Europe’s Open Access “Plan S” and Paper Publishing in Software Engineering Research

A year ago, more than a dozen influential research funders in Europe launched Plan S. This plan requires that from 2021 onwards, any research funded through the Plan-S coalition, must be published in 100% golden open access venues. To understand what this means for my field of research, software engineering, I did some data collection. My data suggests that 14% (one out of seven) of the published papers are affected, meaning that conferences may loose 14% of their papers.

Plan S in a Nutshell

Plan S is an initiative launched by:

  • The European Union, which runs the Horizon Europe program of €100 billion (over 113 billion US dollars). It is the successor to H2020, and includes funding for the prestigious personal grants of the European Research Council (ERC).

  • Twelve national research funding organizations, from various European countries, such as The Netherlands (where I live), the United Kingdom, and Austria.

Together these Plan S “funders” (collectively called “Coalition S”) have agreed (in my own words) that any research they fund must be:

  1. Published as open access (this was often the case already, but self-archiving and green open access was sufficient so far).

  2. Published in golden open access journals and conference proceedings only. In other words, not just the paper itself must be open access, but all other papers in that journal or conference must be open access too. Hybrid venues (partially open access platforms) are not allowed.

All this should start in 2021, although publishers can earn some extra time by participating in “transformative arrangements”. There are more details to the plan than this, for example related to the use of the CC BY license, embargoes, and the costs involved, but golden open access forms the essence.

This is, of course, a drastic plan, since the majority of journals and conference is not golden open access. For example, out of the top 20 venues (according to Google Metrics) in the area of Software Systems (most relevant to my field of software engineering), just three are open access (POPL and OOPSLA, both published by ACM SIGPLAN, and ETAPS TACAS, published by Springer, ranked #6, #15, and #11, respectively). The remaining 17 (closed access, published by ACM, IEEE, Elsevier, Springer) venues are the target of Plan S: The coalition seeks to encourage the community to make all venues open access.

The key rationale for the European funders behind this plan as I see it is leverage, in the following ways:

  • The European Union as a whole will benefit more from their €100 billion investment, if any (European) citizen can freely access the resulting knowledge;

  • Research is never conducted in isolation. Progress in research is not just visible in papers directly funded through a project, but also in subsequent papers building on top of those results (refuting, strengthening, criticizing, or expanding them). The more venues are open access, the higher the chance that these follow up results are also published as open access.

  • The universities in the European Union together will benefit financially if the publishing market shifts towards open access: The current profit margins of up to 40% of publishing giants like Elsevier are a waste of tax payer money that instead should be directly invested in research and education, the exact same causes that the EU and its Horizon Europe program seeks to advance as well. Pumping €100 billion into a system that wastes money at scale is ineffective.

Furthermore, note that this coalition works in all areas of research, including climate change, health care, and artificial intelligence. From the European perspective, the world needs informed societal debate about these topics. To that end, the EU is committed to maximizing the free availability of any research it is funding.

Last but not least, Coalition S is working hard to expand the list of funders, talking to both China and India, for example. Also, Jordania and Zambia have already joined, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (though their presence in computer science research is limited, compared to, e.g., China).

Impact on Software Engineering Conferences

In my field of research, software engineering, few conferences and journals are open access. The leading publishers are ACM, the IEEE, Springer, and Elsevier. These publishers permit green open access (you can archive yourself) and usually hybrid open access (you can pay a little extra to make just your own paper open access — an option that is not possible for IEEE conference proceedings). None of these venues, however, is golden open access (meaning all papers in the proceedings are openly available).

Note that this situation will be different in every field: top conferences in security (Usenix), AI (AAAI, NIPS), or OOPSLA/POPL/ICFP sponsored by SIGSOFT are all full golden open access.

The consequence of this is that my field of software engineering is not ready for Plan S, and neither may your research area be. Thus, individual researchers will need to decide where to publish, and conference and journals may need to re-think their (open access) publication strategies.

To support individual researchers and conference steering committees in their decision making, I decided to collect some data, to measure the impact of Plan S.

Since conferences are dominant in software engineering, I focused on these. I picked two editions of ICSE and ESEC/FSE (for which I am a member of the steering committee) and for the smaller and more specialized ISSTA conference (which I happened to attend this summer).

For each published paper, I manually checked the acknowledgments to see whether the authors were beneficiaries from any of the Plan S funders. I did this for the main (technical research) track papers only, and not for, e.g., demonstration sub-tracks.

The results (also available as spreadsheet) are as follows:

Table with data per conference

A few results stand out:

  1. Overall, 14% (1 in 7) of the papers currently receive grants from Coalition S.
  2. The two big conferences, ICSE (over 1000 participants) and ESEC/FSE (over 300 participants), exhibit an impact on around 11-12% of the papers.
  3. For the smaller ISSTA conference, more than 25% of the papers are (co-)funded through Coalition S. This number reflects the composition of the community, and the impact is enlarged by the small total number of papers. Should the affected researchers decide not to submit to ISSTA anymore, this may constitute an existential threat to the conference.
  4. The EU is by far the biggest funder, with researchers and industry from many countries benefiting from participation in large EU projects. Furthermore, the EU ERC (Advanced) Grants are extremely prestigious (€2.5 million) and have been won by leaders in the software engineering field such as (in the collected data) Carlo Ghezzi, Mark Harman, Bashar Nuseibeh, and Andreas Zeller.
  5. The UK is the second biggest funder, mostly through its EPSRC program. This is the UK’s national program, unrelated to the European Union. Thus, EPSRC’s participation in Coalition S will not be affected by Brexit (apart from increased financial pressure on ESPRC’s overall budget as the UK’s economy is shrinking).
  6. While a small country with limited funds, Luxembourg is very active in the area of software engineering, causing high impact for, e.g., the ISSTA conference.

The 14% I found is substantially higher than the estimate of 6% impact found by Clarivate Analytics (cited by the ACM), and the 5% found by the ACM itself. If anything, this factor 3 or even factor 5 with ISSTA difference calls for a detailed assessment for each venue affected.

My data is based on what I saw in the acknowledgments: In reality it is likely that more papers are affected. You can check your own papers in my on line spreadsheet — corrections are welcome.

Collecting the data takes took me around a minute per paper. You are cordially invited to repeat this exercise for your own favorite conference or journal (TSE, EMSE, JSS, MSR, ICSME, RE, MODELS, …), and I will do my best to reflect your data in this post. If you’re a conference organizer, the safest thing to do is survey authors about their funding, enquiring about Coalition S based funding explicitly.

There is a another point to be made that required little data gathering.

The 14% figure relates to impact on the conference. Individual researchers can be affected much more. Our group at TU Delft, for example, has been very successful in attracting substantial funding both from the EU and from the Dutch NWO. As a consequence, for me personally, half of my publications will be affected. For some new PhD students starting in my group funded on such projects all publications will be affected. More specifically, this means that such PhD students will never be able to publish in the field’s top conference or journals (in our case ICSE or TSE).

A Call for Action

Clearly, the impact of Plan S can be substantial, on individual researchers as well as on conferences and journals.

This calls for action.

ACM, as one of the leading publishers in computer science, shared an update on their Plan S progress in their July 2019 news letter. It states:

It is worth noting that ACM has been working with various consortia in the US, Europe, and elsewhere on a framework for transitioning the traditional ACM Digital Library licensing (subscription) model to a Gold Open Access model utilizing an innovative “transformative agreement” model. More details will be announced later in 2019 as the first of these Agreements are executed; once these are in place, all ACM Publications will comply with the majority of Plan S requirements.

This is good news, and certainly not a simple undertaking. I sincerely hope that ACM will be able to meet not just the majority, but all requirements, and for all conferences and journals. This essentially implies a change of business model for the ACM Digital Library, from a subscription based to an author-(institution)-pays model. This in itself will not be easy, and is further complicated by several constraints and strong criteria imposed by Plan S, for example concerning cost transparency. The key challenge will be to convince Coalition S that these criteria are indeed met.

The ACM Special Interest Group on Programming Languages, SIGPLAN, meanwhile, sets an example on how to progress within the current setting. The research papers of three of its key conferences are published as part of the Proceedings of the ACM in Programming Languages.
This is a Golden Open Access journal in which different volumes are devoted to different conferences. The POPL, OOPSLA, and ICFP conferences have adopted this model, and hence are fully open access. To quote the Inaugural Editorial Message by Philip Wadler:

PACMPL is a Gold Open Access journal. It will be archived in ACM’s Digital Library, but no membership or fee is required for access. Gold Open Access has been made possible by generous funding through ACM SIGPLAN, which will cover all open access costs in the event authors cannot. Authors who can cover the costs may do so by paying an Article Processing Charge (APC). PACMPL, SIGPLAN, and ACM Headquarters are committed to exploring routes to making Gold Open Access publication both affordable and sustainable.

The ACM SIG for Software Engineering, SIGSOFT, so far has not taken action along these lines. Nevertheless, this is simple to do, especially since SIGPLAN has laid out all the ground work.

Furthermore, last year, we as ACM SIGSOFT members elected Tom Zimmermann as our chair. In his statement for the elections he wrote:

We should make gold open access a priority for SIGSOFT

He also provided details on how to achieve this, mostly along the lines of SIGPLAN. By electing him, we as ACM SIGSOFT members gave him the mandate to carry this out. This will not be easy to do, but calls for all support from the full software engineering research community to help the ACM SIGSOFT leadership with this important mission.

The other main non-profit society publisher in software engineering is the IEEE. In fact, IEEE and ACM co-sponsor many of the main conferences, such as ICSE and ASE.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find on line information about IEEE’s vision on Plan S, and its impact on the conference proceedings published by the IEEE. This makes it very unclear what, from 2021 onwards, the publication options are for many software engineering conferences.

Nevertheless, it is my hope that IEEE will embrace Plan S, and move to open access conference proceedings, as many other society publishers have done.

This, then, will open the floor to joint open access publications, for example through the new fully open access “Proceedings of the ACM in Software Engineering”.

Version 0.4, August 20, 2019. (c) Arie van Deursen. Licensed under CC BY.

Thanks to Diomidis Spinellis for feedback on an earlier draft on this post.

Golden Open Access for the ACM: Who Should Pay?

In a move that I greatly support, the ACM Special Interest Group on Programming Languages (SIGPLAN), is exploring various ways to adopt a truly Golden Open Access model, by rolling out a survey asking your opinion, set up by Michael Hicks. Even though I myself am most active in ACM’s Special Interest Group on Software Engineering SIGSOFT, I do publish at and attend SIGPLAN conferences such as OOPSLA. And I sincerely hope that SIGSOFT will follow SIGPLAN’s leadership in this important issue.

ACM presently supports green open access (self-archiving) and a concept called “Open TOC” in which papers are accessible via a dedicated “Table of Contents” page for a particular conference. While better than nothing, I agree with OOPSLA 2017 program chair Jonathan Aldrich who explains in his blog post that Golden Open Access is much preferred.

This does, however, raise the question who should pay for making publications open access, which is part of the SIGPLAN survey:

  • Attendants Pay: Increase the conference fees: SIGPLAN estimates that this would amount to an increase by around $50,- per attendee.

  • Authors Pay: Introduce Article Processing Charges: SIGPLAN indicates that if a full conference goes open access this would presently amount to $400 per paper.


Note that the math here suggest that the number of registrants is around 8 times the number of papers in the main research track. Also note that it assumes that only papers in the main research track are made open access. A conference like ICSE, however, has many workshops with many papers: It is equally important that these become open access too, which would change the math considerably.

The article processing charges of $400,- are presented as a given: They may seem in line with what commercial publishers charge, but they are certainly very high compared to what, e.g. LIPIcs charges for ECOOP (which is less than $100). These costs of $400,- come from ACM’s desire (need) to continue to make a substantial profit from their publishing activities, and should go down.

In his blog post, Jonathan Aldrich argues for the “author pays” model. His reasoning is that this can be viewed as a “funder pays” model: Most authors are funded by research grants, and usually in those grants funds can be found to cater for the costs involved in publishing open access.

On this point (and this point alone) I disagree with Jonathan. To me it feels fundamentally wrong to punish authors by making them pay $400 more for their registration. If anything, they should get a reduction for delivering the content of the conference.

I see Jonathan’s point that some funding agencies are willing to cover open access costs (e.g. NSF, NWO, H2020), and that it is worthwhile to explore how to tap into that money. But this requires data on what percentage of papers could be labeled as “funded”. For my department, I foresee several cases where it would be the department who’d have to pay for this instead of an external agency.

I do sympathize with Jonathan’s appeal to reduce conference registration costs, which can be very high. But the cost of making publications open access should be borne by the full community (all attendants), not just by those who happen to publish a paper.

Shining examples of open access computer science conferences are the Usenix, AAAI, and NIPS events. Full golden open access of all content, and no extra charges for authors — these conferences are years ahead of the ACM.

Do you have an opinion on “author pays” versus “participant pays”? Fill in the survey!

Thank you SIGPLAN for initiating this discussion!