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British Pharmacological Society Journals, Open Access, and Plan S

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Published: 13 Mar 2019
Category: Journals
By Charles Whalley

First, some numbers. The British Pharmacological Society publishes three journals: the British Journal of Pharmacology (BJP), the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (BJCP), and Pharmacology Research & Perspectives (PR&P). In 2017, these journals together published more than 750 articles, from authors affiliated with more than 860 institutions in 65 countries. These authors reported funding from more than 300 agencies or organisations. During the same time, the journals will have received, subjected to peer review, and evaluated nearly 2,500 manuscripts, many going through multiple rounds of review involving three or more expert referees and editors. Articles published in the journals were downloaded more than eight million times in 2017, by readers across the world. And in 2017, all this publishing activity, through journal subscriptions and other forms of sales, returned £3.7m to support the Society’s work, including the cost of publishing.

The Society’s journals cover the whole spectrum of pharmacology, including clinical pharmacology and therapeutics. Currently, with our publishing partners, Wiley and the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET), the Society’s position with its journals enables most authors globally to publish with us while complying with varying mandates from their funders and institutions. BJP and BJCP are ‘hybrid’ journals: predominantly free to publish subscription journals with the option for authors to choose Open Access (OA) if they wish. Publishing agreements in the two journals allow authors to fulfil many of the self archiving obligations commonly described as ‘Green OA’. It is the self archiving option that allows BJP and BJCP authors in the UK to comply with the REF 2021 Open Access policy, for instance. PR&P, co-owned with ASPET and Wiley, is a ‘Gold OA’ journal, in which all articles are published OA, paid for by the authors (with some opportunities for discounts or waivers). Furthermore, currently all articles in BJP and BJCP are free to view 12 months after publication, and both journals participate in Research4Life, which provides free or heavily discounted access to institutions in low-income countries. In these ways the Society facilitates the widest-possible dissemination of and participation in new research in pharmacology and therapeutics.

Although this mixed approach has worked well for the Society, and indeed for most journals published by or on behalf of learned societies, some funders have expressed frustration with the lack of movement towards a fully OA future. The recent, and perhaps most high-profile, outcome of this is 'Plan S', from a group of funders called 'cOAlition S'. This coalition includes many European national funders, including UKRI, as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust. With a stated ambition to "[accelerate] the transition to full and immediate Open Access to scientific publications", Plan S has a single "key principle":

After 1 January 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 Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.

There are many technical details in what cOAlition S considers to be "compliant", but, perhaps most significantly, neither hybrid journals nor self archiving with an embargo period are viewed as such. Consequently, BJP and BJCP are not Plan S compliant. As things stand, authors supported by cOAlition S funders would not be permitted to publish in the Society’s two wholly owned journals. Plan S includes a commitment to "monitor compliance and sanction non-compliance".

The edicts of a dozen or so mostly European funders affect only a small proportion of authors in the Society’s journals. If things stay the same, the only outcome of Plan S will be that this small number – around 4% in 2017 – will be prevented from publishing in BJP and BJCP (although PR&P will remain an option for them). One alternative would be for BJP and BJCP to amend their author publishing agreements to allow green OA without an embargo (and with a CC-BY licence). This will need to be balanced against the value provided to libraries that pay for subscription access. A route to OA that doesn’t charge authors and that doesn’t provide any value to subscribers risks becoming financially unsustainable, as no one at either end would need to pay.

The other option is for BJP and BJCP to follow the overall aim of Plan S and commit to changing their business model to gold OA. Plan S makes some concession to hybrid journals with this intention, by allowing a grace period for funded authors to publish in such journals provided the journals have a commitment in place to convert to fully OA by 2024 (which they call a "transformative agreement"). Removing all barriers to reading the Society's journals by making them gold OA has the potential to assist the Society’s strategic objective to "remove barriers to participation and success" in pharmacology and therapeutics and to support the Society’s vision more broadly. However, such a move could create a barrier to participation for authors who lack funding to pay for publication. A change in business model, away from subscriptions, would also mean an inevitable and substantial reduction in income for the journals, and so for the Society. There is no evidence that there is capacity or appetite for BJP’s and BJCP’s authors to pay OA fees at anywhere near the level of current subscription income. The Society is not alone in facing this prospect. In a recent opinion piece in PNAS Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote that PNAS would require "$450,000 in transition costs, $6.3 million in "bridge" funds, and $4 million in ongoing cash reserves to make the transition to full OA" to remain in the black.

In either case, whether journals remain hybrid or become full OA, it is difficult to see an outcome where authors' freedom to choose where to publish won’t be impinged by Plan S's conditions for compliance.

As you can expect from these difficulties, reactions to Plan S have been vigorous and varied. There have been open letters with many signatories on both sides (for example, organised by Michael Eisen or by Lynn Kamerlin and others). Proponents see it as a welcome boost to a decades-long global transition to OA that has recently stalled. Opponents see it as an act of bureaucratic overreach, onerous and restrictive to researchers, and potentially lethal to learned societies (while driving even greater consolidation among the major commercial publishers). Many learned societies, particularly in the UK, have a measured view similar to that of the Society: that many of the principles in Plan S are aligned with existing values and practices and so are to be welcomed, but that much remains to be clarified in terms of implementation.

So, what next? At time of writing, the implementation guidelines for Plan S are still in a consultation period. UKRI and Wellcome in the UK are reviewing their Open Access policies and consulting with societies (and other stakeholders) about the implications. The Society, with our publisher Wiley, is engaging with these and other initiatives, through a variety of channels. Together with Wiley, the Society and the editorial boards of BJP and BJCP have continued to monitor how the journals’ editorial policy and long-term strategy navigates the ever-shifting global research landscape, particularly in areas of OA and open science. For example, BJP is currently working through a programme of updates to its policies, supporting transparency and reproducibility, including around experimental design and analysis and data sharing. The Society is also a signatory of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), and is working towards improving the ways in which research is evaluated. Ultimately, Plan S is only one element amid a broader change among institutions and funders in how research is disseminated and assessed and how publishing is paid for. Projekt DEAL, a consortium representing most research institutions in Germany, recently announced an agreement with Wiley to allow their researchers to publish OA in Wiley’s journals (including BJP and BJCP) at no additional cost to authors. These so-called ‘Read & Publish’ or ‘Publish & Read’ agreements are being pursued by many publishers and institutions (for example, the Royal Society of Chemistry), and their interaction with Plan S is being eagerly watched. It is likely that these national-level agreements – which work through the status quo, from consensus between publishers and their library customers – will ultimately have more impact on any shifts in business model than initiatives deriving solely from funders.

The Society’s approach to its journals is governed by their service to its charitable objectives. Where the changes afoot have the potential to align with its mission, we are engaging positively and constructively to ensure the widest possible participation in and dissemination of world-class research, and to support academic freedom as to where to publish. We are also of the opinion that any shifts in the publishing landscape should be viewed as opportunities for the Society to explore new ways of financially supporting its research dissemination activities, and to demonstrate leadership in fostering positive change. With our publisher and our partnerships with other learned societies, such as the Royal Society of Biology, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, and the Society Publishers’ Coalition, the British Pharmacological Society is well-placed to navigate the changes and opportunities that lay ahead. We also welcome input from members, and therefore encourage you to submit thoughts, information, and considerations that you feel it would be valuable for the Society to consider.


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Published: 13 Mar 2019
Category: Journals
By Charles Whalley

About the author

Charles Whalley

Charles is Head of Journals Publishing at the British Pharmacological Society. He is responsible for the Society's three academic journals: the British Journal of Pharmacology, the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, and Pharmacology Research & Perspectives.