What does the Web of Science tell us about Plan S?

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Nandita Quaderi summarises findings from The Plan S footprint: Implications for the Scholarly Publishing Landscape

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard about the new disruptor in publishing and academic research. 

Plan S, the new initiative from cOAlition S, launched in September, aims to transform scientific discovery by ensuring research is freely accessible to readers. Plan S will require researchers who benefit from funding or grants from cOAlition S members to publish in open repositories or journals where all papers are publicly accessible with no subscription. This is usually possible via payment of article processing charges (APCs).  

The consultation period on the implementation guidelines recently ended and has generated some discussion, to say the least – more than 600 individuals and organisations provided responses to the official consultation, and the Open Access Tracking Project run by Peter Suber, at Harvard, has tagged 456 items on Plan S. Publisher member associations, including ALPSP and the STM Association, have raised concerns about the accelerated pace of change to an industry already in transition, and asked for clarity regarding the details of implementation. But much of the commentary thus far has been qualitative or anecdotal, not data-driven.

To remedy this, using data from more than 1.9 million papers across 20,000 journals in Web of Science Core Collection, we filtered for journal content published in 2017 classified as research or review articles (as these are the main document types covered by the Plan S proposals.) We examined perspectives related to funders, disciplines, countries, publishers, and journals. The results are in a report from the Institute for Scientific Information: The Plan S footprint: Implications for the Scholarly Publishing Landscape, that is free to download. 

Publishers and Plan S 

There are 4,900 publishers in Web of Science that have one or more journals in the dataset, but there is a significant variance in scale, with the largest 20 per cent of publishers accounting for more than 90 per cent of papers analysed in our study. More than 3,500 publishers had no Plan S papers, and a further 1,120 published 10 or fewer papers acknowledging Plan S funding. 

Focussing on the largest 200 publishers, accounting for more than 85 per cent of the overall count of papers and 95 per cent of papers acknowledging Plan S funders, we identified six scenarios that publishers will encounter in responding to Plan S compliance. We  illustrate these scenarios using the 50 largest publishers in Figure 11 in our report (right). This figure gives a sense of the scale of challenges and opportunities ahead for publishers of all sizes.

•Group A contains mostly regional publishers that have less than 1.5 per cent of their papers funded by Plan S.

•Group B is those publishers that are already >35 per cent compliant, including those with a large number of DOAJ-listed journals that host Plan S content.

•Group C are publishers with a good compliance, but also a significant volume of ‘at risk’ papers which are Plan S-funded but non-compliant.

•Group D are publishers with a limited amount of Plan S-funded work – primarily social science or humanities-focused. 

•Groups E and F contain those publishers that have a large proportion of papers ‘at risk’, and it is in these groups that a need for greater adaptation may be implied.

Potential scenarios for journals

Only 120,000 (6.4 per cent) of papers indexed in the Web of Science acknowledge Plan S funders, but these are comparatively well-cited, published in high impact journals and as we have seen, often in journals from major publishing houses. They won’t just influence the publishing landscape – these are papers that will change their fields of scientific discovery. 

Post-Plan S, we would expect to see about 90,000 papers that are published in journals that are not compliant with Plan S move to Gold OA journals, which increase the number of papers in Gold OA journals by 29 per cent and, on the flipside, decrease the number of non-open access papers and Hybrid Open Access papers by 5 per cent and 23 per cent respectively. 

Unless there is confirmation from Plan S on whether ‘read and publish’ deals – such as Wiley’s recent agreement with Projekt DEAL – will be considered compliant in the long term, the market can be expected to change in response by ‘flipping’ existing hybrid journals to become fully OA, or Plan S papers being redirected to compliant Gold OA journals. There are only a few hybrid journals with a medium-to-high percentage of open access content that might easily flip, which implies that challenging business decisions lie ahead for publishers. 

But this shift is only possible where authors have the opportunity to submit to a fully Gold OA journal appropriate for their field of research, which do not always exist – particularly in areas such as mathematics and chemistry, where levels of Plan S funding are relatively high, but compliance levels are relatively low. We know that authors tend to choose the journals they submit to based on the journal reputation and brand – the journals they think their colleagues will read. Business model, or the option to publish open access, is not a prime consideration unless the authors are mandated to do so. Several publishers have pointed out that Plan S will impact author choice or academic freedom. 

Where do we go from here?

Our report does not come to any dramatic conclusions, as the path of change continues to evolve and there appear to be some nuances of policy among cOAlition S members which could translate into different approaches by region, agency, and/or discipline. But the data raises a number of questions which we hope will provide food for thought for the research community, and inform future debate. 

Examples include: 

•Without carefully managed transition to allow for the emergence of new titles, is there a risk of unusual constraints in publishing opportunities in affected subjects? 

•Citations are not a defining metric of quality, but might the restructuring of well-cited papers have unplanned consequences?; and

•While large publishers will be influential in discussions, small publishers and learned societies publish an important part of the Plan S-funded output – will transition be more difficult for them, and if so how can we manage this?

While these questions are, for now, unanswered, one thing is certain. Plan S will require all community stakeholders – funders, institutions, publishers and researchers – to work closely together to ensure careful implementation. If we can retain the features of the research publishing system which have been a benefit to society and the economy over the last century, balanced with increased and accelerated open access to research, then the debate will have all been worth it. 

Nandita Quaderi is editor-in-chief of Web of Science at the Institute for Scientific Information