Open Access: the flip side

November 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

Louise Finer, Managing Editor, Reproductive Health Matters

The second in our blog series on Open Access publishing (see first blog)

Proponents of Open Access claim it is an “inevitable consequence” of the internet, yet it would be foolish to underestimate the implications for research, publishing and dissemination across the world.

The implications of Open Access fall into three main categories:
1. Costs and funding
Open Access is leading to a dramatic change in the economics of research publication and dissemination. Not being able to generate income from subscription fees, Open Access journals are increasingly charging authors “article processing” fees, to be paid either on submission or on acceptance of an article for publication. Research shows that article processing fees range from USD 20 to USD 3,800, with an average of approximately USD 900. Because of the number of different publication models it is difficult to determine exactly what proportion of journals currently charge article processing fees, but research does show that of 4,319 online-only Open Access journals published in 2011, 42% levied fees. It is easily conceivable that with the growth in online Open Access publishing, the practice of charging author fees may spread further. Among those that already charge are some major players in scholarly publication, and research shows the link between high impact factors and high article processing charges. In this way, it appears that Open Access is merely shifting the costs of publishing from subscribers to authors.
To make things more complicated, a “hybrid Open Access” model has also emerged, whereby subscription journals publish articles according to their normal terms and conditions, but allow authors to make their work “Open Access” on payment of a fee. The American Journal of Public Health is one such example. One study reports uptake of this model at 2%.

Some research funders, such as Wellcome in the UK, have stated their commitment to including additional funding to cover article processing fees in their grants, but anyone without such funding would have to pay out of pocket to get their work into the public domain. This is highly likely to discriminate against authors from the global South, whose institutions are less likely to be able to cover such fees, as well as anyone conducting independent research, or working in poorly funded fields. Furthermore, money available for research itself may be reduced by the need to pay article processing fees – either because the research funder chooses to allocate money from its overall budget to this purpose, or because the institution receiving the money decides to spend funding from research grants on these fees.

Some journals are attempting to mitigate these problems for researchers from the global South. The International Journal for Equity in Health, for example, states that it “routinely” waives charges for authors from low-income countries, and allows a limited number of waivers at editors’ discretion. Good intentions notwithstanding, such policies place the onus on the author from a low-income country to ask to be treated as an exception. Furthermore, the criteria for this exception could easily miss out other needy researchers, such as those in the rest of the world working in poorly funded NGOs and institutions. Finally, the very fact of having to ask to be considered for a ‘waiver’ is demeaning and likely to discourage authors.

Regarding the Green Open Access model, the costs and technological requirements of setting up a repository should also not be overlooked.

2. Standards
Some argue that generating income through authors paying Open Access fees rather than subscription costs inevitably provides a greater incentive for publishers to accept work that may not meet rigorous quality standards. Perceptions that Open Access content is inferior to content behind paywalls or in print journals are certainly widespread.

Furthermore, if setting up or running a journal becomes an attractive profit-making enterprise rather than a means to advance scholarship, it is quite conceivable that private actors with specific agendas (such as pharmaceutical companies) will seek to do so, as a way to wield greater influence. Some traditional scholarly publishers have expressed concern that Open Access undermines their ability to generate income through subscription costs, which they see as crucial to the wider scholarly activities and publishing processes (including peer-reviewing processes) that maintain high academic standards.

3. Distribution and access
Open Access is predicated on access to the internet, and undoubtedly makes promotion of published research via social media much easier. Although making far greater amounts of information available to those with internet access, including those without institutional affiliations, the prioritisation of virtual over print publication inevitably restricts availability to those without access to the internet. Influenced by the advent of Open Access, funding priorities are shifting away from supporting printing costs, making it increasingly hard to find resources for printing, even if this is in many areas the only or the best way of disseminating research again particularly in the global South.

Thus, there is a big gulf between the potential and the actual possibility of achieving fully free access to journals and articles for authors and readers via Open Access.

The meaning of Open Access for RHM is the subject of our next blog.

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