Getting to the heart of the Plan S debate


By Rob Johnson, 08/02/2019

Today sees the closure of the public consultation on the implementation guidance for Plan S, an initiative for Open Access publishing that was launched in September 2018.  In a recent article for UKSG Insights, “From coalition to commons: Plan S and the future of scholarly communication“, I sought to provide a theoretical framework for understanding the development, objectives and governance of Plan S. I have submitted the article as my response to the consultation, and include here a slightly edited version of the covering text that accompanies it.

It is no exaggeration to say that many hundreds, if not thousands, of organisations and individuals will be submitting responses to the Plan S consultation. The level of interest generated reflects the ambitious and, many would argue, divisive nature of the Plan’s 10 principles, and the accompanying guidance. In my article From coalition to commons: Plan S and the future of scholarly communication, I argue that Plan S seeks to use regulated market mechanisms and an institution of collective action (‘cOAlition S’) to create and govern an intellectual commons. I explain what I mean by these terms in the article itself, but in short I believe understanding the Plan in this way can help us make sense of some of the responses to it.

For me, these responses centre primarily on three questions:

1. What is the role of the market in scholarly communication?

2. What rights do research funders have to intervene in the process of scholarly communication? and

3. How do we balance the public’s right to  taxpayer-funded knowledge with the rights of authors to choose how and and in what ways their work is used?

The answers to these questions will vary depending on one’s position in the scholarly communication landscape, one’s scholarly discipline and, importantly, one’s personal political views. In order to make sense of these differing viewpoints, I suggest the Plan should be evaluated against three key criteria:

Equity: does it increase the ability of researchers both to read research outputs, and to publish them?

Efficiency: does it promote optimal production, management and use of the scholarly literature?

Sustainability:  is it likely to lead to positive outcomes for scholarly communication, and the institution of science, over the long term?

I believe this represents a helpful way of understanding and categorising the issues associated with the Plan’s implementation, and may also be of value to the cOAlition in analysing the feedback it receives.

The way forward

Finally, I encourage the cOAlition to think carefully about future governance and monitoring mechanisms as the Plan develops. Drawing on the work of the Nobel-Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom on the management of common-pool resources, I believe the cOAlition should:

– develop ‘participatory governance‘ mechanisms, whereby other stakeholders are enabled to take a degree of ownership of the Plan’s development. The current consultation represents an important first step in this regard.

– take a ‘polycentric‘ approach to the Plan’s implementation, whereby the Plan S principles provide an overarching set of rules, but individual actors (both funders and other stakeholders) retain some autonomy to decide how to enact these in practice.

– recognise the need for ‘adaptive governance‘, meaning that the system of rules is able to evolve and adapt over time. Effective monitoring and feedback mechanisms will be critical to enabling this.

Robert Jan-Smits, Open Access Envoy of the European Commission, was kind enough to read the article on its publication, and shared some comments with me, which he granted me permission to reproduce here:

‘I just read your article on PLAN S and the future of scholarly publications. I found this very impressive, notably because it puts the debate from the technical level to a strategic and policy one. As such your article is unique and should become required reading for policy makers.’

I hope it will therefore be of some value to the cOAlition in making sense of the huge volume of responses to the consultation, and in deciding how best to foster full and immediate Open Access of research outputs – an aim I wholeheartedly support.

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