Saturday 23 January 2021

Open access by decree: a success of Plan S?

Science family of journals announces change to open-access policy”: the title of this Nature news article may sound boring, but the news are not:

Science is allowing authors to distribute their articles under Creative Commons license, free of charge, without embargo.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, of course, there are caveats. First, this is the author’s accepted version, not the published version. (OK, minor point.) Second, this is a trial policy, which may or may not be made permanent. And third, this only applies to authors who are mandated to do so by their Coalition S funders.

Who, you may ask, are these happy authors? I will defer to Wikipedia for reminders about Plan S and Coalition S, and move to the next question: how did Coalition S achieve this? Last summer, Coalition S announced a Rights Retention Strategy that mandates fundees to distribute their work under CC license, without embargo, no matter what the publisher makes them sign. In their own words,

This public licence and/or agreed prior obligations take legal precedence over any later Licence to Publish or Copyright Transfer Agreement that the publisher may ask the author to sign.

This type of “open access by decree” may sound like little more than an exercise in blame-shifting. To an author who is caught between a funder and a journal’s incompatible demands, it should not matter who blacklists the other: the author cannot publish in that journal. However, Plan S got bad press among some researchers for appearing to blacklist journals. Now it is the journals who will have to blacklist funders, and to reject submitted articles for technicalities.

The success of the maneuver depends on publishers’ reactions. Coalition S is too big to ignore, so publishers have to take a stand. Nature journals have recently announced their adoption of Gold open access options, for a charge of the order of 9.500 euros per article. This was denounced as outrageously expensive. Björn Brembs even took it as a refutation of the widespread idea that the author-pays model would lead to lower costs.

However, Coalition S-funded authors can now choose between publishing in Science for free, or in Nature for 9.500 euros. It does seem that Science is competing on price! Not so fast: Nature’s high price is partly an illusion, as it comes in the context of transformative agreements, which are supposed to transition Springer Nature’s journals to open access. The idea is that academic institutions’ journal subscriptions would also cover open access publishing of their researcher’s articles. For an author who is covered by a transformative agreement, publishing open access in Nature is effectively free, which may be why Science had to offer the same for free, just to stay competitive.

At this stage, it is not clear which authors will face which choices of open access options and pricing. It is therefore a bit early for seeing the effects of the Rights Retention Strategy. At least, we now have the admission by an important publisher that open access is not an extra service that should bring them extra revenue.

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