Open access: how to turn notions of equity into reality

The inexorable, but not uncontested, movement towards open access in academic publishing accelerated sharply with the onset of the pandemic. Subscriptions and paywalls were swiftly dismantled in an effort to widen access to research and maximise our chances of developing a timely COVID-19 vaccine.

Urgent as tackling the coronavirus crisis may be, however, it is only the latest in a series of pressing priorities such as climate emergency and spiralling inequality. It’s clear there are compelling reasons to do whatever it takes to enhance the ability of researchers to help us live healthy and sustainable lives on the planet. That’s why, incidentally, the Global Academy Jobs team hosts The Global Academy, a network of researchers and academics working internationally to help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  

Many champion open access as one way to help achieve ambitious aims like these because of its power to boost research visibility, lift download and citation rates, broaden collaborations, extend reach and increase innovation and impact. The potential is vast. But the transition period from a reader-pays to free-to-read open access model raises a number of thorny issues which are yet to be resolved. The commercial charging of universities for the publication of publicly-funded work they have carried out is a framework found in few, if any, other sectors.

From green to gold access, hybrid to fully open access journals, and varying models where individuals, institutions or funding bodies pay to publish, there is still much to define and refine in the evolution towards full open access. As the status quo shifts and far-reaching negotiations continue, predominantly in the Global North, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a robust, intentionally inclusive approach is needed. As Nick Shockey, Director of Programs & Engagement for SPARC and founding Director of the Right to Research Coalition, writes,

We need to examine who these spaces and systems are designed for, who is missing, who is excluded by the business models we use, and whose interests are prioritized.

The confusing mix of models that exists today reflects conflicting views on who should ultimately pay for the publication of research. To adhere to the aims and ethos of open access, publishing costs must surely be made affordable. If not, the evolution of open access may stand to restrict rather than broaden access by adversely affecting:

Individual researchers

Where an institution or funder does not cover the Article Processing Charge (APC) to publish in an open access journal, it can be left up to the author to pay. For those with higher incomes or independent means, this may present little in the way of obstacle. But for those at the start of their career or on a precarious fixed-term contract this can be prohibitive. The fees to publish two open-access articles in a year could, for instance, cost an early career researcher up to a quarter of their annual income. Not only does this bring financial strain, it also runs the risk of excluding the contributions of talented people and stunting their career progression.

Academic institutions and communities in low- and middle-income countries

Tight institutional and research budgets may not stretch to cover fees for open access publication. If new business models and research norms are shaped only by discussions in the Global North, they may end up actively precluding a significant number of researchers from the 114 low- and middle-income nations of the world, and eroding the quality of international collaboration. To address this, APC funding grants and transitionary fee waivers are key, as are more fundamental considerations such as the design of systems and platforms that are sustainable, accessible and allow interoperability wherever possible.

The bold, original thinking needed as this profound shift continues may in part be achieved through the hive mind, via global initiatives like Open Access Week. This year it ran from 19 to 25 October, exploring ways to work diversity, equity and inclusion into the systems and structures of open access at every level. It continues with a year-long focus on the theme ‘Open with Purpose: Taking Action to Build Structural Equity and Inclusion’.

The transition to open access offers a rare opportunity to reimagine research cultures and behaviours. It’s a key time for dialogue between researchers, HE institutions, funders, publishers and policymakers to ensure that research – funded for the most part by taxpayers across the world – can be most effectively used for the public good.

Further reading

How the open access model hurts academics in poorer countries by Professor Brenda Wingfield, Vice President of the Academy of Science of South Africa and Professor Bob Millar, University of Pretoria

Seeking Sustainability: Publishing Models for an Open Access Age by Professor Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe in The Scholarly Kitchen

University of Illinois Chicago’s Publishing, Scholarly Communication, and Open access: Myths About Open Access

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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