A view on Open Access publishing from Lebanon

November 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

By Jocelyn DeJong. Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, American University of Beirut and Coordinator, Reproductive Health Working Group (Arab countries and Turkey); and Trustee of Reproductive Health Matters

As a researcher based in a middle income country, I would like to support the concerns raised in the blog by Louise Finer.

While many of us welcome the advent of open-access publication and the principles it represents, there are problems in the implementation of open-access publishing as it is currently evolving. Before turning to some of these problems, however, it should be said that the status quo before the advent of open-access publications also had many deficiencies and was inequitable both in access to and production of knowledge. This status quo has meant that, although most international, peer-reviewed journals published by commercial publishers had become available electronically, there is strict legal regulation (due to international intellectual property protection) over their availability and circulation. We have also become accustomed to a publishing model where, typically, researchers and reviewers who do the bulk of work for such journals are unpaid, yet subscription prices are high and rising often making them inaccessible. In the region where I work, and indeed in most low and middle-income countries, only the more well-endowed universities are able to afford journal subscriptions. This has led to a situation where only individuals working in institutions which can afford the high cost of international peer-reviewed journals (such as my own) have access to new research findings. And even for students in universities that do have journal subscriptions, they lose the privilege of access to such journals upon graduation. They therefore start their professional lives – whether in Lebanon or in other countries – having been exposed to the value of research and having become eager to do research themselves but restricted in their access to new research. Individuals in non-governmental or community-based organisations typically also lack access to international, peer-reviewed journals and yet they are increasingly engaged in research or using information published in them.

Because of some of these problems encountered by researchers and teachers in this pre-open-access status quo, many have welcomed the advent of new approaches to publishing through open-access, with their potential to broaden access to new knowledge and insights to an international audience irrespective of socio-economic standing. The subsequent proliferation of open-access journals, however, has raised new challenges and questions, particularly when it comes to potential inequities in who can actually publish their work in such journals. I have noted increasing disenchantment among many observers and people working in the field who, in their experiences of open-access publishing to date, are left confused and concerned by the inequitable direction it appears to be going.

The first and foremost concern is that, as noted in the blog by Louise Finer, the cost of publication has effectively shifted from publisher to producer of knowledge or research. Most worrying is the advance payment necessary for authors to publish in open-access journals: typically either authors have to pay an advance fee for submitting an article to such a journal, or they have to pay a fee if their article is accepted. Such advance payments pose difficulties to many researchers, but put those in low and middle-income settings at a particular disadvantage. Some authors can include fees in research grants, if they have them, but this comes possibly at the expense of other research budget items. For many, the time period of research grants has finished when they are expected to pay the fees. In other cases, the funding organization may not allow the allocation of their funds to cover open-access fees. In some cases well-endowed universities subsidise researchers to pay these fees – but in my experience this is rarely the case in low and middle-income countries. Academic salaries in most low and middle income countries are certainly not high enough to allow academics to pay for the high costs of open-access publishing personally. The potential for inequities across countries and within countries between institutions (and even within institutions) immediately then becomes apparent. Moreover, to my knowledge there is rarely a sliding scale, allowing for this difference in the availability of resources for individual researchers.

Funders such as the Wellcome Trust (in the UK) and the National Institutes of Health (in the US) are committed to covering the costs necessary to make any research funded by these organisations open-access. My experience with Wellcome Trust funding at my institution is positive in that the Trust pays the publisher directly whenever an article is accepted. In this way, the researcher is insulated from having to make decisions about where to publish based on different costs and procedures, and can focus efforts on getting high quality research into a good journal. Moreover, the Wellcome Trust’s funding will include paying the fees to regular subscription journals to make particular articles open-access or to publishing in open-access journals. We must not forget, however, that most research taking place in low and middle income countries is not supported by such funders.

A further concern about the current state of open-access publishing is the lack of information or guidance to researchers about the best venues to publish in. Not a week passes that I do not receive an email about a new journal in my field inviting submissions and peer reviewers. We all know that open-access journals are proliferating, some probably for commercial motives, yet there is little guidance on how to assess their quality. Reviewing names on editorial boards is often not very informative if they are not known academics. Existing measures used to evaluate the quality of peer-reviewed journals such as the ‘impact factor’ , are inadequate, since they are based merely on the number of citations from articles published in them. Open-access journals may gain high impact factors because they are by their nature widely available and so articles published in them are often highly cited, but this tells us little about the quality of the article itself.

To conclude, I consider open-access to be a positive development in terms of making the most recent research available to a wide audience not dependent on one’s geographic position or socio-economic status. However, I am concerned that important questions remain, in particular about how accessible such publishing venues are for researchers from around the globe who may not be able to afford the often high associated costs. Thus while laudable in principle, I believe the current implementation of open-access publishing is flawed.

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