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The tug of war between followers of the traditional subscription-based model for scholarly publishing and proponents of open access (OA) in its various forms is getting interesting. Major research funders from a number of European countries are pushing an OA initiative that could radically change academic publishing’s traditional subscription model. No matter which side you lean toward, there are advantages, disadvantages, and a lot of uncertainty — so it’s important to get the whole picture.

Being published: The OA-subscription dilemma

It’s an ever-present condition for academics and researchers — the need to be published if you want to advance your reputation and your career. And within that lies a dilemma: Is it more important to publish in a prestigious but paywalled journal or have your work widely accessible on an OA platform that may lack the reach of a high-impact traditional subscription journal?

The very nature of scientific research depends on that research’s widespread dissemination to other scientists and the public. Although the internet has greatly enhanced dissemination and access to research, there is still the problem of a financially sustainable business model. To manage the acquisition, editing, and publication of a quality journal requires substantial investment. To make content freely accessible requires publishers to recover their costs from researchers or their funders and universities.

Another challenge to OA is that OA journals may be perceived to lack validation. When no rigorous peer review has been performed, as can be the case for some OA publications, the content’s quality may suffer. However, time to publication can be dramatically shortened by publishing on an OA platform — speeding up the scientific inquiry process.

Will Plan S doom the subscription model?

As the scholarly publishing community struggles to find a workable publishing model, 15 research funding agencies are pushing an initiative to make all research freely and immediately available upon publication. “Plan S” mandates that by 2020 all research papers these agencies fund must immediately be made available for anyone to download and reuse. Their stance is that no science should be locked behind paywalls.

The initiative will give a big boost to the OA movement, but it isn’t without controversy, even from OA advocates. Currently, only 15% of journal publishers make their articles immediately available, usually financed through author fees or research funders. This means that 85% of scientific journals will be off limits for scientists funded by these Plan S agencies. In addition, these funding agencies want to cap how much they are willing to pay for OA articles, but they don’t say how much that might be.

Academic publishing will undoubtedly be undergoing a lot of change, and it’s difficult to predict how it will play out. Traditional publishers need to maintain their quality while trying to keep subscriptions affordable. OA publishers need to cover their publishing costs. The integrity and accessibility of research are at the core of this unfolding, volatile, and consequential issue.

There is much of which to be apprised, and scholarly publishers will do well to stay abreast of the rapidly developing OA movement and Plan S.

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