Two-thirds of the more than 2300 scientific journals participating in a program designed to flip them to open access (OA) failed to meet prescribed targets for progress in 2022. As a result, the Coalition S group of research funders behind the initiative announced today that it will remove these journals from the program at the end of the year. The funders will no longer pay the fees these journals charge authors for OA publication, although scholars may still publish OA articles in these titles if they pay using other funding sources.
Although most publishers say they support a transition to OA from the existing subscription-based model, the decision by Coalition S reflects that progress has been slower than these research funders, and many scientists, would like. “That so many titles were unable to meet their OA growth targets suggests that for some publishers, the transition to full and immediate open access is unlikely to happen in a reasonable time frame,” says Robert Kiley, Coalition S’s head of strategy, in a blog post published today.
Since 2021, the Coalition S funders—which include public agencies in Europe and some large charitable funders such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust—have required grantees to make their peer-reviewed journal articles OA immediately, by paying a fee to publish in an OA journal or placing the article in a public repository.
This policy—known as “Plan S”—initially banned grantees from publishing in “hybrid” journals that earn money from both subscriptions and publishing fees, a practice critics call “double-dipping.” But after publishers complained it would take time to shift all journals to an OA-only business model, Coalition S came to a compromise: It would pay the fees for hybrid journals, but in return, publishers had to commit to a steady transition toward publishing 100% of these journal’s articles as OA, with measurable milestones. Coalition S requires these “transitional journals” show an annual increase in the proportion of papers published OA of at least 5 percentage points in absolute terms. They also have to show a 15% increase each year in the share of OA papers relative to the previous year. (The second criterion requires a journal to speed up the transition as the share of OA articles increases.)
However, the new figures show that in 2022, only 30% of the titles enrolled in the transitional journal program met these targets, and just 1% shifted to OA completely, results Kiley calls “clearly disappointing.” Some 1589 titles—68% of journals—failed to meet the targets and will be removed from the program at the end of the year.
The titles to be dropped at the end of this year include 77% of those enrolled as transitional journals by publishing giant Springer Nature, which held the majority of titles in the program, although most members of its elite Nature family of journals met their goals and can remain in the program. When asked about its journals’ performance, a Springer Nature spokesperson told ScienceInsider that the company is on track to publish 50% of research articles OA by the end of 2024. “We continue to do all we can to drive the transition and encourage others to do the same,” they say. Also on the cut list are 63% of Elsevier titles in the program (but not its flagship Cell) and 56% of the American Chemical Society’s.
Kiley also highlights journals that did meet their OA growth targets, including 94% of The BMJ’s 32 titles and 62% of Cambridge University Press’s 240 journals. He writes that, “on average, learned society publishers seem to be more successful in meeting [transformative journal] targets than some of their commercial counterparts.”
Physicist Sebastian Dahle, president of an association of junior researchers called Eurodoc, says the decision to remove journals from the program will have little impact on researchers funded by Coalition S members, who could still find money elsewhere for the publication fee if they’re determined to publish OA in a given journal. “Publishing choices are mostly based on what advances your career,” he says. “As long as publication in [high-impact] journals remain the currency of a career path, the open-access policies will only have a marginal impact.” But other scholars say that for researchers at institutions with modest resources, finding money to pay the fees can be difficult.
The shortcomings of the transformative journal strategy are not surprising, says Colleen Campbell, coordinator of the Open Access 2020 Initiative at Germany’s Max Planck Digital Library. Instead of focusing on individual journal titles, “we have to transform whole journal portfolios to achieve impact,” she says. To achieve this, Campbell advocates for “transformative agreements” between publishers and groups of academic institutions and their libraries, which allow the institution’s scholars to continue to read paywalled content while publishing OA articles in the publisher’s journals for no extra fee, with the goal that the share of OA papers will gradually grow. (Elsevier and Springer Nature have signed several such deals; the latter says they “continue to prove to be the most effective way of transitioning to OA at scale.”) Coalition S initially endorsed these kinds of agreements, but has warned about “the risk that these arrangements will become permanent and perpetuate hybrid open access, which Coalition S has always firmly opposed.”
The United States last year announced its own policy pushing publishers to switch to OA publication for papers from federal grantees by December 2025. Its policy lacks transitional arrangements like those supported by Coalition S.