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Pros and Cons of Traditional and Open Access Publishing

Should publicly funded research be free to read? That’s the position underpinning Plan S, and it’s upending the world of scientific publishing. Plan S stands for “shock the status quo,” and that is exactly what is happening in the traditional model of scholarly communications. While many are familiar with the movement by now, what exactly does Plan S propose, and where did it come from? What’s next for Open Access (OA) advocacy, and how could it change scientific research and publishing?

What is plan S?

Plan S is a type of open sourcing where paywalls are a thing of the past. The idea, floated by several European funders in 2018, became a requirement in 2021. It seeks to change the world of traditional research, where scientists turn over their work for free and publishers profit by charging for subscriptions. The goal, they suggest, is to “speed scientific progress by allowing findings to be shared more freely.” It is expected that researchers can comply with Plan S by:

  • Paying publishers to make the article widely available on a journal platform
  • Uploading the article to a free public repository for anyone to access

There are signs Plan S is gaining some traction. Earlier this year, Science magazine reported there are 17 agencies and 6 foundations that support Plan S, including the Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, two of the world’s biggest biomedical research funders. However, since the coalition supporting OA doesn’t have widespread international support, the current mandate affects only about 6% of the scientific community, according to Clarivate Analytics. The executive director of Plan S suggests that the number is and will be about five times higher.

In 2021, Nature and Cell Press announced they would allow scientists to publish outside their paywall for a large fee. Most major publishers removed paywalls from any articles about COVID-19 last year in an effort to speed up vaccine approval and production. Yet there are pros and cons to these monumental changes to the academic publishing industry and the scientific community they serve.

Who does OA benefit?

For the reader, eliminating access costs to academic research is an exciting benefit that democratizes scientific knowledge. Authors can reach a wider audience, which is ultimately the reason for publishing (i.e., to share your work). There is an immediacy to OA publishing that can embolden further research and increase the short-term impact of the work. The internet query process is also more effective when an article is OA.

OA publications are subsidized by article processing charges paid by authors. This mitigates some of publishers’ production and distribution costs. OA publishing can also further the name recognition and general reach of academic publications.

But make no mistake; like the internet that spawned it, OA is a disruptor. This disruption goes to the very core of financial models that most publishers embraced decades ago. In the past, the relationship between funders, researchers, publishers, and institutions had been stable. But the reductions in research funding and library budgets have left many academic institutions struggling to handle increasing subscription costs. Digital publishing opened the door to broader reach and launched a new movement toward OA.

The world of scholarly publishing continues to evolve. OA models and new free access initiatives show that publishers are embracing new opportunities made possible by opening research papers to everyone. Transformative agreements, such as read-and-publish and publish-and-read, strike a balance between subscription bundles purchased by an institution and article processing charges for OA submissions from affiliated authors—even if these mainly benefit large, influential institutions in the developed world. At the same time, most researchers still believe in the prestige associated with publishing in established journals that derive some of their value and exclusivity from toll access. “Publish or perish” is still the rallying cry in most academic institutions. This suggests that Plan S faces a continuing uphill battle in making full and immediate OA a reality. 

Contact your Sheridan or KGL representative for a consultation or visit our contact pages ( Sheridan contact page / KGL contact page ) to learn how we can help streamline and simplify your publishing processes.

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