“Open access publishing needs to be as inclusive as it wants to be”: Three recommendations to support OA in the Global South

Published: Monday 14th September 2020
Category: News

Researchers are increasingly publishing in open access journals, but this growth hasn’t been as strong in lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs). To find out what is holding them back, Elsevier and STM collaborated on an analysis of publishing habits and trends in Research4Life countries over the past ten years, using data from Scopus and other sources. Andrea Powell, Research4Life Publishing Coordinator at STM, discusses the findings and gives three suggestions to lower the barriers to open access publishing.

Download the white paper Achieving an EquitableTransition to Open Access for Researchers in Lower and Middle-Income Countries by Andrea Powell (STM/Research4Life), Rob Johnson (Research Consulting) and Rachel Herbert (Elsevier).

Andrea Powell

The analysis gathers evidence around the challenges of transitioning to open access for some countries. “We wanted to look at where authors in these countries are publishing and under which models, if and how they are paying article processing fees and so on. There’s a lot of talk about this subject, but you can’t solve a problem without knowing what it is,” Powell explains. 

Data was collected from Scopus, Unpaywall and bioRxiv to include as much research as possible from the Global South. “We also did some analysis at a workshop during the Research to Reader conference in February 2020 using Digital Science’s resource, Dimensions.  This revealed many of the same issues, and as all Research4Life users have free access to this resource, they will be able to do the same kind of study if they want to learn more about which publishing models are used in different geographies.”

The white paper mostly looks at LMICs, and specifically at countries eligible for access to Research4Life. However, the authors warn that there can be big differences in the scholarly communications landscape. This is illustrated by the scatterplot below, in which countries that appear more to the right have a higher amount of publications, while countries closer to the top have seen a bigger growth in publication count. “Each country has its own story,” Powell says. “Countries like Iraq, Pakistan and Vietnam are growing tremendously. Sierra Leone is growing a lot but from a very low base, and Venezuela even experienced degrowth – entirely as a result of their economic situation.”

Countries with a higher amount of publication vs growth in publication count.

A crucial finding is that open access publishing isn’t growing as much in Research4Life countries as it is in the rest of the world. In 2018, three-quarters of journal articles with at least one author from a Research4Life country were published under a subscription model. The others were published under a gold open access (16%), subsidized (7%) or hybrid (2%) model. “Subscription journals remain the option of choice, much more so than in the rest of the world,” Powell notes. 

Nevertheless, the global move to open access publishing is here to stay. “Open access articles get downloaded and cited more. It’s good to remove the barriers to access, but not if you just move them to somewhere else,” Powell warns. “Don’t forget that there is hardly any barrier to access in many Research4Life countries, since they get access through the platform.”

Research funding poses an enormous challenge for institutions in LMICs. “Northern institutions can repurpose subscription funds to pay for open access fees, but, say, a university in Nairobi doesn’t have these funds to begin with. They’re at a disadvantage before they even start. We shouldn’t just assume that a shift to open access is going to be a good thing for LMICs. For it to be an inclusive business model, we first have to pinpoint exactly what the problems are and how we can tackle them.”

Here are three recommendations the authors have to ensure the transition to open access in LMICs is equitable. There are more recommendations in the paper.

1. Increase the consistency of and transparency around waivers for article processing fees

In the Gold open-access business model, instead of charging a subscription price for a journal, publishers charge article processing fees (APCs). Authors in LMICs often struggle to pay for these. “I’ve even heard of cases where the researchers are paying for the APCs from their own pockets,” Powell shares. Many publishers, therefore, offer APC waivers to partially or fully cover the cost. “Although, to be honest, a 50% waiver is likely not going to make a difference in these countries,” Powell adds. But publishers aren’t always transparent about these policies. “It can be hard to find out which publishers offer waivers and to whom. Additionally, some publishers will only tell authors that waivers exist after a paper has been accepted. But most authors will have been discouraged to submit in the first place. INASP has found that even when researchers are entitled to waivers, they sometimes end up paying the APCs due to a lack of awareness.” 

“At Research4Life, we’re looking into how we help by providing a centralized place from which authors can find this information. But we can only do this if publishers tell us what their policies are. The publishing industry has to be more transparent about how these waivers are communicated to make sure researchers aren’t put off to publish in OA journals.”

Not only are the policies around APC waivers often hard to find, but eligibility also varies greatly depending on the publisher and the author’s location. This again discourages authors from even considering the option. “It would make a tremendous difference if publishers’ policies would be consistent, so that we could, for example, say that all group A countries would get a 100% waiver with all publishers part of Research4Life. We need such a clear message to really convey information consistently to our users.”

2. Increase the research capacity of authors, reviewers and editors from lower- and middle-income countries

Many publishers offer information on how to submit to their journals. However, there is a need for publisher-independent training to equip authors with the necessary skills to enable them to submit their research to internationally competitive journals. Organizations like INASP and Research4Life provide such training, so it makes sense for publishers to invest in these organizations, which are heavily dependent on external funding. 

“Our MOOC is a great resource that equips users to get the most out of Research4Life. To help authors better navigate the publishing landscape, we could consider adding additional modules.”

3. Encourage collaboration between researchers in LMICs and industrialized countries

Authors prefer to publish in international journals rather than domestic ones, the results of the analysis suggest. “They sometimes feel like their own, local journals aren’t up to scratch. On the one hand, we can think about what we can do to build a domestic publishing ecosystem. But we should also make it easier for these authors to publish in internationally recognized journals. Researchers everywhere want to publish in Nature!”

An extra benefit is that if an author from a Research4Life country collaborates with a colleague from an industrialized country, the latter can often help with getting budget for the APC fee.

With its close connections to authors in LMICs, Powell is convinced that Research4Life can play an important part in ensuring a fair transition to open access. “Even if or when the industry makes a complete switch, there will still be a need to build capacity, support the usage of APC waivers and filter content. Research4Life can help with all of that,” Powell concludes.