Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Andrea Powell. Andrea is the STM Outreach Director and Publisher Coordinator for Research4Life
Most, if not all, open access publishers offer to waive publication charges (of whatever flavor) for researchers in lower and middle-income countries (LMICs) without access to funds to pay them. After all, no-one wants to see open access actually increasing barriers and reducing diversity and inclusion in direct opposition to one of its fundamental objectives. However, as an echo of the “build it and they will come” mentality, waiver policies may end up failing to achieve their intended outcome if they are poorly constructed and communicated to their intended beneficiaries. A recent study by INASP revealed that fully 60% of respondents to an AuthorAID survey had paid Article Processing Charges (APCs) from their own pockets, despite the widespread availability of waivers. This could be due to internal organizational bureaucracy but more likely to the lack of awareness and understanding of APC waivers and how to claim them.
A White Paper published jointly by STM and Elsevier’s International Center for the Study of Research in September 2020 on how to achieve an equitable transition to open access included a specific recommendation to make publisher policies on APC waivers more consistent and more transparent. The authors commented, “Even though this business model may turn out to be an interim step on the road to universal open access, it is likely to persist for several years to come and may unwittingly end up preventing much important research from reaching its intended audience.”
Further analysis of publishers’ APC waiver policies revealed this lack of consistency; some publishers offer them to all researchers in Research4Life countries, others only to Group A countries (those defined as low-income), and still others to a separate list of countries with no link to Research4Life, which is an initiative to facilitate access to research content in LMICs. Some publishers offer a full waiver, while others provide a discount. Furthermore, information about these discounts can be scattered and confusing, with variations existing even within publisher portfolios. The issue of payment or not to publishers strongly aligns with the goals of Research4Life; an important part of ensuring researchers have access to the research they need is ensuring that they also have opportunities to contribute their own research to the global body of knowledge.
Research4Life Best Practice Guidelines
In response to the findings of the White Paper, Research4Life set up an Open Access Task Force from among its partners (publishers, libraries, UN agencies, and others) to explore what more could be done to level the playing field for researchers in LMICs. Its first output is a set of best practice guidelines for publishers to help them decide their APC waiver policy and communicate it clearly to those who benefit. The Guidelines are clear that it is up to individual publishers to determine their own policies, but that any policies should be transparent and clearly communicated.
The guidelines emphasize the need for clarity about which countries are eligible, what they are eligible for, and any restrictions on which authors qualify. This clarity should extend to which journals the waiver policies apply to and if there are different conditions for hybrid journals. The guidelines also extend to how this information is communicated. It is important that researchers can find this information easily on a journal website and that it is written in a way that can be understood by people who are reading the instructions in a second or third language.
Alongside the Guidelines, Research4Life is also compiling an index of publisher APC waiver policies to help its users. Feedback from the Research4Life Help Desk, and from the recently conducted five-yearly User Review (findings of which will be released in the coming months), revealed that much confusion still exists about open access publishing, predatory publishers, eligibility for APC waivers, and how to secure them. This index will provide a useful point of reference and can be embedded into Research4Life training and outreach materials; they have already been welcomed by librarians at user institutions.
Scaling up through automation
These resources are a useful first step, but, ultimately, any system which involves a manual validation check will not be scalable and will continue to place barriers in the way of an equitable research communication ecosystem. Embedding waiver eligibility criteria into the publishing workflow should be the next aim, with initiatives such as the Open Access Switchboard and others offering a potential solution. However, automation is most effective where the variables are reduced, so the more consistency we can see in publisher policies, the better.
Closing the knowledge gap
The end goal is clear: to make it easier for researchers from LMICs to publish and, as such, contribute to a more equitable world of research. Publishers will also benefit from this; in the past five years, there has been a solid growth in publications from researchers in Research4Life countries and this trend will only continue. Positive actions such as the SDG Publisher Compact commit signatories to giving voice to the research that will deliver the objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals and to actively acquiring and promoting content that advocates across this global agenda.
No barriers to publishing
If publishers want to attract a more diverse author base and publish research from all over the world, it is in their best interests to make sure information about open access publishing options and discounts is easy to find or understand. APCs are just one of the many hurdles researchers from LMICs face, so our industry should do whatever it can to minimize their impact.