APS News

March 2024 (Volume 33, Number 2)

As Academic Journals Move Toward Open Access, Some in the Industry Take Action to Reduce Inequity

Challenges remain in making sure that open access models are sustainable in the long run.

By Shi En Kim | February 16, 2024

scientific journals bookcase

A library’s old scientific journals.

The road to open science, in which research processes and products are accessible to all, is paved with good intentions. One of its principles is the concept of open access, in which the public can peruse published research for free. On the surface, open access seems like a noble idea. But while it makes the products of scientific inquiry freely available to all readers, implementing it has generated inequities among the authors in the scientific enterprise.

“It’s very attractive if it works,” says Franco Martin Cabrerizo, a member chemist of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council in Argentina, of the open access framework. “But if we don’t take concerted actions, we can create more problems.”

For example, on the path to open access, one of the many models that publishers have used is called the hybrid model, making papers pay-to-read unless authors cover an additional processing fee to publish their work under open access. Inequity arises when the additional costs prevent those who cannot afford them from sharing their scientific work with a broader audience beyond the circle of journal subscribers.

Cognizant of this issue, some players in the publishing industry have moved to course-correct. Recently, the American Physical Society (APS) announced that it will cover all article costs for publishing in its journals for scientists at nonprofit institutions in over 115 countries and territories, as well as refugee camps, this year onward. Under the new policy, eligible authors from lower- and middle-income countries will automatically qualify for a waiver of any article publishing fees when they publish in the APS journal collection. APS has also partnered with the organization Research4Life to give free subscriptions to its journal collection to researchers from these communities.

The open access movement in academic publishing draws its roots from the founding of arXiv.org in 1991, whereby physics researchers could choose to make their preprints freely available by uploading it to a public online repository. The movement gained momentum in the next few decades when countries around the world, including the United States, India, China, and various European nations, announced their commitments to support or mandate that government-funded research be made publicly available without a paywall. From 2000 to 2020, the fraction of open access research articles rose from roughly 20% to about half of all the scholarly literature.

However, in the rush to meet the readership side of the open access equation, addressing the supply end has lagged. The fees to enable open access have shifted the inequity from readers to authors. High article processing charges — nearing or even exceeding $10,000 a paper in some journals — can be prohibitive for researchers in many countries. In some cases, the cost to publish in top-tier journals can be as much as, or more than, the yearly salary or entire research budget of a professor in a developing country, Cabrerizo says.

The fees could compound inequality in the scientific discourse, as they risk giving the work of research groups who can afford the extra costs a greater reach over others who can’t pay for open access. “We'll be excluded as writers,” says Márton Demeter, a professor of communication and media studies at the National University of Public Service in Hungary, of this hybrid open access model. “From the perspective of knowledge production, it is very bad, I think, because though we will be able to read for free, we cannot raise our voices.”

While fee waivers are a laudable start, researchers say more needs to be done to hasten the inexorable rise of open access and make sure its rollout is equitable.

Some countries are exploring open access options beyond the hybrid model. The Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) network is a coalition that includes over a dozen countries, such as South Africa and several Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations across Latin America and Europe, that publishes research from member countries under the diamond open access model, in which both publishing and reader access come at no cost. The goal is to publish research by local researchers for local researchers and on locally relevant topics. As another example, one of APS’s own journals, Physical Review Accelerators and Beams (PRAB), operates under the diamond open access model, with no charges for authors and no subscription fees for readers.

However, logistical challenges threaten these models from being adopted more broadly. The most glaring issue is sustainable financing, given the lack of a funding stream from the authors themselves under the diamond open access model. Usually, journals like these, including PRAB, rely on industrial or institutional sponsors — a funding model that is likely not feasible for many journals. “There are still really huge questions about how to get the money to flow, how to fund these kinds of models in a sustainable way,” says Tony Ross-Hellauer, an open science researcher at the Graz University of Technology in Austria.

Additionally, a scholarly-consortium-led publication model such as SciELO might result in much of the administrative burden falling onto the researchers themselves. “It does seem an extra hidden amount of work is assumed that scholars would have to take on, not only contributing as reviewers or editors for journals, but also in helping run the infrastructure,” Ross-Hellauer says. “It may become some administrative Leviathan.” With the inevitable rise of open access publishing across all fields of scholarship, he says that we’ll have to wait and see which publishing model the academic world converges on eventually, be it the hybrid model or the diamond version or something in between.

Extravagant article publishing fees can also incentivize for-profit publishers to churn out as many papers as they can in their journals, which may compromise the quality of the research literature. On the extreme end, “predatory” publishers charge high fees but provide little or no quality review. APS, for its part, recently co-founded Purpose-Led Publishing, a coalition of nonprofit physics publishers committed to prioritizing high-quality research over profit. These nonprofits pledge to invest all their funds back into science.

At the heart of the inequity issue in academic publishing is the performance evaluation system of young researchers, which inadvertently makes them willing participants in and victims of the problem. As criteria for career advancement and eventual tenure, institutions often require early-career scholars to land their work in international journals with high-enough impact factors, regardless of the processing fees incurred. Oftentimes, research grants may come with the stipulation that researchers publish open access, forcing young investigators to bear the costs of doing so.

“These journals are the currency of your life when you are an academic,” Demeter says. He adds that he recognizes his privilege in having the freedom to publish in any journal he prefers, having crossed the tenure hurdle a few years ago. Nevertheless, he suggests that institutions adopt alternative metrics, such as the societal impact of a researcher’s work and its influence on local policy, for evaluating research performance. A more holistic assessment of individuals scaling the ivory tower should ease many of the structural problems of academia, including paving the way toward greater publishing equity.

Shi En Kim is a science writer based in Washington, D.C.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Taryn MacKinney

March 2024 (Volume 33, Number 2)

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Articles in this Issue
As Academic Journals Move Toward Open Access, Some in the Industry Take Action to Reduce Inequity
Headed to APS April Meeting 2024 in Sacramento? Here’s What You Should Know.
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Science Policy Highlights