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Open Access 2019: A Year of Momentum on the Subscription Off-Ramp


2024 open or else cartoon



Plan S, the open access strategy from European funders in cOAlition S, gained momentum in 2019. However it pushed back its start date in May (to 2021), aiming for 2024 as the year to have completed the transition from pay to read to pay to publish. Instead of institutions paying subscriptions, funders and institutions would direct funds to publishing academic work. Their vision for the future:

After 2024, we will be encouraging institutional libraries and large consortia to switch from ‘read and publish’ agreements with publishers to ‘pure publish’ deals for portfolios of subscription journals that have become open-access journals. The cOAlition S funders will contribute to financing such deals, which will be more cost-effective and have fewer transaction costs than a single-paper charging system. The financial transaction would then no longer be between the author and the editor or journal, removing any concerns about perverse incentives for lax quality control.

The contrast between this strategy based on supporting commercial publishing, and those which base publishing within academic institutions and consortia, grew stark this year. That contrast and its implications were made clear by 2 of the entries marked  below, both from authors in Latin America. And the year ended with a bombshell rumor from the US. Read on…



The Wellcome Trust reported that in 2018 their open journal for grantees had made it into the top 5 journals used by researchers they funded.

The stakes for the secretive big deals with publishers was made clear by a report from Spain that the country’s universities were paying €25 million a year for Elsevier subscriptions.

Germany’s Projekt Deal sealed a deal with Wiley for open access contributions and journal access after 3 years of negotiation.




 Becerril-Garcia published a striking comparison of the Latin American AmeliCA with the Europoean cOAlition S. After explaining the different histories of the regions – Latin America took the route of publishing within academic infrastructures, with neither pay to read nor pay to publish, she highlights similarities and differences in the current strategies to reach full open access:

[In Latin America] neither fees for authors nor fees for readers have been included in the editorial tradition of the region. Open Access normally resides in institutional budgets, and for public universities this budget is found in national public funds. This means that public budgeting has played an important role in the circulation of scientific knowledge.

Now, AmeliCA revolves around strengthening editorial teams within academic institutions by providing technology and knowledge to ensure low costs in scholarly publishing which guarantees Open Access sustainability free of APCs…

On the one hand, Plan S focuses on regulating commercial agreements when APCs are involved; on the other, AmeliCA focuses on building an infrastructure from and for academic institutions.

The arXiv passed the 1.5 million “preprints” mark…





Elsevier announced its revenue and profits rose again, maintaining its 37% profit margin, with an overall operating profit of over US$2.5 billion (not just journals).

The giant University of California (UC) announced it was entering the “No Elsevier” subscription zone:

The University of California is trying to negotiate free public access to scientific research conducted by its publicly funded schools.

UC, which publishes about 10 percent of the country’s science studies, paid more than $10 million in 2018 to access and publish its own research in journals owned by the academic publishing giant Elsevier.

“Open access” has been a major sticking point during UC’s contract negotiations with Elsevier. The previous contract expired at the end of 2018, but access to the publisher’s journals was extended to the end of January.

More on the UC story in the LA Times.





Norway’s universities make a deal for a 2-year pilot with Elsevier, which would probably cover free OA publication for about 90% of its research papers. It’s reportedly the first national deal with Elsevier for open “read and publish”.

France’s university consortium took the off-ramp from its subscription to American Chemical Society journals after failing to reach satisfactory terms.

Matthias and colleagues reported that open access can be a 2-way street, finding 152 journals that flipped from OA back to subscription paywalls.


Cartoon journal



A joint statement landed from cOAlition S and OA2020, a coalition of more than 130 universities, national library consortia, and funders. The gist of it: the world is pouring more than enough money into subscriptions to be able to pay for universal, immediate open access. Both organizations expressed commitment to large-scale immediate open access models. And those 2 groups, along with the African Open Science Platform, and AmeliCA and SciELO from Latin America, met and described their common ground in the São Paulo Statement on Open Access.

Which country tops the open-access charts? According to a study by Heather Piwowar from Unpaywall, it was Indonesia in 2017, with 81% of its papers freely available online.


Cartoon for green open access


Dutch copyright law was changed to allow for green OA from 6 months after publication for publicly funded research. (Green OA is final publisher-accepted manuscripts loaded into repositories.)



And the OA button group launched an app to make it green OA easy:



The final version of Plan S, from cOAlition S, was released, after consideration of over 400 responses.


Plan S cartoon image


Sweden reported on what happened since their library consortium joined the “No Elsevier” subscription zone. Inter-library loans didn’t increase; researchers and librarians did not seem too disturbed; and they saved €13 million in subscriptions in a year, close to half of which was re-invested into OA.

The country’s universities and funders also struck a deal to pay half the author charges for publishing in Springer Nature’s OA journals.

The Swiss National Science Foundation reported the compliance rate with their open access policy was low, so they will be monitoring grant recipients.



And medRxiv launched. A stablemate to arXiv and bioRxiv, it’s a preprint server for the health sciences: medRxiv reached its first 1,000 preprints in January 2020.



Elsevier cut off the University of California’s access to their journals.

The European Commission re-issued its tender for an open access publishing platform (aka funder journal).

Niles and colleagues released results of their survey of why academics publish where they do:

We find that respondents most value journal readership, while they believe their peers most value prestige and related metrics such as impact factor when submitting their work for publication.




The University of California (UC) held a 2-day invitation-only “OA tipping point” workshop in Washington DC “for North American institutions motivated to refactor their current, big-deal commercial publisher agreements to support a sustainable open access transformation”. A total of 17 universities and consortia joined in.

The World Health Organization (WHO) joined cOAlition S. WHO Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan:

WHO champions the right of everybody to access quality health care services, and our support for open access to the health research that underpins that care goes hand-in-hand with that commitment.

Projekt Deal struck another deal for Germany’s academia, this time with Springer Nature.

The NIH’s Cancer Moonshot broke from the NIH policy’s 1-year embargo, to require immediate open access for papers from work it funded. And its opioid addiction initiative followed it down that road.


Cartoon of can of "Embargo Be Gone" spray



Over at the University of California (UC), 31 faculty stepped down from Elsevier editorial boards in protest.

Eve, from the Open Library of Humanities (OLH), wrote about the problem of a funding model designed around a set unit cost for author charges, including

It encourages institutions to think of their contributions … as though they were payments for their own authors, rather than a re-pooling mechanism so that everyone has access to scholarship.




Speaking of Eve and the Open Library of Humanities (OLH), he announced it is no longer reliant on grant funding, having made the transition to being fully funded by library partners.


Peterson and colleagues published an analysis of biomedical journals in the wake of the NIH’s original 2008 open access policy. They concluded there was something of a depressing effect on journals, but

…numbers of biomedical journals continued to rise, even in the face of the implementation of such a sweeping public access policy.

Piwowar and colleagues estimated that in 2019, 31% of all journal articles are OA, and 52% of article views are for OA articles. By 2025, they predict it will rise to 44% and 70%.

 And Humberto Debat and colleagues calculated how many months or years of a researcher’s salary it takes in many countries to pay the cost of author charges at journals, and concluded the move to pay to publish is unethical:

It reveals a patronizing view of scientific sharing which translates into the control of science in the hands of rich countries and diminishes the Global South as a mere passive observer with no control beyond global commercial agreements between wealthy governments and the few large oligopolists commercial publishers.


Cartoon of breaking down science walls



Sweden left the “No Elsevier” zone, with the national library consortium signing a deal with the publisher that

… includes both reading and publishing, which gives the consortium better control over the total costs. This also means savings at the consortium level. Since the previous agreement was only for reading, article publication charges had to be paid outside the agreement.

The new agreement will run for three years, starting on January 1, 2020. The total cost for 2020 will be determined after December 10, when the participating organisations have decided whether they will join. For the sake of transparency, the agreement will be published in the ESAC registry when it has been signed.

Elsevier reached a deal for an open access pilot with Hungary, too, and its first pay to publish and read deal in the US – with Carnegie Mellon University.




The Netherlands cracked a framework for an agreement with Elsevier, with a working group to hash out the details and “rules of engagement” – if there is a final deal, it will be made publicly available:

The framework agreement, valid January 1 2020 through May 1 2020, provides Dutch researchers with full reading access to all Elsevier journals, and allows (unlimited) open access publishing in all Elsevier journals.

The year ended with a bombshell rumor – that the US government was considering moving to immediate open access. More than 125 publishers and scientific societies co-signed a letter to the President protesting such a move, and others signed onto another protest letter, too. Support for the idea of an end to the embargo mobilized quickly, too.


Some of the societies who joined in the protests are having to backtrack now after backlash from their members. As the year ended, it still wasn’t clear whether all this embargo-ending talk was more than a rumor – but in January, a report of a meeting suggests some kind of movement is afoot…


And so we reach 2020, which is still a milestone year for OA policy, even though the ultimate Plan S deadline was pushed back to 2024. There are many other commitments and 2020 targets out there. Should be an interesting year, in which we get closer to finding out who wins and who loses in the various paths to open access research.




Click here for my other annual open access roundups:


Cartoon of the discovery of the inverse impact law exhibit in the pre-modern hall of the science history museum


Update 31 January 2020: Removed entry that India joined cOAlition S, which had been based on this tweet. Richard Poynder pointed out on Twitter that this wasn’t accurate, and he was right – no Indian funder is listed a member of cOAlition S. Thanks, Richard!


The cartoons are my own (CC BY-NC-ND license). (More cartoons at Statistically Funny and on Tumblr.)


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