Plan S, the radical proposal to mandate open access to science papers, scheduled to take effect on 1 January 2020, has drawn support from many scientists, who welcome a shake-up of a publishing system that can generate large profits while keeping taxpayer-funded research results behind paywalls.

Yeah, publicly funded science should be freely available to the public, the publishers are money grubbing scalps, their fees are exorbitant, the bundling scheme makes cable TV pushers seem like a nice crowd, and it's a disaster that universities in poorer countries suffer from lack of access to important articles. I totally agree about that part. But before we endorse plan S, there are two things that must be clarified:

  1. Will plan S solve the issues at hand, and
  2. How do we know that plan S won't introduce new problems which are even worse?

Here are some of my concerns, in no particular order:

  • How is this scheme going to stop money grubbing ass hats at elsewier from skimming too much money anyway? Sure, they can no longer do it by charging outrageous fees for the journals they push, but won't they just crank up the price for publishing? Or cook up some other scheme?
  • An editor of a scientific journal today has one - 1 - thing to consider when reviewing an article: "Is this good enough science to publish in our journal?" If the answer is no, then the article is rejected. If everything is rejected, they will eventually lose money, of course. A journal must publish something to keep afloat. But it's not a very strict connection between "rejecting an article" and "losing money". If, on the other hand, the editor is also a salesman, and the article is "kinda not good enough but maybe still", then rejecting it means loosing money, 1:1. Again, if they accept everything, they will lose out in the long run because nobody will publish in their (now) crappy journal, but it can go pretty far before you get there. Overall, I'm concerned about the editors and reviewers academic independence.
  • Alright, so poor universities can now read everything, that's great! But can they afford to publish it? If not, then plan S hasn't really evened things out at all - the poor groups can read what the rich groups are doing, but they cannot contribute with their own work.
  • Say I'm a scientist with a grant, I've made some research, and I want to publish it. Where is the money to do so going to come from? My grant? Great, another expense, just what I need. That would certainly seem unfair, because as of today, where access is an issue, that does not come from my budget, but the library's. So, should the library have a pot of money and pay the publishers? If so, are they going to dictate where I get to publish my work? Should some librarian force me to go for a low impact journal due to money constraints? I'd rather not have the bean counters tell me what to do with my research., thank you very much. Telling me I can't have a new accelerator, refusing to buy the books I want and making the entire research group inhabit a single office with no ventilation and broken furniture? Fine. That's economy for ya. But I will not tolerate infringements upon my academic freedom and integrity.
  • Will the incentive to keep old stuff easily available still be there? When the digital revolution came about, the publishers voluntarily scanned old material and put it on the net. Why? So they could make more money, of course: If someone wants to pay them for reading stuff published in 1935, you can. It's a small investment with a large potential for revenue, so putting up old stuff makes perfect sense. But if they no longer make money from selling access to the journals, will thy have any incitement to do stuff like that? Will they want to even host 'unimportant' stuff?
  • Have we really considered other solutions?

Personally, I think both sides of the debate are guilty ow producing straw men, and this lack of nuance is terribly frustrating! Yes, I condemn certain publishers for dubious sales methods, but their academic integrity is good. It's not good v. evil, it's a complex situation and it deserves proper consideration. Not just throwing it all over board and hoping for the best.

Here are a few things I believe we should do, which would probably alleviate some of the problems. First of all, reduce copyright duration! For scientific material, it makes no sense that a publisher should have unique rights half a century after the death of whoever wrote the paper. Second, there should be possibilities of hybrids and of 'buying out' an article for a predetermined price. Say you want to publish something, but you cannot afford to do it by open access - well, what if you pay somewhat less, and your article becomes open access in, say, five years time instead? Pay even less, and it becomes 7 years, a little more and get 3. Not ideal, but if you can't afford the whole hog, then this is certainly better. And, anyone can pay the publishers the remaining sum to get the article out: If I decide your works is too awesome to be unavailable to the general public, then I can start a funding campaign and 'buy out' your work. Or some other solutions down this alley. The point is, I think plan S is needlessly drastic. There might be less severe solutions at hand. And, quite frankly, the possible long term consequences should be considered, not ignored.

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