How the open access model hurts academics in poorer countries

Open access journals come with hidden costs. rvlsoft/Shutterstock

The rise of open access publishing should be applauded. Scientific research and literature should be made available to everyone, with no cost to the reader.

But there’s a catch: nothing is actually free and someone has to pay. The open access model merely changes who pays. So rather than individuals or institutions paying to have access to publications, increasingly, academics are expected to pay for publishing their research in these “open access” journals. In this way, publishers continue to make money even though they no longer charge readers to access their journals.

The bottom line is that payment has been transferred from institutions and individuals paying to have access to researchers having to pay to have their work published.

And these are substantial. For example, PlosOne charges academics US $1,595 per paper; PlosBiology charges US $3 000. Cell Reports charges US $5 000. Some journals call this cost a “publication fee”. Others refer to “article processing charges”. Ironically, the revenue received in this way is much higher than journal subscriptions – and yet the costs are minimal because the publications are digital with no hard copy costs and little administration.

The cost is usually borne by individual researchers in many institutions. This is a huge burden particularly in developing countries with weaker currencies. Some universities are able to cover part or all of the cost of open access articles, but some make no provision. Universities in most economies, particularly in the developing world, are under huge financial pressure.

An urgent discussion is needed around the cost of research publications. A more equitable system, in which the full costs and benefits are properly rewarded, is crucial.

Rising costs

There has been some debate about the rising cost of journal subscriptions and the University of California has recently “broken away” from academic publisher Elsevier, stopping its subscriptions entirely.

There is however, little focus on the costs of open access to researchers in the developing world. Most people we have spoken to inside academia are under the impression that these costs are waived. But that’s only the case for some journals in 47 of the world’s “least developed” nations; researchers in the 58 other countries in the developing world must pay the full price.

Currently, individual research programmes must bear the rising cost of open access publication. University researchers write grants for funding research and providing graduate students with scholarships. Few granting agencies take the cost of open access publication into account – and so publication costs eat into whatever precious grant funding researchers get.

In the research programme I (Professor Wingfield) run, we’ve found that it is just too expensive to only publish in open access journals. Many of the articles in subscription journals are now made available online between six months and a year after publication. This time lag can be problematic in fast moving fields.

The cost of a PlosOne article is 20% of the cost of a Masters student’s scholarship. So the choice is “do I give a Masters student a scholarship, or publish more in open access journals?” We are trying to do both and we are sure that’s the approach many research programmes are trying to take. But as more journals take the open access route this is going to be more difficult. In future, if we want to publish more articles in open access journals, we will have to reduce the number of Masters, Doctoral and post doctoral students in our programmes.

This isn’t a problem that’s unique to our research groups or university. Colleagues in Europe and the US are also concerned about the cost of publishing in open access journals. But the problem is amplified in institutions located in developing economies.

Finding solutions

One of the solutions to this problem lies with publishing houses. Of course publishers want to make money. But if they’re serious about genuine open access and getting more authors from the developing world then some serious discussions are needed about reworking the current model.

One suggestion is to “flip” the current model, so there would only be open access and no subscription-only journals. This, however, may still be too expensive for many universities in the developing world who currently cannot afford journal subscriptions.

Some journals are already helping authors by offering incentives and rewards to reviewers. Editors approach experts in their fields to review manuscripts, this is the basis of peer review. These reviewers receive no remuneration for their input but are essential for the peer review process. In some cases, journals offer reviewers subscription access for a year. This only benefits the individual reviewer, not the organisation which pays their salaries.

This isn’t an ideal approach for universities. Perhaps publishers could consider a voucher approach in which vouchers accrue to the institution that pays the reviewer’s salary. These vouchers could contribute towards subscription costs or the article publication charges. More altruistic publishers could even donate vouchers to universities in the developing world.

The use of such vouchers would also have the potential of encouraging academics to undertake reviews. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find reviewers for journal articles. Knowing that there is some benefit to their institutions would inspire more people to accept the work of reviewing.

Another possible solution is pressuring open access journals to waive charges for researchers in developing countries. Academics could also be encouraged to write first for journals that are affiliated to societies. Profits from these kinds of journals go back into supporting science through research grants, travel grants and meeting support.

And researchers must start incorporating publishing costs when applying for grants. Some major funders already encourage this, as does South Africa’s National Research Foundation in some cases. Other granting agencies should be urged to do the same.