Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Alicia J. Kowaltowski, José R. F. Arruda, Paulo A. Nussenzveig, and Ariel M. Silber. Alicia is a Full Professor of Biochemistry at the University of São Paulo. José is Full Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Campinas. Paulo is Professor of Physics and Provost for Research and Innovation at the University of São Paulo. Ariel is a Professor at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the University of São Paulo.
Many scientists worldwide have embraced the idea that research publications should be openly accessible to read, without paywalls. Rightfully so, as academic research is mostly supported by public funds, and contributes toward societal progress. Indeed, the quest for open publications has led to many groundbreaking initiatives, including the creation of new author-pays open access (OA) journals and publishers, the expansion of public preprint and postprint repositories, and the establishment of Sci-Hub, a radical open repository of scientific publications, often obtained illegally. But subscription publications persist, as well as resistance toward depositing preprints, leading to more recent initiatives to accelerate the universal transition to OA in scientific publications. Notably, a recent mandate established that US federal agencies must create policies to ensure all peer-reviewed publications are made publicly accessible by the end of 2025. This follows Plan S, launched in 2018 by a consortium of mostly European research funding and performing organizations, which requires that all publications from 2021 on must be OA. An additional mandate within Plan S is that hybrid models of publishing, in which authors can pay to publish OA papers in journals that also publish under subscription models, are acceptable only under certain circumstances, and only until December 31st, 2024. This means that major subscription journals wishing to publish work by authors with Plan S funding will need to transition to OA-only by 2025.
Plan S covers peer-reviewed publications, so depositing a preprint in a public and open archive platform (green OA through preprints) is not sufficient for compliance, although the practice is encouraged. Publishing in a subscription journal and making the accepted version of the manuscript immediately openly available in a public repository (green OA through postprints) is compliant with Plan S, but undesirable for many publishers. Although there have been concerted actions promoting the creation of alternative publishing models that are both open to read and free to publish (known as diamond or platinum OA), these are still rare or poorly publicized in most scientific areas. Diamond OA journals are often the result of personal efforts within small groups of scientists and will need time to reach adequate funding models, quality, visibility, reputation, and indexing, while repositories created by large organizations, such as Open Research Europe (European Commission), have limited visibility in the scientific community. As a result, authors of scientific papers who wish to equitably showcase their research may have limited choices outside of article processing charge (APC)-based journals as soon as 2025. In this scenario, the cost to publish OA is quickly becoming a new paywall in science, substituting the difficulty to read papers with the inability to showcase results in journals seen as reputable, due to the financial barrier of APCs.
Perhaps recognizing that publication costs could be a barrier toward inclusive publishing, Plan S includes a provision that the journal/platform must provide APC waivers for authors from low-income economies and discounts for authors from lower middle-income economies. This policy is based on World Bank classifications of national economies and is adopted by companies such as Springer Nature (including Nature Portfolio and BMC journals) and Taylor & Francis. It sounds good in principle, but in practice is very limited: the leftmost map below shows countries eligible for full APC waivers according to this economic definition in red, while those qualifying for discounts (typically 50%) are shown in yellow. It is easy to see that many (if not most) countries widely recognized as developing, in which research investments are significantly lower than in the US or most of Europe, are not included by this waiver and discount recommendation. Indeed, no Latin American country qualifies for full APC waivers, since all are technically at least lower middle-income economies; only a handful qualify for partial discounts.
Other publishers, including Wiley, PLOS, Elsevier, SAGE, and AAAS follow the recommendations of Research4Life, a partnership to provide free or low-cost publication in their OA titles. The map on the right below shows waiver (red) and discount (yellow) coverage within this program. While it is significantly more comprehensive than World Bank definitions, it still does not include large countries with known economic constraints for research funding such as Argentina, Brazil, India, Mexico, and South Africa.
We were curious to see the impact of waiver and discount policies, so we probed the Scopus database for the number of papers published over the last 10 years with authors from each country/territory of origin listed by the World Bank. We found that authors who qualify for APC waivers correspond to a minute percentage of total publication origins: only 0.35% of publication origins are low-income economies, thus qualifying for full waivers in journals that adopt World Bank classifications. Lower middle-income economies, qualifying for discounts, correspond to 1.32%. When using Research4Life classifications, 1.12% of origins were from Group A, which qualifies for full waivers, and 4.05% from Group B, which receives 50% discounts. This demonstrates that even the more comprehensive current waiver and discount policy covers only a minute proportion of papers indexed in this database.
We also wondered if economic status and qualifying for waivers affected the tendency to publish OA. The Scopus database identifies OA publications both when they involve full access to the text at the journal site (gold, hybrid, or bronze OA) and when the full text is available as a preprint or postprint in an open repository (green OA) identified by Unpaywall, an organization that locates legal full-text versions of papers. We quantified OA publications according to the Research4Life country groups, and found that, while nations receiving full APC waivers contribute toward a very small percentage of total publications, a large fraction of these are OA: 52%, including papers that are open to read at journal websites (45%) and in repositories (40%). This may be facilitated by APC waivers offered by most publishers to authors from these nations. Indeed, the percentage of OA publications was lowest in middle-income economies which are excluded from Research4Life´s waiver and discount groups: 32% in total, with 27% available at journal websites and 31% in repositories. These middle-income countries typically have much smaller research budgets than high-income economies, yet are expected to pay full APCs, which may lead to an avoidance of OA publishing. While high-income economies publish more often in OA journals relative to middle-income nations, 45% of publications in total (31% at journal websites and 36% in repositories), the proportion is lower than waiver-qualifying Research4Life Group A nations. Overall, this suggests authors from middle-income countries which aren´t included in Research4Life already publish less in OA journals, suggesting they may be economically excluded from this option currently, prior to the projected full transition to an OA-only publication landscape in 2025.
Admittedly, most publishers also consider individual requests for discounts or waivers, in addition to those qualifying due to their national origin. Indeed, some publishers (such as Frontiers and MDPI) only consider individual waiver and discount requests. However, personal requests for individual waivers present several disadvantages, including reduced bargaining power, as they involve personal endeavors. Individual requests may also be burdensome, and are often denied, habitually citing World Bank or Research4Life classifications as qualifying criteria. Furthermore, collective agreements with publishers to cover APCs at an institutional level, which have become common in the Global North, are rare in developing nations, in which funding and research institutions are smaller, less politically stable, and less prepared to negotiate with highly profitable publishers.
Open access is not only desirable, but necessary to ensure that the full benefits of research can translate into societal gains. Indeed, equal access to scientific output is recognized by UNESCO as essential for human development and critical for achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. With this in mind, the transition to open access should involve special care to avoid exclusion of authors owing to the financial burden of APCs. Considering the very limited extent of current waiver and discount policies, we believe that expanding full waiver policies to include all low and lower middle-income countries, as well as applying 50% discounts to all upper middle-income economies, would be a much more reasonable waiver and discount policy, and better reflect the enormous differences in global wealth. In practice, this would involve giving full waivers to approximately 2% of authors and discounts to approximately 25%, which could easily be absorbed by most publishers, as this sector is known for its unusually high profit margins. Adopting a more inclusive waiver and discount policy would ensure that the transition to a fully OA publishing model has a better chance of providing all authors, including those from middle-income economies, the ability not only to read papers, but also equitably publish their research findings.