12 April 2019

“Open access” is not synonymous with “author pays”

Wingfield and Millar have a well-meaning but misleading article, “The open access research model is hurting academics in poorer countries.” They say:

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. ... 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.

The first sentence is correct. The second is even correct. It is true that there are now more journals that require article processing charges than their used to be. Importantly, though, the phenomenon of authors paying is not new. “Pages charges” existed long before open access.

But they lose all nuance in the third sentence and commit a category error. They are confusing “freedom to read” with “business model.” These two things are not the same.

There are many counter examples to their central premise. SciELO journals are open access, but have no article processing fees. I could go on.

I am not saying that there is not a concern about the effects of article processing charges. It isn’t even restricted to scientists in “poorer countries.” Michael Hendricks, a biologist at one of Canada’s major research universities (hardly a “poorer country” by any measure, and not even a “poorer institution” by any measure) is concerned about the cost of article processing charges. He wrote:

US$2500 is 1% of an R01 modular budget. It is 2.5% of the average CIHR Project grant. It’s 10% of the average NSERC grant.

Add to that the vastly differing support across universities for article processing charges (ours is $0). There is no way around that fact that shifting publication costs from libraries to PIs imposes a massively different burden according to PI, field of science, nation, and institution.

The solution is that universities should pay article processing charges by cancelling subscriptions (with huge $ savings). But they generally aren’t. The only way I see to force the issue is for funders to make article processing charges ineligible, which will be seen as an attack on open access.

It’s real problem: library subscription costs are staying the same or going up. At the same time, more and more grant money is being spent on article processing charges. The public paying even more for science dissemination than they were is not what we want. Funders and/or universities have to stop this.

But looking back up to the counter-example, SciELO, shows something important. It shows that you can create open access journals with alternative business models that are not “author pays.” It’s unusual, maybe even difficult, but it’s not impossible.

That’s a line we should be pursuing. Not dumping on open access because people can’t distinguish between “common” and “necessary.”

External links

The open access research model is hurting academics in poorer countries

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