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Why Should Editors Care About Plan S? (And Now the OSTP Nelson Memo)

Heather Staines discusses the importance of understanding Plan S, as well as the new United States Office of Science and Technology Policy memo.

Published onDec 19, 2022
Why Should Editors Care About Plan S? (And Now the OSTP Nelson Memo)

Heather Staines

Senior Consultant and Director of Community Engagement, Delta Think, Inc.

In the fall of 2021, I participated, along with Dana Compton of ASCE, in an ISMTE session about Plan S. Aimed primarily at editorial staff, the session highlighted some reasons how the cOAlitionS initiative might be relevant even in instances when authors or funders for a publication don’t come primarily from Plan S signatory countries. I hope this article can help those who were unable to attend that session and those now concerned about communications around the yet-to-be-clarified Nelson memo.

I began my publishing career in Editorial and spent eleven years there–however, I was working on books. My next job was at Springer SBM, the precursor to SpringerNature, where I worked with publishing editors worldwide, running point on communications and training across all e-products. Through that role, I was able to understand better the wide range of activities that journal editors need to focus on and be aware of. Editorial staff at various levels are the folks who interact most closely with authors, necessary to attend to the pipeline of articles needed to keep the journal thriving, as well as external Editors-in-Chief (EIC) and editorial board (EB) members who help guide policy and future strategy. As such important stakeholders, editors are the main conduits for the exchange of information between and among such important audiences.

Know your authors

During our ISMTE session, we discussed some questions that editorial staff are best positioned to answer, whether they come from the EICs and Editorial Board members they support, from authors, or from other publications staff. Prime among these is “Is Plan S a threat to our journal”? While at first blush, it may seem this question sits firmly in the business/sales sector of publishing operations, the keys to assessing potential impact reside in the editorial realm.

Using reports that are readily available from most submission and peer review systems, editorial staff have the data to analyze and help to answer this question at their fingertips. Here are some key bits of data about your authors that are relevant:

  1. Where in the world are your authors located?

  2. Which institutions contribute the most content to your journal(s) and where are they located?

  3. How many of your authors currently opt for hybrid OA, if you offer that option, and where are they located?

  4. From where are most of your authors getting funding? Are these authors publishing hybrid OA or closed access?

Know your discipline (how much funding comes out of PlanS countries)

While it is critical to understand the data around your own authors, institutions, and funders, it is helpful to also do a landscape scan across your discipline to determine how these mandates might affect the broader ecosystem.

  1. How does PlanS funding contribute to the subject areas covered by your publication?

  2. How much does it impact those of competitors or even “frenemy” journals?

  3. What do those funding trends look like?

  4. How might publisher output and output by license type be changing as a result?

  5. How many journals in the space have been declared transformative journals or are a part of transformative agreements?

How do you interpret funding data (subscription and peer review systems)?

More publications are requiring authors to indicate funders using a FundRef identifier during the submission process, but your journal (and those you are most interested in learning about) may not yet do this. Tools like Dimensions can capture acknowledgement text or inline reference to grants, so that information might also be useful to explore. (As a side note, requiring ORCIDs for corresponding authors can help your subscribing institutions better understand their side of the equation. Editorial staff should help EICs and EBs understand the importance of identifiers and why they are well worth the effort.)

Once you have a handle on your data (or, in the event that you aren’t adequately capturing it yet, you better understand what you don’t know), you can begin modeling out various scenarios: worst-case, best-case, and middle-of-the-road. You can project possible impact based upon a publication model that fits the research culture and funder profile for your discipline.

You can also explore how other publishers are responding to the shifting funding environment and take that information into your consideration process.

What’s the relevance of the Rights Retention Strategy?

One area of Plan S which continues to evolve is the Rights Retention Strategy (RRS) which requires authors who aren’t publishing in a Plan S compliant gold or transformative hybrid path to assert the retention of their rights, a claim which could conflict and would, in accordance with the assertion, trump a contractual agreement signed at a later point in the publication process. Authors understandably might seek guidance from editorial staff on the journal’s policy regarding Rights Retention as well as the language in a journal agreement itself. Sitting at this important juncture, it’s wise for editorial staff to track developments and assist in author communications.

Editors can bookmark the Rights Retention section of the cOAlitionS website to track the latest developments. In brief, this policy requires that authors “retain sufficient intellectual property rights to comply with their Open Access requirements” and that either the Author Accepted Manuscript (AAM) or the Version of Record (VoR) be immediately available with either a CC-BY or, upon exception, a CC-BY license or equivalent. To facilitate this process, the cOAlition has contacted publishers asking for the modification of agreements to allow this to happen. For authors submitting to publications that don’t meet Plan S criteria (open or transformative), there is a letter that authors can use stating “Author Accepted Manuscripts arising from submissions they receive from researchers funded by a cOAlition S Organisation will already be licensed under a public license, or that beneficiaries and their authors are bound by a prior obligation to provide such a public license to their AAMs or VoRs.”

One recent development on the RRS front is the increasing adoption of Institutional Author Rights Retention Policies (IARRP). Through this mechanism authors grant their institution a “non-exclusive, irrevocable worldwide license” ( to make their article available in the institutional repository irrespective of where their funding comes from. Editors might urge authors to learn more about their own institutional policies.

Journal Comparison Service

Launched in late September 2022, the Plan S Journal Comparison Service was created for libraries to understand how publisher fees and services might compare across the scholarly ecosystem. Those libraries and consortia that participate on various Open Access (OA) agreements can sign the terms of service and gain access to information on time to publication, Article Processing Charges (APCs), and subscription information deposited by publishers. Intended to stimulate a more transparent understanding of how services might differ, this tool should help libraries assess their OA negotiation strategies.

How are Transformative Journals coming along?

In the spring of 2021, my company Delta Think delved into the topic of Transformative Journals (TJ), publications which have actively committed to become fully OA journals. (We hope to update this report shortly.) Such journals may be part of a portfolio of a publisher who is entering into Transformative Agreements (Read + Publish, Publish + Read, and more) or they may exist outside of such agreements. The “transformative” part of this movement refers to money previously used to support subscription arrangements being shifted to support Article Publication Charges instead.

Transformative Journals (TJs) need to meet specific criteria to be acceptable for Plan S funding. These are “an annual increase in the Open Access proportion of at least 5% points in absolute terms and at least 15% in relative terms, year-on-year” (across three years) and a commitment to flip to OA once 75% of articles are open. Over this time, the journal must also adjust subscription payments to avoid double-dipping.

Transformative Agreements are a very new model, and past performance is not a predictor of future success, but looking at data over the course of the three years prior, some findings were notable. We looked at 2266 journals across twelve publishers to see how requirements were met. Historically, the number of papers published across all the journals was growing at half the rate needed to maintain their TJ status. Only a dozen journals met the TJ criteria for the last three years, but one-third did meet them for at least one year out of the three. Only about twenty met the 75% OA article benchmark for flipping to OA. Over time, the absolute criteria is the tougher one to meet for journals starting with lower OA uptake. Moving forward, we’ll certainly see publishers intervene to promote OA publishing routes. The biggest challenge ultimately may be timing, as Plan S plans to end support at the end of 2024. Publishers will be faced with big choices to make moving forward.

And now OSTP Nelson Memo

As most readers will be aware, in August 2022, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released what is known as the Nelson Memo requiring US government funding agencies of all sizes to release guidance around zero-length embargo public access to research they have funded. At press time, we are still awaiting the release of guidance from the largest agencies which are expected to go first according to the schedule indicated in the memo. There is some belief that smaller agencies which have additional time to release their own guidance may well follow the lead of their larger counterparts.

In addition to articles, the new guidance makes reference to book and book chapters, data, and even code. There are beefed-up requirements around the use of identifiers and robust metadata that will enable content deposited in digital repositories to be found more readily by search engines. Machine-readable formats will also make the research outputs more accessible to those who use assistive devices in their research.

In September 2022, Delta Think published our own modeling on the possible impacts of OSTP which depend upon the amount of content that falls under its provisions. The OSTP’s Economic Impact Statement estimates this to be between 6.7% and 9.1%. Our own estimate is between 6.6% and 7.2%, with the difference depending mainly on the definition of total scholarly output. For our baseline for market-wide analysis, we’ll take the average of the OSTP figures and use 7.9%. We generated three scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: Publication fees are paid for all affected papers; there is no effect on subscription revenues. This “best case” scenario assumes that authors secure funding to make all of their affected published papers publicly accessible. Enough content remains under subscription models to maintain that revenue. In this scenario, there is a small increase in overall market value as a result of the publication fees.

  • Scenario 2: Publication fees are not paid on affected papers; subscription revenues fall because of the zero embargo. This is the “worst case” scenario, as the publicly available versions (Author Accepted Manuscript or Version of Record) are seen as “good enough.” Publishers must reduce their subscription costs to reflect the larger amount of freely available content. In this case, the total market value decreases by 3.5%.

  • Scenario 3: All affected papers are included in subscription fees, but subscription revenues fall to offset the openly available content. This scenario combined the upside of scenario 1 (new publication fees) with the downside of scenario 2 (decline in subscriptions). While there is still a net reduction in value of around 3%, The lower publication charges are outweighed by the loss of the higher-priced subscription charges.

The impact on publishers will depend on the proportion of papers they publish that have US federal funding as well as the gap between the lower revenue generated per open access article, and the higher revenue generated per subscription access article. Please review our analysis on our website for more details as well as charts depicting these scenarios.


The landscape of OA publishing continues to evolve. From funder announcements to publisher announcements, to mergers and acquisitions, it’s challenging to keep track of all the changes and harder still to focus on what is relevant and to whom.

Editorial staff encounter authors at the earliest stages of publication, so broader awareness of the changing policies will help editorial staff be prepared to address any author concerns. Editors will also find themselves involved in making decisions or crafting policies that will help keep publication options available to the widest range of authors. We hope that this article helps you keep up-to-date the current state of Plan S and the key questions for which we await guidance from OSTP.

Disclosure statement:

Heather Staines manages a subscription service for the Delta Think Open Access Data & Analytics Tool.

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