Making Sense of Plan S: Funder Open Access Policies from January 2021

Plan S refers to the new open access policy being introduced by a coalition of funders which have come together under the name “Coalition S”. This currently includes the Wellcome Trust, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI, formerly Research Councils UK), European Research Council (ERC) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF)..

This piece was written Aug 2019. Any updates will be reflected in this shorter summary and ServiceDesk page.



Traditionally, research outputs would only be accessible to those with either personal subscriptions to journals or, more usually, where their institution’s library subscribed to journals. This has prevented many researchers, students, healthcare professionals, policy makers and others from accessing the work they need; subscriptions are expensive, and even well-funded institutions cannot subscribe to all journals their researchers would like to access. This is increasingly the case as subscription prices have increased while library subscription budgets have decreased.

The open access movement has resulted in many subscription journals offering a paid-for open access option (“gold” open access), meaning those journals publish a mixture of open access (free for all in perpetuity under a “Creative Commons” license) and pay-walled subscription only content (usually © publisher). Thus these journals have come to be known as “hybrid” journals. Even where authors/institutions have not paid for open access, hybrid journals have tended to allow authors to upload (or “deposit”) a version of their article to institutional and subject open access repositories (known as “green” open access). The version allowed by most publishers is the “accepted manuscript” (or “post-print”), which is essentially the final approved draft. However, this is not immediate open access: the file is usually subject to a publisher imposed embargo period of normally 12 months (i.e. the repository version is locked for 12 months, so that publishers can earn subscription revenue in the meantime). The LSHTM Library & Archives Service manages the Research Online repository partially for this purpose.

Alongside hybrid journals, an increasing range of fully open access journals (i.e. that only publish on an open access basis) have emerged over the past 10-15 years. Most prominent are the PLoS and BioMed Central suite of journals. Free-to-publish journals have also become more popular, including the Wellcome Open Research platform, and many independent-, society- or university-run journals (see

The hybrid model of publishing was intended to encourage a transition towards open access as default, so that those hybrid journals in time moved towards 100% open access. However, universities and funders have seen both their subscription fees and open access costs rise while hybrid journals have not tended to transition to fully open access. Universities world-wide are struggling to cope with rising costs, with some institutions both in the US and Europe deciding to cut subscriptions with particular publishers rather than accept unsustainable price rises (e.g. University of California and Max Planck).

The cost of gold open access through hybrid publishers has increased year-on-year, with some analyses showing an mean increase of £500 per article from 2014-2018. This has proven to be the most expensive route to open access, with hybrid journals costing c.£2600 on average per article, compared to £2100 for fully open access journals. For-profit publishers have accordingly seen their profits continue to rise, with prominent companies like Elsevier (revenue £7.5b, profit £1.9b), Springer Nature (€1.6bn, €374m profit) and Wiley ($1.8b revenue) seeing massive operating revenues and profits.

Plan S attempts to revive the mission of making open access publishing immediate and sustainable, while phasing out hybrid open access which ultimately supports an outdated subscription model of publishing.

Many institutions have already prioritised their pots of funding for open access fees for fully open access journals (for instance, LSHTM has limited RCUK open access funds in this way since early 2018). While reducing costs in this way, authors can continue to choose to publish in hybrid (subscription) journals without paying for open access, instead depositing their manuscripts in a repository rather than having immediate open access. However, there may be some tension with this route to open access where the embargo period imposed by publishers is longer than the maximum embargo period mandated by funders. Publishers primarily impose 12 month embargoes, where most of the major funders require 6 months. Some journals offer shorter embargoes (e.g. Lancet at 6 months), while some publishers have embraced 0-month embargoes for some if not all of their journals (e.g. Cambridge University Press, SAGE and Emerald). Plan S drops the embargo period requirement further still to 0 months across the board, meaning whether or not open access is paid for, articles should be available immediately regardless whether that is through a repository or via a publisher.

Some publishers have attempted to innovate with subscription models to marry together subscription and open access costs, and depending on the scope may be called “offsetting agreements” or “transformative agreements”. Some publishers, such as Oxford University Press provide subscribing institutions with a small percentage of open access spend back as credit (this wouldn’t be classed as a “transformative” deal). Other publishers such as SpringerNature has offered more wide ranging deals, where academics in a particular university can both read a suite of journals as well as more-or-less freely publish open access in them, with the open access charge covered by the terms of the deal. However, this latter kind of deal is prohibitively expensive for many universities (including LSHTM) as they normally involve an up-front fee to access a wide range of journals that are not required by readers at the university (and even if the journals were required, subscription budgets simply aren’t enough to cover the cost). In the UK, there are few cost-effective “transformative” deals – with most resembling some kind of prepayment account. Bespoke deals are also very difficult to arrange with publishers in the UK, as they tend to be pre-arranged by Jisc on behalf of UK HE libraries.

There has been some movement among publishers, with some transitioning subscription journals to fully open access. However, to date, there have been few publishers that have reduced embargo periods, and none known that meet all the Plan S requirements for green open access (see below: 0 month embargo for PMC and institutional repositories, retention of copyright, CC BY license on accepted manuscript). This will surely change over the next 16 months.


So what is Plan S?

There will be two main ways to publish research after 1 January 2021:


Publish in a fully open access journal

(i.e. a journal that only publishes open access articles,
with the Creative Commons CC BY open access license – this is normally the default license)




Publish in a subscription (“hybrid”) journal without choosing a paid-for open access option

(but only where the journal allows the author to both retain copyright and deposit the article in Europe PMC & LSHTM Research Online with no delay (i.e. no “embargo period”) under the CC BY open access license).


From 1 January 2021, open access funds can no longer be used to cover open access fees charged by hybrid journals (i.e. subscription supported journals with the option of paid-for open access).

A list of the most-published-in journals, and whether or not they are currently acceptable under the upcoming policy, is provided here. However, it is expected that many journals will change their publishing models over the next year.

Wellcome Trust has confirmed the policy applies to all articles submitted from 1 January 2021. Other funders have yet to confirm, and may only apply the policy to publications emerging from grants awarded after this date. This blogpost will be updated as information is confirmed, including information on the continuation of UKRI & Wellcome Trust open access grants held by the Library & Archives Service. It is likely that funders will monitor compliance with the policy.

For most funders it will be expected that the accepted manuscript be deposited in Europe PMC and LSHTM Research Online to be made available no later than the date of publication (the REF open access policy already requires deposit within 3 months of acceptance for publication). If you pay for open access the publisher will normally do this for you.

There is a loophole that permits paying for open access in a hybrid/subscription journal but you can only do this if you find the funds from elsewhere (e.g. collaborating authors or departmental/faculty funds if any are available). A second loophole permits hybrid open access publishing when a university signs up to a particular kind of combined subscription/open access deal with a publisher (a “transformative agreement”), but there are very few of these deals offered in the UK by publishers and they are prohibitively expensive. Publishers may suggest you can publish under these agreements, but please note that the Library & Archives Service cannot offer this option and that peers at most other universities in the UK will be placed in a similar situation.

It is worth being aware that some publishers are launching “mirror” journals, which are open access versions of subscription journals often distinguished by an “X” after the title, e.g. Vaccine X, Nutrition X – please note, these are not permitted under Plan S.

Books and book chapters should ideally meet these requirements too, but this is not expected to be mandatory. It is also expected that non-research, such as editorials, commentaries, etc. would not fall under the same requirements.

Where your research has significant public health benefits, some funders such as the Wellcome Trust will require you to make your work available as a “preprint” before peer review on a platform such as BioRxiv or MedRxiv. This is usually not a bar to then publishing the article.

It is understood and respected that researchers are driven by particular reward systems. Traditionally this has put an emphasis on indicators like “journal impact factor”, but many institutions in the UK, major funders, as well as the REF system are signed up to an initiative called the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which recognises that articles and individuals should not be judged on the exact journal they are published in. This means that individual researchers should not be disadvantaged by their choice of journal in the future.


plan s infographic

Fig 1. Two options for open access compliance under Plan S

articles published by lshtm authors 2014-2019

Fig 2. Most-published-in journals’ current compliance with Plan S (Aug 2019)


How will open access be paid for?

We are expecting the current funding schemes to be maintained in some form, e.g. COAF (Wellcome Trust) and UKRI block grants. However, the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK may drop out of the COAF scheme as they have not yet confirmed if they are joining up to Plan S (though they will continue to have open access policies). Therefore, unless anything significant changes, we expect open access funds to be applied for as usual via the Library & Archives Service for Wellcome and RCUK-funded authors.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations and others: again, we expect current arrangements to be maintained. BMGF authors currently email the Foundation directly, while other funders have normally required open access fees to be budgeted for in grant proposals.

By 2021, it is hoped there will be plenty of subscription journals that offer Plan S-compliant options for depositing manuscripts into Research Online and Europe PMC. It is not expected that you should only publish in fully open access journals.

There are an increasing range of free-to-publish journals, include Wellcome Open Research, Gates Open Research, and various low-cost or free-open access journals listed on


What if I am not funded by a Coalition S partner?

It is unlikely that the rules for the REF after 2021 (possibly 2028) are likely to be so stringent. However, you should continue to aim to make your work open access, either through publishing in open access journals or in a journal that allows archiving of accepted manuscripts in open access repositories. The REF policy already requires that you deposit your accepted manuscript in Research Online (via Elements) within 3 months of acceptance for publication, and it is expected this will continue.

Please note that additional funders may sign-up to Plan S over the coming year. Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation are not yet members of Coalition S, so may develop their own policies. Please watch out for updates.


What’s next for publishers?

Many publishers have held off making decisions on how to adapt their journals to the Plan S requirements. Journals of course publish many articles submitted by authors not funded by one of the Coalition S funders, so many may decide to take no action.

At the moment, many hybrid/subscription journals are non-compliant with Plan S policies: the embargo periods are too long, they don’t allow authors to retain copyright, and they don’t allow the accepted manuscript to be shared under a Creative Commons CC BY license.

It is hoped that many hybrid journals will introduce less restrictive copyright policies, allowing Coalition S funded authors to continue publishing with them. To help reduce open access costs, this is the option we would prefer. In some cases, journals may provide different agreements for funded and unfunded authors (this is already the case with some journals, e.g. some journals offer Wellcome Trust funded authors 6 month embargoes while other authors receive 12 month embargoes).

In some cases, journals may decide to become fully open access rather than subscription supported. An increasing range of low-cost or free-to-publish journals will also likely emerge. lists some of these, and others include Wellcome Open Research and Gates Open Research.

Before 1 January 2021, some publishers may start presenting affordable “transformative” deals which allow us to offer open access publishing at no cost in subscription journals. This seems unlikely at the moment, particularly as subscription deals cover multi-year periods.

Please be aware that publishers may market their hybrid/subscription journals as “Plan-S compliant” and suggest that you can pay for open access as they have “transformative agreements” in place. They may well do with other universities in other countries as Plan S is a global policy, however this option is likely not to be valid for many UK authors.


What’s next for the Library & Archives Service?

We will continue to provide updates from funders and publishers on this blog and ServiceDesk pages. It’s expected that many publishers will change their open access options to adapt to Plan S, and other funders may sign up (e.g. British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK have not yet signed). Major updates will be fed through department newsletters. We will also provide clear and simple guidance on complying with the policy, but please let us know if you have any questions via ServiceDesk or at


What do I need to do now?

If you manage an existing grant from one of the Coalition S partners, then you should be aware that from 1 January 2021, articles submitted for publication are likely to be subject to Plan S requirements. If you have target journals in mind for particular research outcomes, you should adapt these as necessary.

You should be aware that you may not be able to publish in your preferred journals unless the publisher adapts their policies. If you are concerned about the compliance of a particular journal, you may wish to contact the journal editors to encourage them to comply with the Plan S policies, particularly the rule on having no embargo period for depositing the manuscript into an open access repository.

You should also make your collaborators aware (if they are funded by other organisations) that these requirements will come into play.


Why Plan S?

Although Plan S brings major changes in terms of where authors may choose to publish, the aim is to democratise access to knowledge.

It continues to be the case that research cannot be accessed by all those who need it. Green open access (i.e. where a manuscript has been made available in our repository or PMC for instance) has enabled many hundreds of thousands of people to access work which would otherwise remain behind paywalls. We have recently hit 4,000,000 downloads from Research Online and regularly traffic from around the world. If work was not made open access, the vital research conducted here at the School would not be as widely disseminated. Plan S is a further step by funders to get the vital research they fund into the hands of the people who need to read it, faster.

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