The Path to Plan S

Learn more about Plan S and how this funding mandate will impact researchers.

Stack of research journals and computer

At the end of May 2019 the group of funders known as “Coalition S” announced an update to their “Plan S” proposal to make all the research they fund fully Open Access (OA). Plan S has caused considerable ripples through the academic and publishing communities since its announcement in September 2018, and we thought this update was a good opportunity to take a look into what the proposal entails, and why it is happening.

What is Plan S?

Plan S is a policy, which originated from funders in the European Union but has now been adopted by funders from across the world, that states that all research funded by Coalition S funders must be made fully OA. It is a substantial move beyond the previous policies, which strongly recommended, but did not mandate, OA publishing.

Here is the updated statement in full:

“With effect from 2021, all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access Journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo.”

They also list ten additional principles to give more detail on how this should be attained (see the full list here).

This is the most extensive Open Access policy to date and demonstrates how far funders are willing to go to make the research they pay for available to the public as soon as it is published.

Why are funders doing this now?

For many years, some funders have made clear their unhappiness with the existing model of publishing. Under the current model, authors assign the copyright of their research paper to a publisher, who then charges subscription fees to people who wish to read the research. The Coalition S funders feel this model restricts the dissemination of new discoveries and delays the advancement of science.

For the past few years, they have put policies in place to require the research they fund to be Open Access. However, the policies have been loosely defined and enforced. For example, they previously allowed authors to post a version of their manuscript in a repository after an embargo period had elapsed (usually a year). Or they would allow authors to publish in subscription journals but pay an additional fee to make the paper Open Access (the so-called ‘hybrid’ model). The new Plan S policy explicitly rules out both embargoes and hybrid models.

Why is this happening now?

Well, in short, because funders have run out of patience waiting for the academic world to move to OA. They feel that publishers have not made enough effort to transition to OA, and have even blocked the progression to an Open Access future. So Plan S is their way of saying ‘enough is enough’ and forcing the industry to take action.

What does this mean for researchers?

As it currently stands, the majority of journals are now off-limits to anyone funded by Coalition S funders. Nature, Science, Cell, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, and many other selective journals are not compliant, and so would have to be avoided. (Other selective journals, for example eLife and PLOS Biology, are fully compliant). The publishers of these journals must come up with new models if they are to continue receiving submissions from Coalition S funded researchers.

What has been the criticism of the policy?

The main criticism is that the policy is heavy-handed in its approach, and the timeframe is unrealistic. There are a great many unanswered questions about how the policy will work for certain types of articles, subject areas and formats. Many in the community feel that the policy has been rushed out too quickly.

Publishers feel they were not consulted on how the policy will be implemented. In particular, they fear that they will not be able to run sustainable businesses if they move to a completely OA publishing model. Selective journals worry that the costs to publish in those journals will be so prohibitively high that no-one will be able to afford them. These journals also publish many other types of articles, such as news, commissioned reviews and educational matter that would be very difficult to publish OA.

The research community has expressed concern that the policy disregards academic freedom. Until now researchers have been allowed to choose their destination journal based on factors like readership, impact and editorial board, and have dealt with adherence to their funders’ open access policy afterward. In the future, they will only be able to choose from a pre-approved list of Open Access-compliant journals. Many see this as prohibitively restrictive.

How are publishers responding to the mandate?

Publishers are exploring a number of options, including straight flips to the OA model; ‘transformative agreements’, where large organisations and even whole countries sign deals with publishers to make their entire corpus Open Access; and ‘mirror’ or ‘sister’ journals, which exist alongside a subscription journal, but make all their research fully OA (although this latter solution has been rejected by the Coalition in the latest update).

One additional option, which we at Research Square are particularly interested in, is how preprints could help reach the Coalition’s Open Access ambitions. Preprint servers allow researchers to post their paper online under a CC-BY licence as soon as it has been written (i.e. before being peer-reviewed and formally published in a journal).

Our partnership with Springer Nature (called In Review) takes this a step further since, for their OA journals, all peer-reviewed versions of the manuscript are also uploaded. If more journals were to adopt this publishing model, it could meet the requirements of Plan S. Indeed, the recent update to Plan S explicitly encourages the early sharing of results through preprints.


Plan S is the most dramatic policy shift the publishing industry has ever seen. It is not surprising that it has caused a backlash, but its radical principles have served to cause the publishing industry to give serious consideration to a fully Open Access world.

While we at Research Square have some concerns over the limitations to academic freedom, we are supportive of the policy. As an organisation that feels that research should be shared as widely as possible, we share the opinion of the Coalition S funders that a faster transition to OA must be possible.

It feels inevitable that more funders will sign up to the Coalition. In particular, we are yet to see any major US funder sign up, but we expect that to change. At that point, it is likely that there will be a tipping point at which time Open Access will become the primary publishing model for research. We look forward to that moment and will continue to support Open Access however we are able.

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