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How the open access model hurts academics in poorer countries

Publication costs can eat into whatever precious grant funding researchers get.


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The rise of open access publishing should be applauded. Scientific research and literature should be made available to everyone, with no cost to the reader.

But there’s a catch: nothing is actually free and someone has to pay. The open access model merely changes who pays. So rather than individuals or institutions paying to have access to publications, increasingly, academics are expected to pay for publishing their research in these “open access” journals. In this way, publishers continue to make money even though they no longer charge readers to access their journals.

The bottom line is that payment has been transferred from institutions and individuals paying to have access to researchers having to pay to have their work published.

And these are substantial. For example, PlosOne charges academics US $1,595 per paper; PlosBiology charges US $3,000. Cell Reports charges US $5,000. Some journals call this cost a “publication fee.” Others refer to “article processing charges.” Ironically, the revenue received in this way is much higher than journal subscriptions – and yet the costs are minimal because the publications are digital with no hard copy costs and little administration.

The cost is usually borne by individual researchers in many institutions. This is a huge burden particularly in developing countries with weaker currencies. Some universities are able to cover part or all of the cost of open access articles, but some make no provision. Universities in most economies, particularly in the developing world, are under huge financial pressure.

An urgent discussion is needed around the cost of research publications. A more equitable system, in which the full costs and benefits are properly rewarded, is crucial.

Rising costs

There has been some debate about the rising cost of journal subscriptions and the University of California has recently “broken away” from academic publisher Elsevier, stopping its subscriptions entirely.

There is however, little focus on the costs of open access to researchers in the developing world. Most people we have spoken to inside academia are under the impression that these costs are waived. But that’s only the case for some journals in 47 of the world’s “least developed” nations; researchers in the 58 other countries in the developing world must pay the full price.

Currently, individual research programmes must bear the rising cost of open access publication. University researchers write grants for funding research and providing graduate students with scholarships. Few granting agencies take the cost of open access publication into account – and so publication costs eat into whatever precious grant funding researchers get.

In the research programme I (Professor Wingfield) run, we’ve found that it is just too expensive to only publish in open access journals. Many of the articles in subscription journals are now made available online between six months and a year after publication. This time lag can be problematic in fast moving fields.

The cost of a PlosOne article is 20 percent of the cost of a Masters student’s scholarship. So the choice is “do I give a Masters student a scholarship, or publish more in open access journals?” We are trying to do both and we are sure that’s the approach many research programmes are trying to take. But as more journals take the open access route this is going to be more difficult. In future, if we want to publish more articles in open access journals, we will have to reduce the number of Master’s, Doctoral and postdoctoral students in our programmes.

This isn’t a problem that’s unique to our research groups or university. Colleagues in Europe and the U.S. are also concerned about the cost of publishing in open access journals. But the problem is amplified in institutions located in developing economies.

Finding solutions

One of the solutions to this problem lies with publishing houses. Of course publishers want to make money. But if they’re serious about genuine open access and getting more authors from the developing world then some serious discussions are needed about reworking the current model.

One suggestion is to “flip” the current model, so there would only be open access and no subscription-only journals. This, however, may still be too expensive for many universities in the developing world who currently cannot afford journal subscriptions.

Some journals are already helping authors by offering incentives and rewards to reviewers. Editors approach experts in their fields to review manuscripts, this is the basis of peer review. These reviewers receive no remuneration for their input but are essential for the peer review process. In some cases, journals offer reviewers subscription access for a year. This only benefits the individual reviewer, not the organisation which pays their salaries.

This isn’t an ideal approach for universities. Perhaps publishers could consider a voucher approach in which vouchers accrue to the institution that pays the reviewer’s salary. These vouchers could contribute towards subscription costs or the article publication charges. More altruistic publishers could even donate vouchers to universities in the developing world.

The use of such vouchers would also have the potential of encouraging academics to undertake reviews. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find reviewers for journal articles. Knowing that there is some benefit to their institutions would inspire more people to accept the work of reviewing.

Another possible solution is pressuring open access journals to waive charges for researchers in developing countries. Academics could also be encouraged to write first for journals that are affiliated to societies. Profits from these kinds of journals go back into supporting science through research grants, travel grants and meeting support.

And researchers must start incorporating publishing costs when applying for grants. Some major funders already encourage this, as does South Africa’s National Research Foundation in some cases. Other granting agencies should be urged to do the same.

Brenda Wingfield is vice president of the Academy of Science of South Africa and the DST-NRF SARChI chair in fungal genomics, as well as professor of genetics at the University of Pretoria. Bob Millar is a professor and director of the Centre for Neuroendocrinology at the University of Pretoria.

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  1. Marc Couture / April 18, 2019 at 11:31

    This article raises relevant issues regarding the use of article processing charges (APCs) in OA publishing. However, it’s based upon a false premise, namely that the model of author-side APCs is “the” open access model, while in fact it’s one possible model.

    As is reminded in the comments on the Conversation website, about 2/3 of OA journals don’t use APCs. These journals do tend to be smaller ones, yet about half the articles published in OA journals didn’t incur such fees. And one doesn’t talk here of fraudulent or deceptive (aka “predatory”) journals. These are legitimate ones, complying with the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ; criteria. Among the 9 500 APC-free journals indexed in DOAJ, one finds journals in all domains, published all over the world, 3/4 of them accepting articles in English, thus able to reach an international audience.

    These journals are actual, working instances of solutions differing from those envisioned in the article (vouchers, waivers, grants). Instead of relying upon APCs, they are generally supported, directly or indirectly, by public funds or similar schemes (library consortia, for instance). See for a particularly interesting initiative.

    An objection one often hears is that these journals are not the ones in which researchers want to publish, because they aren’t “prestigious” or “good” enough, or don’t have enough “impact” (generally understood as not having a large enough impact factor, if at all). Thus, goes the argument, APCs must be paid in practice, and high APCs to boot, as “high impact (factor)” journals tend to require higher APCs.

    A detailed, critical analysis of this argument, which leads to a re-examination of the deeply ingrained idea of a well-defined journal hierarchy, be it in terms of quality and value (perceived) or impact (perceived or allegedly measured), is outside the scope of this comment. Suffice to say that its purported importance to ensure the quality of both science and its reporting is more and more questioned, while its detrimental effects on both research and researchers are more and more recognized.

    This is the basis, for instance, of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA;, according to which research (and, consequently, researchers) must be evaluated “on its own merits rather than on the basis of the journal in which the research is published”. This issue is at the center of the discussions on Plan S (, a recent, ambitious proposal from European national funders, aimed at inducing a global “flip” to OA in scholarly publishing, a solution too readily dismissed in the article, in my opinion.

  2. Sharlene Oong / April 19, 2019 at 13:15

    You may be interested to know that well in advance of these developments and Plan S, IGI Global has been providing a transformative open access offset model, IGI Global’s OA Waiver (Offset Model) Initiative, that is subsidizing the open access article processing charges (APCs) for researchers when their work is submitted and accepted into an IGI Global journal when their institution’s library invests in one of IGI Global’s research databases. View full details:

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