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Plan S: How Open Access Publishing Could Be Changing Academia

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I started working in academia as an undergraduate laboratory technician in 2009. After a decade of experience and four years as a graduate student, I thought I would have run out of things that would surprise my family about academia. However, there is one side of academia I haven’t had a lot of experience with until recently: publication. “What do you mean I have to pay to see the paper online?” I might as well have told my parents that I grew a second head. They could not have been more flabbergasted by the revelation that they would have to pay a scientific journal to view a paper. At first, I was taken aback by their reaction. I was simply sharing the status quo of how scientific journals function. However, this status quo might be changing rapidly.

In September 2018, Science Europe, several national research funding organizations in Europe, the European Research Council and the European Commission released “Plan S.” This ambitious initiative would require all publicly funded academic papers to be published in immediately open access journals by Jan. 1, 2020. According to a December 2017 study, only approximately 15 percent of journals publish all their papers immediately open access. This means Plan S would bar researchers from publishing in 85 percent of journals, including influential journal titles such as Nature, Cell and Science. In recent years, several journals have adopted a “hybrid” model of publishing, where papers can be made immediately open access for an additional fee, but the majority of papers they publish remain behind paywalls. However, even these hybrid journals would not be accepted under Plan S except during a short transition period.

This leads us to some important questions: What drives the cost of publication, and why aren’t more journals fully open access? Lila Gierasch, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), is just the person to answer these questions. In a recent editorial, Gierasch outlined several aspects of the publication workflow at JBC that drive publication costs, such as maintenance of journal archives, validation of submitted manuscripts, marketing, and development and maintenance of an online submission system. Researchers are usually familiar with two ways journals acquire income to fund these activities: journal subscriptions and article processing charges (APCs). I was surprised when I saw in the news recently that the University of California was paying Elsevier more than $10 million a year for journal access. Most journals are fairly secretive and do not disclose how much they earn from these large subscriptions, but APCs are easier to unearth as researchers pay them directly to journals to publish their papers. In a recent paper submission to the Journal of Visual Experiments (JoVE), I was told I could pay $2,400 for standard access or $4,200 for open access. In comparison, Nature Communications charges approximately $5,000 to publish an article open access whereas PLOS ONE only charges $1,595.

In our current system, journals need to charge researchers more to publish open access in order to offset the loss of income they would have acquired by having that article behind a paywall. Yet, some laboratories are not in the position to pay twice as much money to publish an article open access. Another factor slowing the progress of the open access movement is that scientists have a strong incentive to submit their papers to high-prestige subscription journals. In academia’s highly competitive job market, publishing a high impact paper can give you that crucial boost necessary to get a faculty position.

Supporters of Plan S often present the initiative in a moral light: As scientists, we have a duty to share our findings publicly for the benefit of all. However, if your career relies on that Nature paper, would you choose a moral high ground over the practical reality of ensuring your future career? The debate over open access publishing rages on, but the Plan S initiative shows that major changes could be coming soon to academic publishing.

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