Friday, January 4, 2019

Plan S does not exist

This article is based on the December 27 issue of Inside Public Access, which includes Inside Plan S.

December 27, 2018

Plan S does not exist

By David Wojick, Ph.D.

Synopsis: Absent the APC cap, Plan S is decisively incomplete.

In a very real sense Plan S does not exist, because one of its most central features has yet to be stated. This is the amount or form of the cap on APCs. I say "form" because it is entirely possible that the cap will be complex. For example, given the way the discussion is going, it might be different for society journals and commercial ones. Or it may be larger for smaller publishers, etc. It is, after all, clear that the Plan S people are trying to design a new publishing system. The APC cap is a good tool to tinker with.

The key point is that the APC cap is probably the biggest single factor that publishers need in order to decide whether or not to try to comply with Plan S. Thus the publishers and journals are all in limbo until this factor is specified. Given that the Plan S people say they are going to do a study on this first, it might be a long time coming.

But the supposed 2020 compliance deadline is approaching fast. So what we have at this point is a huge mess.

The tipping point for me was a recent article, innocently titled "Thoughts on Plan S implementation guidelines" by Tony Ross-Hellauer (R-H)

R-H argues that some of the implementation guidelines for repositories are so expensive that they might cause some repositories to choose not to comply, basically opting out of Plan S. Well the same is certainly true for journals, especially given the very limited membership of funders. They are presently estimated to generate less than 4% of all journal articles, so most journals can probably do without them.

Angela Cochran's fine piece in The Scholarly Kitchen -- "Plan S: A Mandate for Gold OA with Lots of Strings Attached" -- details many of the expensive requirements that flow from the guidelines. But the cap on APCs could be by far the greatest cost. It makes an enormous difference whether the cap is, say, $1000 or $3000. Given the apparent mindset of the Plan S people it might even be as low as $500 and it certainly will not be as high as the $5000 some leading journals say they need.

In fact the two types of Plan S costs are additive. Adding expensive features while cutting income might easily make compliance financially unsustainable for most journals. That the Plan S architects are either indifferent to this outcome, or somehow unaware of it, seems clear.

R-H, who is a prominent member of this radical wing of the OA movement, actually takes it a step further. He proposes that APCs be voluntary! That is, authors can choose to pay the full amount, or less, or even nothing. That a ten billion dollar a year industry, including many non-profits, can not reliably operate this way is apparently irrelevant.

Unfortunately this is the kind of anti-business thinking that seems to dominate Plan S. It is actually rather perverse to introduce a massively disruptive plan while withholding the central feature determining its viability. All of the discussion of its details that is presently going on may in fact be pointless if the APC cap is set too low, which almost seems likely.

Yet Plan S is calling for comments. It is hard to comment on a proposal when the cost is unknown. I attribute this folly to the arrogance of funders, who are used to having absolute power over researchers. They have no such power over the journals.

In fact at this point I have to say that Plan S is -- as the saying goes -- programmed to fail. The extent to which this is true will have to wait until the APC capping system is announced, presumably some time in 2019. I am not optimistic that Plan S will be viable.

In the meantime we, just like the journals, are all in limbo because there simply is no complete Plan S to evaluate. There must be (1) a proposal and (2) a price, but Plan S has no price at this point.

Half a plan is not a plan.

Interesting times lie ahead. Stay tuned.


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