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Get up to speed with Open Research and Plan S: The background

As you probably know, the academic publishing industry is changing fast. It’s hard to keep up-to-date with some recent developments and so we’ve put together this handy document to help you more easily and quickly understand relevant aspects of Open Research and, in particular, Plan S. Perhaps you’ve heard of these concepts but don’t understand what they mean, especially for you as a young researcher. In particular, how do funding agencies feel about Open Research and Open Access (OA) publishing and what this could mean for your career.

What is Open Research?

This concept is quite simple as Open Research refers to the idea that research, especially the results of research, must be open and accessible to all. This means that the data you collect, the results reported as an outcome of a study, should be made available to anyone who wants to see them, either on a website, via download from a journal site as supplementary materials, or perhaps on a preprint server. Most people would agree with this idea: once a research project is completed, it’s important that colleagues and workers in the same field can access data to check results, verify conclusions, and build on work in the future. Most researchers would agree that Open Research is a good thing overall. However, this has been an issue historically, especially given the fact that not everyone has access to journal articles once they have been published. Depending on the kind of subscription or access model that, say, your Institution or University has with a major publisher, for example, you might not so easily be able to access the published work (and hence data) of others.

Of course, there are cases where the results of research should be protected (in the case of commercially sensitive information, patents and so forth) but in most cases, researchers want others to be able to access their data within the community to check and verify their outcomes. This has been especially debated, for example, in medical research where, in some cases, results of trials have not been as widely available as perhaps they should be (perhaps as funding agencies would like) because of the journals chosen by researchers in which to publish.

What is Open Access?

Journal choice for the publication of research results brings us to the widely debated and well-known concept of OA publishing: Should academic papers be available for everyone to read, irrespective of their institution, country, workplace, employement, etc. Should the kind of subscription that your university has with a major publishers influence the level of access to published work that you have, for example? Many people, and an increasing number of funding agencies, are now arguing ‘no’: research, especially publically funded research, should be accessible all.

So, OA as a publishing model is well known these days. Once accepted for publication, your research paper is freely available for download to anyone.

Are many journals currently OA? How goes this work?

As you are probably aware, more and more academic journals are advertising themselves as OA, but there are often two problem with this encountered by authors: cost and impact factor. Although the vast majority of academic authors want their papers (their research results) to appear in OA journals (as we have discussed, most academics think Open Research and OA are good ideas) they nevertheless worry about the ‘quality’ of available OA outlets. It’s often the case that OA journals simply don’t have the same high impact factors enjoyed by some of their ‘subscription’ counterparts.

This is because of the way that impact factors are calculated in journal publishing and the fact that these metrics are still used by most universities and national funding agencies to assess academic performance. Whether, or not, the use of impact factors in this way (to measure your career ‘success’) is a good thing will be subject of a later article, but for now lets accept that this is the case. People want to get their research published in journals with higher impact factors, if possible, and these invariably tend to be the older, more established outlets in our field that are controlled by major publishing companies. For this reason, researchers tend to select older, more established journals in their field for publishing their articles – because these will help their careers. They might think less about whether, or not, these journals are OA because this publishing model per se (at least at the moment) is not necessarily advantageous to their career.

Think about journal impact factors as proxies for ‘readership’, the number of people who read that particular publication, because – fundamentally – this is what they represent. Journals with higher impact factors are read by more people, they are more ‘cross-disciplinary’ or ‘multi-disciplinary (good words for putting into your next grant application!). Impact factors are also built up over time: if I launched a new journal tomorrow, for example, it would be two years at least before it would be given an impact factor. Journals have to demonstrate that they are regularly publishing articles and that they have a consistent readership level before they can be listed for these numbers; why would authors chose to use my newly launched journal in the meantime, over the period of time where it did not have an impact factor? Good question.

The second major issue with OA journal publishing is cost. One of the most common questions we get asked in our author training workshops (perhaps the most common question) is: how can I select a journal that has a high impact factor and that is free to publish in, because I cannot afford to pay the publication fee. Bear in mind that most OA journals available at the moment charge authors a so-called article processing free (an APC) once a paper is accepted to cover their costs and thus ensure that the paper is available to anyone as a free download. The average APC across the industry at the moment is around 1,300 US dollars. As you can imagine, the cost of this publishing model for many authors is also a huge issue.

We know that researchers like the concept of OA publishing (actually, they like it very much and tend to support it enthusiastically) but are often put off by relatively lower journal impact factors and the costs associated with this option.

Why has no-one developed a series of ‘free-to-publish-in’ journals with high impact factors? Well, quite. That’s a good question.

What is Plan S?

All of this background brings us to Plan S. I quote from the website of this initiative: ‘Plan S is an initiative for Open Access publishing that was launched in September 2018. The plan is supported by cOAlition S, an international consortium of research funders. Plan S requires that, from 2021, scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants must be published in compliant Open Access journals or platforms’( ).

Plan S originated within the European Union. Huge amounts has been written about this initiative and you will surely be aware of it: the basic proposal is that if research is funded by an agency signed up as part of this initiative then results, publications, should be OA and available to all. All research funded by European Union grants must be published in OA journals. A number of other national funding agencies have also signed up to this initiative (e.g., Ireland, Finland, Sweden, the UK, to name a few) and it has been gaining ground. This is is largely because, at least on the surface and as we have discussed, most academic researchers support the idea of OA publishing.

Plan S has, however, faced significant pushback and opposition from the academic publishing industry (as you might expect), especially from the larger publishing companies and smaller society publishers. The former are worried that mandated OA publishing will hurt their bottom lines (because much of their money comes from subscription-based academic journal publishing; universities pay a fixed fee each year to access a pool of journals, for example) while the latter (small society publishers) worry that this model will put them out of business entirely. Imagine you are an academic society that publishes a journal and charges a fee to your membership for access to that journal: in most cases, this is the only way that your society makes any money. Mandated OA publishing would change all that: everyone must be able to access your journal publication for free for it to be considered fully OA and therefore acceptable to the consortium of Plan S funders.

Confused? I know. There’s a lot to digest here. To summarise: academic researchers tend to want their work to appear in free-to-access OA journals that everyone can read (this is the basis of the Plan S initiative) but this does not match with the money-making model of the major academic publishers (or small society publishers) and so there has been debate. Add to this the idea of impact factors: most OA journals are younger than the older, more established outlets in a field and so tend to have lower, less attractive impact factors.

What do Chinese funders think about Plan S?

China was actually one of the first countries to get involved with the OA debate, very early on ( This is very important, of course, because now China is one of the largest academic markets in the world. Government funding agencies within China has been broadly supportive of Plan S and OA publishing with the caveats that journals should be quality controlled and APCs should be affordable. A very sensible position. We believe that this is because, unlike many countries, research and research funding in China is led by the demands of innovation (and thus, above all, economic growth). This very clearly mandates that research results are freely available to others so that advances, developments, and economic growth can come fast and be of benefit to everyone.

What do other countries think about Plan S?

This is a hard question to answer, but depends on where you live and which agencies fund your research. The Plan S initiative maintains a list of ‘supporters’ here: and you don’t have to look far online to find discussions and debates about this initiative. Broadly, OA publishing can be summarised as follows: it is overwhelmingly supported by active researchers, tentatively supported by most funding agencies, and treated with suspicion by the publishing industry.

What does this mean for me? Should I aim for OA with my papers?

These are very interesting times for academic publishing. When I started by academic career almost 20 years ago, journals were not yet widely available online and OA was almost unheard of: everyone published their results in established, academic journals available to institutions via subscription. We will see what happens as this develops over the next year or so but: now is the time to become more aware of this issue (if you are not already) and plan your future research publishing strategies.

Think about the OA journals available in your field and have a look at their impact factors. Have a look at their APCs and see which ones might be available to you for your next project publication? Can you or your team afford to pay the APC? Could this come from your institution? What do you think about Plan S and OA? We’d love to hear your feedback.