STM (Scientific, Technical and Medical) publishing has been an extraordinarily profitable area for the big academic publishers in the last 30 years. But this last Autumn it was dealt a potentially fatal blow. Robert-Jan Smits from the European Commission and Marc Schiltz representing Europe’s largest research founders announced Plan S, a radical initiative designed to ensure that by 2020 all research papers arising from funding provided by 11 European funders are made open access immediately on publication. The rather far reaching and comprehensive nature of the Plan S programme — and its relatively short timetable — suggests that in the medium term almost all European research-based publishing will be Open Access. Plan S has since been endorsed by many of the biggest charitable sponsors (Welcome and the Gates Foundation included), welcomed by representatives of the Chinese and Indian research communities and may be winning indirect support in the USA.
Plan S has occasioned an extraordinary quantity of feedback, over 400 items tagged by a group at the Harvard library system, and by no means all of it favourable. The climate of discussion around Open Access has been transformed. Publishers and librarians are aware that big changes are afoot. But there are also enormous uncertainties and some Open Access advocates are quite critical of the approach taken by the Plan S team (Richard Poynder has produced a critique from the standpoint of the Global South, which is also useful in summarising the general state of play in early 2019) . There are plenty of rough edges or sore points in the ambitious proposals covered by Plan S: the role of small publishers and learned societies, the copyright of academic authors in books that they write, the advisability of rolling out a system for the social sciences and humanities that has been designed to work first for medical and bio-sciences, and the vagueness or bossiness of the allowable APCs (‘article processing charges’ which must be below an unspecified limit). One of the key strategies that Plan S supports is that of ‘flipping’ established journals from a ‘closed’ subscriber base to an ‘open access’ approach. Journal flipping has been employed as an Open Access guerrilla tactic for some time. The tactic is ‘guerilla’ in that it relies on local initiative and works piece-meal, journal by journal. But it is also ‘guerilla’ in the way that in most cases the established journal and the new ‘rebel’ journal both move forward and competition between open and closed journals persists. Plan S can be seen as an attempt to flip the whole system, with a deadline of 2020. This timescale is far too short to ensure a comprehensive success, but the radical nature of the Plan S road map and the funding power of its backers mean that the system has already been to an extent flipped. The threat or is it a ‘promise and a guarantee’ is enough. The commercial publishers and the major research libraries are now all working on the assumption that something like Plan S will slide the publishing system towards Open Access for scientific research and most scholarly research. In a sense Open Access is winning, but the victory may be Pyrrhic and the outcome complex. At least for a time, old and new systems will be in play. The early proponents of Open Access expected that the battle when won could lead to a much simpler, more efficient and cheaper system of scholarly communication. The future destination and the true costs of Open Access are still unclear.
The STM journal publishing market which is the major target for a system flip is estimated at $10 Billion global market, within a broader STM information market of $25 Billion (see STM Report 2018). Following a systemic flip in the journals market, libraries will still have a key role in sustaining the information needs of their institutional hosts. They will not be paying large sums to subscribe to research journals, but they will still have subscriptions to information services and non-OA content aggregations ebooks, video and teaching materials. Many of the services that they will need to maintain ‘scholarly and research workflows’ will be second order with roles in discovery, cataloguing, citation, quality control, correction, integration and instruction. There will also be an enormous task in curating and preserving periodicals and scholarly texts that are pre-Open Access. Subscription services will play a role in this.
Publishers and librarians will need to think again about how content which is not and never will be a ‘research output’ needs to be used and preserved for research purposes. Open Access for educational use will not look like a plausible destination for the publisher of the Scientific American or the Washington Post. Newspapers and professional or cultural magazines that are increasingly relying on digital subscriptions from individuals will be looking for licensing models that will generate valuable and stable subscriptions from major research and educational networks.