Not An Unqualified Yes for Plan-S


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M. S. Santhanam examines the pros and cons of Plan S for Indian Academia.

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The progress of science hinges on the efficient dissemination of scientific research. The first journal, The Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society, started its operations in 1665. Its first issue acknowledged the need to “impart their knowledge to one another, and contribute what they can to the Grand design of improving Natural knowledge.” More than three centuries later, dissemination and consumption of research results are facing crisis. Most of the research literature is locked-up behind subscription-based paywalls. Ironically, much of it is publicly funded by the taxpayers. This brings into sharp focus the value added by the journal publishers relative to the exorbitant subscription costs that are charged from institutional subscribers.


This issue has been brewing for several years now. In 2012, Harvard University summed up the scenario in a memo sent to its faculty; ‘Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive’. A 2013 report by the Association of Research Libraries, representing leading American libraries, pegged the average annual increase in subscription rates at 18%. Not surprisingly major commercial publishers of journals routinely reported revenues exceeding $1 billion and profit margin upwards of 30% for several years. In response, groups of scientists including Nobel laureates, have boycotted journals by certain commercial publishers.


For more than a decade now, Open Access (OA) is the suggested panacea for all the issues of access and copyright ownership of research output. The ideals of OA are unassailable. It seeks, in the words of Budapest Open Access Initiative, ‘free availability on the public internet…to the full text of these articles… without financial, legal, or technical barriers’. OA adoption has effectively meant that the authors pay for publishing their work. As OA degenerated into author-pays-model, many well-known journals offered OA in addition to their standard publication routes. So did many predatory and fake journals which offered publication in return for a hefty fee.


In a direct assault on the impossibly high subscription costs, the Brussels based organisation that represents research labs and funding agencies, Science Europe, has called for the adoption of Plan-S. Its central aim is that starting 2020 ‘scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant OA journals or on compliant OA platforms’. Further, OA publication fees are to be covered by the funders or universities. As the debate ignited by Plan-S rages in the research corridors worldwide, its implications for India requires some attention.


If writing papers is just another numbers game, then India’s research output ranks third after China and the United States. In 2016, India accounted for 110319 papers published in journals indexed by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). Even if we pay for the publication of only 20% of these articles, a conservative estimate of the costs will throw up an expenditure of Rs. 170 crores. To put this in perspective, this is approximately what it costs to run two or three institutions of the size of IISERs. In the Indian context, this expenditure far outweighs any perceived gains from implementing Plan-S in its present form. As the third largest producer of scientific and technical articles, India must flex its collective publication muscle to argue that while the ideals of OA are laudable, the existing average tariff for OA mode, upwards of $1000, is neither fair nor sustainable.


In its singular over-enthusiasm for adopting OA, Plan-S proposals have let the commercial publishers off the hook. For instance, they are not forced to bring down the OA publication mode charges. Plan-S does propose an oversight by funding agencies and academies to ensure fair pricing, but it has no legal backing or even consensus among scientific bodies, and no cooperation can be expected from commercial publishers. It does not take into account the fact that thanks to the fast-paced developments in data storage technology, enterprise cloud storage costs have shrunk by a few 100 per cent in the last decade. Much of backend processing is done in countries like India where workforce costs are much lower. However, all this cost saving has not been passed on to the consumers. The costs associated with OA mode appear to be ever-increasing. This anomaly can only be explained by the unbridled commercial considerations in a market dominated by a few big publishers with virtually no regulation. Mandating OA mode without regulatory mechanism in place is like willingly walking into a trap.


In fact, Plan-S shifts the burden of paying for the journals from the institutions to the individuals who are expected to meet these expenses from their grants or be subsidised by their universities. Given the financial state of higher education institutions and even research labs in India, they are unlikely to foot the bill for publications. This idea also implies that students, superannuated and in-service scientists working without grants are thrown out of the publication system. We might remind ourselves that C. V. Raman’s first paper was published in 1906 when he was still a student at the Presidency College in Madras. From my experience at IISER Pune and elsewhere, I know many undergraduates who have published papers with their supervisors, and less frequently single-author papers. The proposed system will kill this appetite for research and publications even before it begins.


If plan-S is not suitable in the Indian context, should the status quo be maintained? The answer would be no. Ideally, the author should not be burdened with article processing charges while at the same time the readers should not be at the mercy of excessive subscription charges. One solution is to enforce that research papers, directly or indirectly funded by public funds, be deposited in an open archive such as the arXiv immediately after acceptance or publication. Nearly all the journals now allow the author’s version of the full text to be posted to open repositories. All the applications for research grants and scientist or faculty positions at the government funded institutions must mandate the applicants to declare archive identifiers for each of the paper published in journals, failing which a suitable penal clause can kick in.


Ultimately, scientists must practice what they preach. Posting to public repositories must become a routine habit, just like submission to a journal is part of the research process. OA is an ideal that can potentially do what free software movement did for the IT industry. As for Plan-S, there can be no unqualifed yes but it is a wake-up call. Better alternatives suitable for India exist and must be explored.


M. S. Santhanam is an Associate Professor of Physics at IISER Pune. The opinions expressed are personal.

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