Plan S, Elitism, and Power Grabs

Plan S fits the pattern of how elites want even more power and influence

There’s an element to Plan S that people are starting to put their finger on. It has to do with the whiff of elitism that has dogged OA for years, a whiff which seems to grow more prominent with each redoubling of effort. Yesterday, Robert Harington edged closer toward it with his Scholarly Kitchen post, comparing the worldwide drift toward authoritarianism with the arrogant approach of Plan S — an arrogance that has caused the planners to completely ignore, even denigrate, the needs of researchers young and old, the role of scholarly and specialty societies, and the professionalism of editors and publishers.

While arrogance and authoritarianism are getting us in the ballpark, I want to talk more about the raw power aspects behind Plan S, and how these relate to raw power plays we’re seeing across society today.

The publishing economy evolved with small publishers emerging in local markets — think local newspapers — and in niche industries, like specialties in science or medicine or technical areas. Over time, some careful collaborations and consolidations occurred, and some major commercial operations emerged. Elsevier, for example, takes its name from a hit weekly Dutch magazine published after World War II; the company used the money from the magazine to explore medical and scholarly publishing. Wiley emerged from a print shop in Manhattan. Holtzbrinck began as a book club in Germany. Large society publishers emerged over time as their fields (chemistry, electrical engineering, medicine) became central to economic progress. These were all legitimate, market-driven, broad-based successes.

Something larger than and different from consolidation or organic growth in the media space has occurred over the past few decades, as control of the media has been viewed more shamelessly as a source of strategic power. The pursuit of profit and the goal of informing a civilized society sometimes seem secondary in the mainstream media — as it does more and more in business and elite society. There are now brazenly political media operations run by Rupert Murdoch and Sinclair Media. Their goal seems to be the simultaneous pursuit of economic and political power, the one reinforcing the other, with very little interest in any higher purpose. They are making major power grabs.

These changes fit with more general trends in the way power has been consolidated and distilled in society over the past few decades. Those at the top are exploiting whatever they can to enrich themselves at the expense of others. CEO salaries now at dizzying multiples of their staffs’ salaries. Income inequality is increasing. Money in politics is tilting the playing field further in favor of those already weighing it down.

A hallmark of the times seems to be for the powerful to be endlessly self-serving and self-interested, to the extent of wrecking entire swaths of economies and societies in pursuit of a greed for power.

Plan S can be interpreted as a major step for the scholarly publishing economy/ecosystem along this same path, with funders (large, wealthy organizations) trying to control as many benefits of the publishing market as possible while trashing value from any part that doesn’t serve their interests. They would want to do this in order to achieve what I like to call “patronage end-to-end.”

Plan S seeks to transform a diversified and distributed system built by societies, small and large commercial publishers, and research consumers, in order to make life more certain for funders. Plan S mainstays have been openly antagonistic to existing organizations in the publishing economy — societies, commercial publishers that have reader-focused business models — and has taken at best a high-handed approach to researchers, all while courting funders for support.

As in power grabs elsewhere, there are not what experts call “common-humanity politics” with Plan S, but rather “common-enemy politics,” in which a small group unites in dislike and disdain for a targeted set of enemies, rather than to elevate everyone through encompassing and broad-based solutions. From border walls to Brexit, common-enemy politics has become a theme for those seeking to consolidate power.

The language of Plan S has been suffused with common-enemy politics. While, as I wrote recently, “complaints about publishers . . . over time have become cemented as cultural touchstones for the OA movement,” Plan S’ new level of common-enemy politics led one former OA publisher to note:

There are a number of provisions in Plan S that are intended to do real harm to publishers. . . . Collectively, I think we have normalized the deviance. Open Access is no longer about Open Access, it is about harming publishers. And that is a shame.

Utilizing common-enemy politics is another sign Plan S is mimicking the strategies of other power grabs.

Plan S wouldn’t make the publishing or knowledge-generation economy stronger, more resilient, more diverse, more vibrant, or healthier. It would make scholarly publishing more predictable for funders and some OA publishers, while weakening the core of the publishing economy so those left can serve the interests of a few in powerful positions. This is very similar to the goals and behaviors we’ve been observing in society at large as income inequality and social deconstruction have accelerated.

Monkey see, monkey do.

In its design and through the words of its proponents, Plan S would act to put a diverse and vibrant set of professionals, researchers, and practitioners under the thumb of an elite group of funders. That's the problem at its heart, in my opinion — the same problem at the heart of democracies worldwide. This is why it reminded Harington of authoritarianism, I think. It’s a plan built so that rich organizations can exploit others and gain even more power. Its power would not be legitimately won market power, but seized power.

We have too many of these divisive, exploitative power grabs going on in society generally. Surely we’re smart enough to avoid falling into the same trap.


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