Plan S — and Article Processing Charges (APCs)

By Jan Velterop

Plan S has (re-)ignited the discussion about APCs. And the discussion about “hybrid journals”. The two are related. Article processing charges are supposed to cover the costs of publishing peer-reviewed open access articles. For a journal, the actual costs involve first of all the cost of the peer review process — finding and inviting appropriate peer-reviewers and managing the communication between the peer-reviewers, editors, and authors — of all submitted articles, including the ones rejected. In addition to that there are the direct costs of typesetting or otherwise preparing the manuscripts for publication, and those of the web site for their delivery, though they apply only to the accepted ones, obviously.

It is one of the principles of Plan S, additional to the key principle mentioned, that APCs are “standardised and capped”. How one might arrive at standards and caps remains to be seen. The difficulty is the first category of costs: those of managing the peer review process. Those costs are incurred for accepted and rejected manuscripts, yet the APCs that will have to cover all the costs are only levied on accepted articles. So they are likely to vary enormously, from relatively modest amounts for journals with low rejection rates, to substantial amounts for very selective journals with high rejection rates.

And then there is another factor: the way many publishers set their APC rates. Often enough, this is not done on the basis of actual costs (plus a reasonable profit – or surplus margin), but on the basis historical per-article revenues from subscriptions. If the average per-article revenues in the subscription model was in the order of $5000, the APC is likely to be the same or similar.

This mechanism is clearest in “hybrid” journals, in which toll-access articles (paid for by subscriptions) and open access ones (paid for by APCs) are mixed. And for which the publishers expect both types of articles to yield the same or similar per-article amounts. And this is where a big problem lies. “Hybrid” journals – typically journals with an established reputation already built up in the print era – can be attractive to many researchers because of the perceived prestige of being published in those journals. But they are also likely to have a relatively high per-article subscription income, and therefore also a relatively high APC for OA articles. Ruling them out as acceptable channels for publication is subject to much protest.

In a reaction to Plan S, as of November 2018, 1430 researchers had signed an open letter1 in which they characterise the stipulations in Plan S as violations of their academic freedom. They are unhappy about the requirement to publish with open access, and particularly the stipulation that “hybrid” journals are not compliant with the principles of Plan S. It is interesting that more than 60% of the signatories can be identified as working in chemistry, which may or may not be significant (though I think it is if it remains that way). Their prime concern of the signatories is that they would not be able to freely choose in which journals to publish, as many of those are either subscription journals or “hybrid” ones. The open letter says that the vast majority (>85%) of titles in the area of chemistry are such journals. It will be interesting to see if the sentiment expressed by the signatories from the chemistry community is shared in other disciplines.

On the other side of the debate there are researchers who believe Plan S is only supporting the anachronistic scholarly publishing system, with unacceptable levels of profit seeking. Particularly the fear that the proposal to “standardise and cap” the APCs may lead to a situation where that cap (currently the discussion seems to be about an amount in the order of between $2000 and $2500 per article, which, incidentally, is quite a bit lower than the $5000 or so charged by many “hybrid” journals) becomes the standard, and that means that hitherto lower APCs are likely to gravitate towards this level. This would be a major problem for researchers with little funding, such as those in countries where much money for research is simply not available. The funders in support of Plan S are unlikely to prevent authors to publish in “hybrid” journals; they are simply not paying for the APCs and authors have to find different sources of funds if they want to go the “hybrid” journal route. They are also unlikely to hold it against grant applicants if they support their application with articles published in “hybrid” journals. The Wellcome Trust, for instance, is explicit in saying that for their funding decisions they are “committed to making sure that when we assess research outputs during funding decisions we will consider the intrinsic merit of the work, not the title of the journal or publisher”2.

Then there are, inevitably, researchers and funding organisations who welcome Plan S as a significant step forwards for open access.

There are rumours that the Principles of Plan S are “set in stone”. This is reportedly based on a comment by Robert-Jan Smits3, but no written evidence is given, and it must be dismissed as perhaps an unguarded comment, or a provocative one. Of course Plan S could evolve and be improved. How? Let me mention just a few issues that should not be too difficult to address:

  1. Plan S could focus more strongly on the requirement that access to research results must be open, and less on the ways to achieve that. The way the plan is written now favours so-called “gold” open access with “green” open access, also known as “self-archiving” in open repositories, given only a subordinate role (“long-term archiving function”). Open access is open access if research results can be freely accessed and re-used. And the danger is that such a strong focus on “gold” open access could have the effect of entrenching that model for the foreseeable future.
  2. Preprints are not mentioned in the Principles of Plan S. Yet preprints could – and should – be included as a viable route to sharing research results openly and freely, especially since the aim of Plan S is to “accelerate the transition to full and immediate Open Access”4. Preprints, an idea successfully pioneered in the physics community, are now springing up in other disciplines with increasing speed. The good news is that preprints are given a role in the open access policy of the Wellcome Trust5, one of the backers of Plan S, so including preprints in the plan should not be a big problem.
  3. Plan S promises that “Open Access publication fees are covered by the Funders or universities”6. In exchange for paying such publication fees (APCs) to a journal, Plan S could require full transparency of the financial basis for the level of any APC that is levied. Perhaps that is meant by “the Funders will ensure jointly the establishment of robust criteria and requirements for the services that compliant high quality Open Access journals and Open Access platforms must provide” 6. But it would be most helpful to be more explicit. Transparency would have to include rejection rates and their historical development, out-of-pocket costs per article, indirect costs, overheads, and information on the profit or surplus contribution of any specific journal. This would enable the funders to remove what they consider excess profit, and possibly also inefficiencies, out of the system. Efficiencies could be sought, for instance, by joining forces to share web platforms for delivery of published articles (something that SciELO is already operating), and so lower operating costs.
  4. Given that paying APCs is already a form of subsidy, the Plan S funding bodies could take it a step further. Instead of paying APCs for individual articles, Plan S could consider (co-)subsidising all operational costs of not-for-profit specialist (society) journals that qualify by meeting a set of criteria established by Plan S. Doing so would thus enable the removal of the need for a “market” approach in scholarly publishing.

In my opinion, an amended Plan S could give a very significant boost to open access, not just in Europe, but world-wide.

Notes

1. Reaction of Researchers to Plan S: Too Far, Too Risky [online]. Plan S Open Letter. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://sites.google.com/view/plansopenletter/open-letter

2. Open access policy 2020 [online]. Wellcome Trust. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://wellcome.ac.uk/sites/default/files/wellcome-open-access-policy-2020.pdf

3. SCHNEIDER, L. [social network]. In: @schneiderleonid [online]. Twitter, October 12, 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://twitter.com/schneiderleonid/status/1050854837070393344

4. cOAlition S: Making Open Access a Reality by 2020 [online]. cOAlition S. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.coalition-s.org/coalition-s-launch/

5. Wellcome is updating its open access policy [online]. Wellcome Trust. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://wellcome.ac.uk/news/wellcome-updating-its-open-access-policy

6. 10 Principles [online]. cOAlition S. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.coalition-s.org/10-principles/

References

10 Principles [online]. cOAlition S. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.coalition-s.org/10-principles/

cOAlition S: Making Open Access a Reality by 2020 [online]. cOAlition S. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.coalition-s.org/coalition-s-launch/

Feedback [online]. cOAlition S. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.coalition-s.org/feedback/

MOODY, G. Big boost for Open Access as Wellcome and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation back EU’s ‘Plan S’ [online]. Techdirt. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20181106/06451540987/big-boost-open-access-as-wellcome-bill-melinda-gates-foundation-back-eus-plan-s.shtml

Open access policy 2020 [online]. Wellcome Trust. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://wellcome.ac.uk/sites/default/files/wellcome-open-access-policy-2020.pdf

Reaction of Researchers to Plan S: Too Far, Too Risky [online]. Plan S Open Letter. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://sites.google.com/view/plansopenletter/open-letter

SCHILTZ, M. Science without publication paywalls, a preamble to: cOAlition S for the Realisation of Full and Immediate Open Access [online]. Science Europe. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.scienceeurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/cOAlitionS.pdf

SCHNEIDER, L. [social network]. In: @schneiderleonid [online]. Twitter, October 12, 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://twitter.com/schneiderleonid/status/1050854837070393344

Wellcome and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation join the Open Access coalition [online]. Wellcome Trust. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://wellcome.ac.uk/press-release/wellcome-and-bill-melinda-gates-foundation-join-open-access-coalition

Wellcome is updating its open access policy [online]. Wellcome Trust. 2018 [viewed 27 November 2018]. Available from: https://wellcome.ac.uk/news/wellcome-updating-its-open-access-policy

 

About Jan Velterop

Jan Velterop (1949), marine geophysicist who became a science publisher in the mid-1970s. He started his publishing career at Elsevier in Amsterdam. in 1990 he became director of a Dutch newspaper, but returned to international science publishing in 1993 at Academic Press in London, where he developed the first country-wide deal that gave electronic access to all AP journals to all institutes of higher education in the United Kingdom (later known as the BigDeal). He next joined Nature as director, but moved quickly on to help get BioMed Central off the ground. He participated in the Budapest Open Access Initiative. In 2005 he joined Springer, based in the UK as Director of Open Access. In 2008 he left to help further develop semantic approaches to accelerate scientific discovery. He is an active advocate of BOAI-compliant open access and of the use of microattribution, the hallmark of so-called “nanopublications”. He published several articles on both topics.

 

Como citar este post [ISO 690/2010]:

VELTEROP, J. Plan S — and Article Processing Charges (APCs) [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2018 [viewed ]. Available from: https://blog.scielo.org/en/2018/11/27/plan-s-and-article-processing-charges-apcs/

 

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