Plan S, the Verschlimmbesserung of Scholarly Information

In this guest post, James Phimister examines the implications of a revised Plan S

Plan S, the Verschlimmbesserung of Scholarly Information

Today’s post is by James Phimister, the founder of PHI Perspectives, a consulting practice that helps science, medical, and information organizations grow. He can be found on LinkedIn, where he occasionally writes.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Germany steered clear of signing on to Plan S. If you can create the word verschlimmbesserung to describe an attempted improvement that actually makes things worse, you are probably pretty good at spotting and avoiding a verschlimmbesserung more quickly than you can say it.

We can only speculate at Germany’s reluctance to join Plan S — Was it the lack of input from researchers? The failure to articulate how science will benefit? The damage that will ensue to the channels and professions that curate science? There are so many to choose from. One thing we can be sure of, it wasn’t that the Germans don’t believe in open access, as they most certainly do (see Exhibit A – Projekt Deal).

A week ago Friday, cOAlition S released their highly anticipated revised Plan S implementation guidance. This will likely be the final word from the group for a while, and the future of scholarly information will have to work with, or around, the revisions. There won’t be much choice. What we can be sure of now is that the direction of scholarly communication will chart an adjusted course, set by cOAlition S’s recently departed leader, Robert-Jan Smits.

The revisions to Plan S are modest, disappointingly so, given that 600 or so submitted responses to the original guidance were provided and some 1,800 researchers called it too risky. The overall requirement is the same — on publication, authors reporting research funded by a Plan S funder must make a version of the article publicly available. Of the revisions, the deadline to comply with the policy has been moved back a year and a bit, which relieves some immediate angst but doesn’t change the policy’s underlying issues. Caps on APCs are removed, and to those that have gone an APC route, that certainly matters. Authors can request to limit future derivatives of their work (though their ability to protect against commercial misuse is still lacking). And the statement that hybrids won’t comply has been removed, but that wasn’t much of a change, because despite the statement in the original guidance, hybrids in fact did comply via the so-called middle route.

The biggest change was a new principle:

The Funders commit that when assessing research outputs during funding decisions they will value the intrinsic merit of the work and not consider the publication channel, its impact factor (or other journal metrics), or the publisher.

(Another principle acknowledging the value of repositories was dropped to keep to a tidy 10.)

This change, perhaps intended to assuage researchers who fear being penalized for not being able to publish in the top titles in their field, could significantly change the publishing landscape. Put simply, in the eyes of cOAlition S, it doesn’t matter if you publish in Nature, a leading society title, PLoS One, or with a predatory shill.

It is with the Plan S revisions complete that we can take a step back and see what a verschlimmbesserung Plan S really is. And I mean it is a verschlimmbesserung in the true sense of the word.

First, it is clear cOAlition S funders see, or at least saw, Plan S as an improvement. For the 21 funding bodies that invest over $11 billion annually to advance our understanding of science and medicine, wanting to increase the visibility of the research they fund is an intrinsically sensible objective. And through the lens of increasing immediate public access to published research, Plan S would seem like an advance.

But if we widen the aperture to align with the mission of Plan S funders and consider whether Plan S is good for science, medicine, humanities, and knowledge, the focus changes, and we can see that Plan S could well actually make things worse.

Today’s publishing ecosystem has evolved to sort research in a manner that supports author and reader needs alike. Top titles, with their teams of in-house scientists, external review processes, and investments in the publishing process, distill and render the very best research. Disciplinary titles push the envelope at the edges of emerging fields, providing a venue for field leaders to come together and leverage a scalable peer-review infrastructure, and distill what matters in their areas of interest.  Larger multidisciplinary and often OA titles provide an important venue for authors to showcase their findings, that, while often not ground-breaking, can add to the corpus of knowledge. This complex, multitiered system is continuously improving in efficiency and access, and it serves multiple constituents surprisingly well.

Plan S undermines this complex ecosystem, making the more selective and curated subscription outlets less viable. In doing so, Plan S flattens the multitude of venues where scholarly information appears, and funnels research towards high-volume, low-cost, less-discerning outlets.

Who is better served by this? Likely not researchers, who rely on the filtering engines of top-tier and disciplinary titles to identify the most relevant research and save them what they value most, time. Ironically, Plan S may make the research less identifiable, and, in turn, less visible to cOAlition S’s most important audience — researchers who can use and build on the research findings.

It is also not clear that authors are well-served, either. Authors’ first choices are often to publish in higher quality, peer-oriented venues that reach targeted research communities. To authors, the proposition of appearing in multidisciplinary OA megajournals may be more about the benefits of cascades and speed to publish than visibility. And even this proposition may be weakening — my team sees publishing volumes in mega-journals having plateaued and showing signs of decline.

If researchers and authors are not better off from the coming shift in the publishing landscape, are the missions of cOAlition S funders really advanced? Some might argue that, yes, their missions will be advanced, because Plan S is not really about advancing science, or OA, but about harming large commercial publishers (I made this argument here). Setting aside that this is extraordinary mission creep (which may be motivated by some counter-productive schadenfreude), it is not even clear this is a likely outcome. Rather we may find that low-margin society publishers, who are dedicated to advancing their fields, find Plan S makes their operations unsustainable and are forced to divest their publishing assets. As a result, we may well see large commercial players become even larger, and while there be some margin compression in traversing to a Plan S-catalyzed flipped world, net profits of commercial players could well grow.

And so what are we left with? A policy that doesn’t serve the needs of authors, researchers, funding bodies, and societies, but that could help large commercial publishers.

It is a verschlimmbesserung indeed.

Bis später,