Plan S’ 2022 Report: ‘Clearly Disappointing’

In News by Porter Anderson

In its analysis of transformative-journal program progress in 2022, Plan S sees the open-access transition moving more slowly than hoped.

Image – Getty iStockphoto: Stasys Kudarauskas

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Relatively Few Titles Flipped to Open Access
As has been noted here at Publishing Perspectives in the past, the Coalition S initiative for open access called “Plan S” was launched in September 2018.

Coalition S is an international consortium opened by the European Research Council. Its Plan S has required that, starting in 2021, scientific publications resulting from research funded by public grants should be published in open-access journals and/or on open-access platforms “or made immediately available through open-access repositories without embargo.” From the September 2018 rollout of Plan S, there has been a good deal of controversy around the program, in part involving the time publishers were given to prepare and the level of consultation.

The driving concept, however, at its simplest, has been to make scientific research paid for by taxpayers available without charging a subscription fee to read it.

This is part of the dynamic, of course, that has at times made academic and scholarly publishing seem to be far more focused on its business model—and the change to open-access—than on almost anything else (including its content), at least in terms of its communications with various news media. Where once a reporter covering academic and scholarly publishing might find news of articles on breakthroughs in their inboxes, today what arrives is primarily about open-access and the transformative agreements touted by the major players in the sector.

“It is clearly disappointing that over two-thirds (68 percent) of the journals in the transformative-journal program failed to meet their open-access growth targets.”Plan S, transformative journals program 2022 analysis

A week ago today, the coalition’s Plan S released a report with analysis from reports on how “transformative journals” in its purview performed in 2022. And the news has been recognized by many as not being as positive as might have been hoped.

Particularly with generally upbeat announcements from so many publishers about so many transformative agreements and open-access strides forward, it might surprise some observers to learn that Plan S is reporting that in 2022

  • The executive summary of that report has revealed that a total of 68 percent of a group of 2,326 titles in its “transformative journal” monitoring program failed to meet their open-access growth targets in 2022. That’s 1,589 titles.
  • By contrast, 30 percent, or 695 titles in the Plan S transformative journal program did meet or exceed their open-access growth targets in 2022.

In terms of what “growth” refers to in this context, the plan’s report writes, “Transformative journal titles are required to demonstrate an annual increase in the proportion of open-access research content of at least 5 percentage points in absolute terms and at least 15 percent in relative terms, year-over-year.  Journals in the program also agree to flip to full open-access when 75 percent of the research content is published in this way.”

As it happens, just 26 journals, or 1 percent of the sample, did indeed “flip,” as the industry puts it, to full open-access.

There are 16 transformative journal publishers represented in the program, and when their journals fail to hit their marks, those journals are to be removed from the exercise.

Robert Kiley, who heads up strategy at Coalition S, is the author of the executive summary, and he writes, “It is clearly disappointing that over two-thirds (68 percent) of the journals in the transformative-journal program failed to meet their open-access growth targets.  And, as made clear last year, titles which do not meet their targets will be removed from the transformative-journal program.  As such, 1589 titles will lose their transformative-journal status at the end of 2023.”

Image: Coalition S, Plan S, 2022 analysis, transformative journal program

In light of these results, Kiley writes, he confirms a decision announced in January to close Coalition S’ financial support for open access publishing under transformative arrangements at the end of 2024. This, he confirms, is bolstered by the report’s suggestion “that for some publishers, the transition to full and immediate open access is unlikely to happen in a reasonable time frame.”

“As the data shows,” he points out, “relatively few titles are anywhere near” the 75-percent threshold for “flipping” to full open-access, with a quarter of the program’s titles having open-access penetration of 10 percent or less in 2022.

“It is especially discouraging to note,” Kiley writes, “that there are at least six titles, published by Springer Nature, which have been unilaterally withdrawn from the transformative-journal program, despite meeting this 75-percent open-access penetration rate threshold. For example, the 100 percent of the articles published in the journal European Journal for Security Research were published open-access in 2022; for the International Review of Intellectual Property and Competition Law the OA penetration rate was 95 percent.  Even ignoring the question as to what content subscribers are still paying for, if a title is not prepared to flip at these levels of open-access, the only logical conclusion is that they will never flip to full open-access.”

There were bright spots, as Kiley notes, including 62 percent of Cambridge University Press‘ 240 titles meeting or exceeding their growth targets, as can be seen in the above graphic.

Springer Nature’s Upcoming Report

Many of our readers, of course, are familiar with Springer Nature–among the largest of the world’s publishers working toward the change to open-access, a regular player in the announcements of transformative agreements and other open-access news we carry.

On Wednesday (June 28), Springer Nature is to release its second annual “progress report,” which, as the company says, “is part of our continuing commitment to transparency with our authors, users, customers, and community on key areas of investment we’re making and the results and impact of these.”

While awaiting that report–and after the Plan S analysis made special reference to the publisher’s 2022 performance in the transformative journals program–the Springer Nature staff has been kind enough to provide Publishing Perspectives, at our request, with a statement regarding the Plan S report’s findings.

Springer Nature’s response:

“Springer Nature is on track to publish 50 percent of research articles open-access by end of 2024.

“Transformative agreements continue to prove to be the most effective way of transitioning to open access at scale, delivering three times more open-access growth than author-choice publishing in our hybrid and transformative journals.

“This in turn powers an increase in visibility for the final published version, which researchers want to read and build on. Our agreement in the United Kingdom has seen usage increase tenfold since 2015, while in the United States, our 2021 agreement with the California Digital Library has seen downloads increase 180 percent in a single year.”

What’s more, Springer Nature CEO Frank Vrancken Peeters, in his June 14 blog post after speaking at the 16th Berlin Open Access Conference, has reiterated the company’s commitment to the transition, agreeing with those who say things are moving too slowly. “The conference [in Berlin] concluded,” he writes, “that ‘The global open-access transition must advance at a far greater pace.’ I agree. Transformative agreements come with challenges, but the opportunities are just so great that I think it’s worth us all working together to keep the transition momentum going.”

Peeters also offered to the conference four questions that represent the sorts of challenges that Springer Nature has encountered in its efforts to accelerate the transition to open access. Those four questions and his thoughts on them are:

  • How do we encourage researchers to take full advantage of the opportunities that transformative agreements provide? We’re seeing that researchers are wary of taking up the open-access options available to them via the transformative agreement, or are not making full use of existing open-access funding.  We need to educate the  research community  about the potential of gold open-access and build confidence in choosing this route.
  • Frank Vrancken Peeters

    How do we preserve the integrity of science? In some countries outside of Europe, there is a misconception that open access is somehow less reliable than subscription content.  At Springer Nature, we’ve invested considerable sums in people and technology to preserve the integrity of science. And many of us are working with the STM Integrity Hub to share insights and tools. But let’s face it, publishers are still seeing too many issues and these can erode trust in the system. What else can we do collectively to preserve integrity and build trust?

  • How do we ensure equality of publication and access–across disciplines, across the globe, and even across territories, as not all institutions are covered by transformative agreements and not all researchers within a territory are part of a participating institution? We’re experimenting with different models such as the recent acquisitions of Cureus, but we need to find an answer as an industry.
  • And  finally, we have so much to celebrate, not just here in Europe but globally. We now have lots of examples of transformative agreements that have really worked and sent us much farther down the road to an open-access future. But how do we encourage more countries to join up and not get stuck behind paywalls? How can we act as ambassadors for this approach that we know works for the institution, for the funder, for the researcher, and even for the world? Remember, the increased visibility of open-access publishing extends to Sustainable Development Goals articles too–which is good for all of us, right?

More will be known on Wednesday about Springer Nature’s progress.

Image: Coalition S, Plan S, 2022 analysis, transformative journal program

More from Publishing Perspectives on open access is here, and more on scholarly and academic publishing is here, and more on Springer Nature is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.