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Plan S: The view from one academic

Academic researchers want funding, but also flexibility when it comes to deciding how to publish their work.


One of the questions that academics, particularly young researchers at the start of their careers, most often ask us when we present Charlesworth Knowledge workshops around the world is ‘how can I get my work published in a good journal but not have to pay (too much) to publish’?


Academic researchers face a basic choice these days when sending out their scientific work: pay to be published in an Open Access journal, or not pay anything but face the prospect of work being stuck behind a paywall where only readers from subscribing institutions will have access to the paper.  Open Access or not, journals these days all tend to have the same tight submission and peer review rules, but no-one likes being told what to do, least of all academic researchers (a pretty independently minded bunch at the best of times).


In the context of Open Access publishing, you’ve probably heard about Plan S: A new initiative launched from within the European Union to mandate the publication of research in Open Access outlets. In other words, this proposal mandates that all research funded by EU money must appear in journals that have agreed to transition from subscription to Open Access.


Plan S is proving very controversial and is being debated across all sectors of the publishing industry: publishers who have expressed concern as mandated Open Access will impact long-standing revenue models, academia (where opinions are mixed) and with professional and scientific societies who consider Plan S to be an “existential threat”. A number of funding agencies outside the EU have adopted or are in the process of adopting similar rules: if we fund your research, you must make the results available to all via an Open Access journal.  To date, Plan S has been supported by funding agencies from 16 countries.


Plan S was hotly debated last week at the Academic Publishing Europe (APE) meeting in Berlinwhere it was generally described by certain delegates as a “chaotic mess”. Other blogs (here, register to read here) have also discussed the diktat imposed on academics by this proposal as being rather too much for researchers to take: at the end of the day, people just don’t like being told what they can and cannot do with their papers.


I can appreciate both sides of this debate. On the one hand, as an academic researcher, I want to get my publications read and cited in the best possible journals, and might not always have the financial support to pay for Open Access. If I think my manuscript has a chance of publication, then I’d certainly try for a really good journal but very often would not be able to pay the article processing charge required for the work to be considered Open Access (i.e., available to anyone to download). Research funding can also be very field-dependent: working on fossils (palaeontology) is less well-funded than cancer research. It is also the case that grants might not carry lines of funding specifically ear-marked to cover publication fees, expecting the author or their parent institution to cover the publishing fee. Academics are not going to be happy about potentially missing out on a ‘top tier’ publication just because either they don’t have the means to pay the open access charges or that the publication is not fully OA-compliant. This is the essence of Plan S: If we fund you, you must publish in a certain kind of journal.


No one knows what their research results are going to look like when they receive grant funding to do the work! You write a grant, you obtain the funding, you do the research and then you decide where best to publish the work.


For sure, funding agencies have the right to tell researchers receiving their financial support how their funding should be used and in what type of publication the research can appear. However, the way that Plan S has been rolled out and presented is not being well received by the research community. Interestingly, the Germans are not currently of the 16 countries whose funding agencies who have signed up to Plan S, choosing to do their own thing.


The Charlesworth Group is unique as an author services provider in that we are impartial when it comes to choice of a publishing model or method; our aim is to help researchers achieve their potential and publish their work in the best possible outlets. Please check out our education service, Charlesworth Knowledge, for more information about how we can help you or your institution.


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