what is your conclusion? You want to keep a subscription future, where only the rich can read (African?) literature? Again, please explain me. I love to discover new things.


      • With “rare gratis OA journal” I assume you refer to the Beilstein journals, correct? Do you happen to know why not more chemists publish there? Is that because of the business model? Are there other reasons? Do I understand correctly that you mean that if more chemists would publish with Beilstein, their model would break down? What information do you have about that?


      • Egon, this, and your previous comment suggest that you are either talking without thinking, or trolling me.
        Again, it is you who sent your perspective paper to Frontiers, instead of one of many gratis OA journals you say are available.
        I am an advocate of gratis OA and preprint publishing, but unlike you and Plan S people, I know it costs, a lot. Your proposal is: we use our huge library budgets to publish in Frontiers, and African peers can publish on Facebook. I criticised that, you called me a colonialist.


  5. Rex Rictor

    We dont want any Plan S or OA. We just want pre-print servers and journals who then PAY us for the papers. This is now a Bazar and a strong paper can go to the highest pitcher (in terms of visibility/service etc). How Springer/Nature etc then want to make money on a paper is then their own responsibility. All people can still read the pre-print. …..maybe we dont even need a journal? perhaps Leonid should try to run a survey of some sorts…see what people can come up with..


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