On March 7th, 2023, 28 stakeholders from a variety of world regions came together for OASPA’s first ‘Equity in OA’ workshop to discuss issues of exclusivity and inequity within open access. The workshop was facilitated by Alicia Wise and Lorraine Estelle of Information Power. We are pleased to share this report carrying a summary of the workshop discussions and outcomes. OASPA offers huge thanks to all participants.
Reflections on what OASPA has heard so far
Equity is a word that packs quite a punch. It goes further than equality, includes inclusivity and assures diversity. As we strive for a world where publishing is predominantly OA, we realize this can only be achieved through dissolving barriers, welcoming all and facilitating participation on equitable terms. Without the development of new and more equitable approaches to OA we will not benefit from its full potential. There is a need to bring stakeholders together around the question of how we can deliver OA more equitably.
Is it time to re-think the APC?
One consensus view that emerged from the conversations was that APCs (Article Processing / Publishing Charges) are a barrier to participation in OA publishing for authors in every region. This was in line with the global views OASPA has been gathering that were shared earlier this year.
OASPA notes a raft of evidence and views supporting the problematic nature of the APC, from this 2020 commentary to this 2022 review and this 2022 study stating that open access is leading to closed research.
OASPA also notes this 2019 blog post that asserts “unfairness lies at the core of the APC problem”, and talks about particular disadvantages to scholars based in the Global South. This 2020 study examining content published by US-based researchers between 2014 and 2018 in over 25,000 academic journals reveals that, in general, the likelihood for a scholar to author an APC-OA article “increases with male gender, employment at a prestigious institution, association with a STEM discipline, greater federal research funding, and more advanced career stage (i.e., higher professorial rank).” Meanwhile, we know that authors from the Global South are underrepresented in journals charging APCs from this study in December 2021.
The APC model, and publisher deals that rely on APC-based computation, are therefore in danger of reinforcing a pattern of exclusive participation in open access. OA done this way leaves out the vast majority of the world’s researchers.
The APC is widely used across publishers of all descriptions, size, background and business type, including for-profits, not-for-profits and charities. The APC cuts across the scholarly publishing landscape to the extent that many confuse an APC as being synonymous with and essential to OA. This is incorrect but understandable given how widespread the APC has become. In the cases of hybrid and fully-OA publishers alike, the APC is often an essential building block for agreements made with libraries. These include most pure-publish agreements (APC bulk-buying) and also include the vast majority of transformative agreements (aka Read & Publish – which have been described to OASPA as the ‘big deals’ of today).
In other words, if APCs are inequitable, then so are fully-OA agreements (pure-publish) and transformative agreements (Read & Publish) when these are struck without principles of global inclusion and equity at their core.
While APCs are the innovation that fuelled one route to OA a decade or more ago, when publishing the final version of an article openly was exceptional, they were a barrier to publishing OA then, and they continue to be so today. With a higher share of OA content being published year-on-year, and this OA output being highly consolidated across the OASPA membership, the APC is exacerbating inequities in OA.
Evidence around the exclusionary nature of ‘pay-to-publish’ together with the conversations had on 7 March in the Equity workshop suggest that it is time to re-think both how, and if, APCs (or BPCs as the book-publishing equivalent) should be used in scholarly publishing.
Ban APCs or make them more equitable?
Are APCs so fundamentally problematic and exclusionary that they can never be reformatted equitably? Some workshop participants agreed that APCs cannot be made equitable. Some even favoured an outright ban on APCs (by research institutions or funders/policy makers on APCs. Another participant noted that even with the application of purchasing power parity indexes, a “more affordable” APC would still be unaffordable where there is no funding available.
There was consensus that pragmatic steps forward could be made to improve how APCs are handled and make them more palatable than they currently are. Looking with fresh eyes at waiver practices (and the way that eligibility for a waiver needs to be proven), applying equity principles to pricing, and some further developments in APC and waiver practice are topics for OASPA to explore in future. These could help make tangible improvements, in the here and now, to a model already in wide use. OASPA has worked to pull together a snapshot of APC waiver practice. Headline findings will be explored by participants of the next workshop.
Examples of initiatives that deliver OA publishing without APCs for affiliated authors at select institutions were discussed, including agreements with EIFL to enable free or discounted OA publishing for scholars in certain regions. See this example of a fee-free EIFL agreement from a hybrid society publisher .This enables corresponding authors from specified countries to publish OA (subject to peer review and acceptance) without APCs. In a similar vein, PLOS’ Community Action Publishing (CAP) model is an example of a fully-OA publisher historically reliant on the APC approach but pivoting to step away from APCs. Moreover, the PLOS approach is considering affiliations of all (not just corresponding) authors.
OASPA agrees with sentiments expressed by workshop participants that efforts to increase equity in OA will fail if stakeholders (including OASPA) decide that improving discounts and waiver practices is good enough. Without further substantive changes this would amount to making inadequate alterations to what is still, fundamentally, an inequitable approach.
Rename, reclaim and reframe ‘Diamond OA’
Workshop participants noted that the term ‘diamond OA’ often now includes all models that do not involve any author-side payment (i.e. all content is OA with no fees to read or to publish). So, it is possible to have a ‘diamond’ model that is funded through library or funder payments.
Another clarification about the diamond model was that it is not synonymous with scholar-led journals. Scholar-led publishing often chooses a Diamond OA model since it is an attractive way of operating OA. “Scholar-led” accurately describes that a research society (or individual researcher volunteers) take (more) control of the publishing process, for example by retaining ownership of a journal and publishing it without a commercial or third-party publisher.
S2O (Subscribe2Open) is a solution already in existence ensuring no paywalls. Anyone can read the (OA) journal content and/or publish OA without fees. Some might consider this to be a diamond approach as OA is achieved without reader or author fees. In the S2O approach, institutional subscription revenue is collected (on the basis that the content will be published OA) and if there is sufficient institutional support from existing subscribers the publisher commits to publishing all of the year’s content OA, for all submissions, regardless of author affiliations. The cycle of receiving ongoing subscription revenue needs to be repeated periodically to assure each year’s journal content will be OA. Some publishers in the social sciences, science/technology and mathematics are already using this approach.
A key priority gleaned from polls run in the workshop was to build support and practice in no-author fee publishing of this nature. Calling this ‘Diamond’ was questioned in the workshop, given that a diamond is a highly exclusive product, unattainable to most!
Requiring certain behaviours and practices from scholarly communities in order to achieve OA (e.g., relying on authors to deposit manuscripts; needing scholars to deal with invoices and/or select license types) is never going to be as successful as the scenario where OA is automatically enabled and facilitated for all.
The final consensus was for OASPA to support new solutions and convene conversations that can develop shared principles for equity in publishing agreements – these would be next-generation agreements with equity and inclusion central to their conception. Perhaps rainbow OA is a more fitting term for the equitable OA that we hope to achieve: OA that allows all authors, from anywhere in the world, to not only read/re-use published work but also to engage freely in OA publishing (subject, of course, to peer review and other relevant industry standards and best practice).
More on rainbows soon but ‘How will this be paid for?’ is the most obvious question to ask. Considering OA agreements of this nature is new terrain for many – but not all. OASPA has long been both home and partner for convening constructive conversation; the OA Switchboard and the checklist for publishers implementing UNESCO’s Recommendations on Open Science are just two recent examples. Our next OASPA workshop on equity will therefore aim to make some headway on increasing equity in APC/article-volume driven models, as well as exploring equitable OA at no charge to the researcher.
Every rose, a thorn; every rainbow, a storm
In the workshop we heard of a persistent problem with the reputation and trustworthiness of OA content. There are still those from every continent who hold the view that OA content is poor quality. This may be partly due to suspicions that publishers can easily profiteer from authors’ work via APCs without ensuring due quality checks. However rigorous a publisher’s processes may be, and even though payment may only be due post-acceptance, the concept of paying (an APC) to achieve OA, only serves to fuel this problematic perception. The misconception that content is inherently less (or even un) valuable because it is open access is something that urgently needs to be tackled.
OASPA and the OA publishing community clearly have a job to do, and a big opportunity, to win the hearts and minds of researchers. An inclusive and equitable way to deliver OA will go some distance for us here. In the workshop we heard: “the lens of equity, diversity and inclusivity is changing the politics of OA in interesting and positive ways; some of the older ‘taxpayer pays therefore the taxpayer should have access’ arguments are less resonant if the focus is globalised; many participants (whether authors or readers) are not taxpayers in the jurisdictions in question.” OASPA believes that this global mentality is what will be needed across all stakeholders, publishers and payors included, in order to fuel a new wave of principled and equitable publishing deals.
We referenced a rather fanciful ‘rainbow OA’ above; this term is used to convey the concept of a full spectrum of approaches to open access with principles of equity and inclusion central to the way in which OA is being achieved. So, the use of ‘rainbow’ here is business-model agnostic, and a descriptor for the overarching principle for delivering OA (rather than a new model or type of OA!).
And if we are to truly address equity there’s still more. Workshop participants discussed the importance of honesty and willingness to address, head on, current incentives within our system. Researchers seek publication in high impact-factor journals as academic careers are still dependent (and reputations built) on them. Publishers seek financial sustainability and some chase high profits year after year. Libraries are expected to contribute to national and/or international university ranking systems; and libraries and funders are constrained by their own internal/reporting requirements on how money may and may not be spent. This creates a perfect storm of vested interests that needs to be navigated and interrogated in a transition to OA.
Those who are willing to think and act in new ways can emerge with solutions that not only solve the equity problems of today, increasing participation from across the globe, but also help improve research quality via robust review and enriched data-sharing practices that openness is uniquely placed to address. Such actors will be on the front foot for tackling the equity issues of tomorrow: innovating with formats; widening public-engagement and connecting any person with the information they most need, at the right time, in a relevant and relatable way that is appropriate and useful to them.
OASPA has a rich set of inputs detailed in this report emerging from workshop #1.Our next workshop is taking place soon. We look forward to keeping the conversation going, and will continue to share reports and reflections as we go.