Researchers’ preferences for publishing behind paywalls was a recurring topic in workshop conversations, and our reflections on ‘Equity in OA’ workshop #2 are linked to the assertion that professors do pick paywalls – at least sometimes. But do they really want to? Drawing on discussions in workshop #2 and other sources, here are some thoughts on why this might be and what can be done about it.
The payment problem
OASPA’s conversations about the ‘OA market’ and input from the Equity in OA workshop #1 revealed how researchers across many countries and continents opt for paywalled publishing as it is the only way they can afford to publish articles in the journals of their choice. The OA route is closed off to them because of the exclusive nature of author-facing Article Publishing/ Processing Charges (APCs) used by an increasing number of journals to enable OA. Of course, alternative venues for OA publication without fees do exist, and we will handle separately why researchers do not find or select these venues. But the fact remains that a payment barrier removes choice from professors and forces many to publish paywalled articles (despite waiver/discounting programmes). This needs tackling to increase equity in OA.
An interesting companion while considering these issues are the survey findings from an October 2022 report from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) highlighting facts and figures around unintended consequences of the APC facing researchers. This report pulls together 422 survey responses from US-based college and university faculty. Researchers were at a range of career stages with varying experience publishing articles as primary or corresponding authors. Key findings from the AAAS survey paint an instructive picture of researchers’ use of budgets, their struggle to obtain funds to enable OA publishing, and the trade offs made in paying for APCs. As a researcher at any career stage, it is easy to imagine each of the AAAS report’s key findings being accompanied by some version of: ‘therefore paywalled publication is preferable / more suitable / more economical’.
Attendees at the first Equity in OA workshop identified APCs and waivers to be an important and practical area for OASPA to address in this workshop series. We also heard (again) in workshop #2 how, in certain world regions, when it comes to APC payments, “The researcher is on their own”. Per-article payments that have to be administered by individual authors will exclude many researchers. Despite steps taken by libraries in some world regions to remove author-facing invoices, institutional and other funding systems around the world are not at a place where OA publishing can be inclusive enough that researchers are shielded from facing payment burdens. It is ironic that author-facing invoices originally developed to facilitate OA could now be helping to sustain paywalls.
In OASPA’s Equity in OA workshop #2 a rich conversation about APCs, waivers and addressing the administrative burden involved with the APC approach was had, including about how authors ‘prove neediness’ to avail of waivers. Increased automation in eligibility checks and discounting/waiver workflows, standardised language to smooth over communication issues, and increased clarity and transparency to help with prevailing disparate practice across publishers were all touched on as ways to improve the current payment system.
The concept of using differentiated pricing (e.g., Purchasing Power Parity) to alleviate some pain points of the author-facing payment problem with APCs were also discussed. Both pros and cons came to light, as covered in the formal workshop report.
Workshops #1 and #2 had different participants sharing how funding for OA publishing is not the priority of several governments that are focussed on basic and pressing social infrastructure for citizens (ranging from primary education to roads). This is a different direction of travel compared with funding bodies in places like the EU that are actively seeking to fund OA publishing and readily make APC funding available (most often on a per-article basis).
Libraries, too, are in different places in different parts of the world with some eager and able to fund OA, and actively working with publishers on agreements that remove author-facing invoices for their affiliated scholars. Other libraries in other world regions are either still rooted in a journal-acquisitions mode, or only now starting to come to terms with shifts to OA and newer models – which may not suit and work for all regions and all contexts.
What then can be done to dissolve barriers to participation in OA publishing in the here and now?
Workshop #2 participants felt that addressing the ‘payment issue’ needs short and long term fixes. A first step would be to improve APC oriented approaches (and related procurement or article-output-based agreements such as Read & Publish / transformative deals) with the aim of making these systems and workflows more inclusive. This will be the focus of a future OASPA ‘Equity in OA’ workshop. The case of one workshop (publisher) participant introducing automated APC waivers for authors affiliated in certain countries was a compelling example of how when OA is automated, the engagement increases, the uptake increases, the publishing process becomes more inclusive, and barriers to participation in OA publishing reduce or are dissolved.
Separate to what were seen to be short term fixes to per-article payments, several workshop participants were also in favour of a wholesale shift beyond APCs and article-based Transformative Agreements / Read & Publish deals. The next section explores what we discovered in that discussion.
A funding challenge blocks the pathway to a new paradigm
Workshop #2 participants also spent time considering approaches to OA that are free from APCs and volume-based payments for publishing services. Participants agreed that equity is less of an issue with models rooted in collective action (e.g. Subscribe2Open), as well as in many grant-funded journals, institution-supported titles and government-funded platforms (e.g. Redalyc, SciELO). We discussed the possibility of how journals could make a transition to OA via ‘pay what you can / pay it forward’ types of approach to enable a fully OA outcome for all papers and all researchers without reader or author charges.
It turns out that finding funding for these sorts of ventures is ferociously hard. OASPA was struck by a real need to accelerate pathways to OA via these more equitable routes when hearing, in workshop #2, about how some Diamond OA journals have had to start charging (small) page fees in some cases to stay financially viable while keeping content paywall free.
From the funder perspective, bodies like the European Commission are still needing to think in per-article-cost terms in order to model out what investment would be needed to support a ‘Diamond style’ platform as this October 2022 report on operationalising Open Research Europe as a collective publishing enterprise conveys.
In the OASPA workshops we also heard concerns about publishers not knowing if library and research budgets will be sufficient (and will be willingly used) to sustain collective or universal models. This may be compounded in some countries where there is no additional government funding to support output-related (publishing) costs.
Libraries in some regions are already versed in repurposing budgets to support more equitable OA, and many are doing this to support collective action and other OA platforms and titles (including library-led / institution-based publishing), but the shift is not universal or globally established. Participants agreed that being able to secure investment from funders for platforms and ventures operating on non-APC / collective action / universal models needs to get far more normalised (at least to the level that it matches APC funded models). In the quest for more equitable OA arguably funders should be more inclined to direct funds towards such ventures.
The parameters needed to convince payers to support equitable OA is as yet uncrystallised. OASPA feels that global thinking is important here – above national governments for their own scholars, or institutions for affiliated researchers’ outputs. Scholarship is collaborative, for all of society, and sits above and outside of political and institutional borders. It is (or OASPA argues should be) for all, everywhere.
Perhaps attracting (relevant) private Research & Development funding could be part of the solution; there may be a possible role for R&D budgets from pharmaceutical, agriculture, technology, engineering and other industries. These, too, are consumers and producers of scholarship, and have not yet featured in OASPA’s consideration of funding flows to sustain open models.
OASPA also has the opportunity to reflect on ways we can help willing stakeholders remove both reading and publishing fees in their publishing activities. For example, should and could OASPA play more of an active role in matching funding to OA publishers and those who wish to transition in this way?
Cost-based pricing and reducing profit margins are additional options that came up in workshop #2. Naturally, opinion is divided on to what extent profit is at odds with scholarly publishing. Some feel that there should be no place for profit in this realm and wonder about the approach to pricing and lack of cost savings when a publisher operates at larger scales. Divisions along for-profit / not-for-profit lines aren’t particularly constructive: there are very real costs to publishing, and improvements and innovation need investment, which entails making a surplus. Not-for-profit entities can be mission driven but potentially inefficient and even wasteful; meanwhile, for-profit entities can be fair, innovative and represent good value.
In any case, there is another real challenge blocking the pathway as we explore next.
The prestige problem
The current career-evaluation and incentives system for researchers is toxic. Chasing impact factors and the aim/necessity of attaining a high number of papers in ‘ranked and indexed international journals’ is still a driving force for scholars across the world. The OA status of the published work is often a distant secondary consideration. Valid publication venues (many being local or regional titles/platforms that enable either paywall-free outputs or OA for no fees) can often be disregarded by researchers who aim for ‘known’ journals, ‘listed’ journals or what they consider to be high-prestige titles with ‘impact’ to secure and further their careers. For more on this see also the ‘brain drain’ section of our post about the ‘OA market’ which also touches on points regarding quality.
Two thoughtful comments in response to OASPA’s reflections from our first Equity in OA workshop (see here and here) have also made the link between career progression and journals, urging OASPA to act on the prestige issue. Reforming researcher-assessment and career-evaluation systems was, in fact, a recommended area of focus stemming from OASPA’s ‘OA market’ investigations.
The prestige problem is not one that OASPA can work to solve in isolation, however, neither are we the only party looking to address the issue. More work is needed on this, and one idea suggested to OASPA is to start engaging with research-institution leadership.
Less noticed, perhaps, are areas where payment and prestige issues overlap. For instance, hybrid journals and paywalled papers are sometimes perceived as being somehow ‘better’ – they carry a perception of being higher quality, perhaps given presumptions that papers of this sort are subject to higher rejection rates and greater editorial selectivity. This may be a land of myths, but the way publishers’ fees are structured often serves to feed these perceptions. The March 2023 Delta Think report shows how the biggest predictor of (APC) pricing is whether a journal is fully OA or hybrid. On the whole, (APC rates of) fully OA journals remain around 40% cheaper than their hybrid siblings. Given that they are generally more expensive, this pricing framework could reinforce a sense that hybrid titles (that are often also older, more established and likely to have impact factors) must be more desirable as a destination for published work.
Moving from pricing to waivers and discounting, mixed-model publishers that offer full OA publishing waivers seem to only offer such waivers for publishing in their fully-OA journals that work purely on the APC model. (I.e., OA publishing waivers are not offered in the same publishers’ hybrid journals). This is understandable from the perspective of the publisher, but it again reinforces support for paywalls, and continues to feed the perception that the hybrid journal (as a venue where a full waiver for OA publishing is not available) is more desirable.
On the opposite side to prestige, OASPA also heard in our first workshop on Equity in OA that there is a persistent problem with the reputation and trustworthiness of OA publishing. In an APC model, the payment problem continues to play a role because the need for a financial transaction at the author end makes it easy to be suspicious of this approach. The impact of posts from more than a decade ago discrediting the early OA movement persists and continues to damage the perception of OA publishing today.
A discussion about the credibility of OA publishing in workshop #2 revealed a need for more transparency, along with suggestions that OASPA could review its membership criteria and code of conduct. This strays into the important but separate matter of research integrity in OA publishing – a topic of continued and ongoing work for us. Just last week, OASPA hosted a webinar on Scholarly Communication in Crisis: Research Integrity and Open Scholarship. (This link takes you to a recording of the webinar from 19th April that is free to watch).
So, why do professors pick paywalls? (And what will OASPA do about it?)
- Payment issues exclude them from OA publishing, and OASPA is resolved to increase participation in and inclusivity of OA by alleviating payment-related pain points, including waiver workflows, automation opportunities and use of harmonised language. This area will be tackled in a future ‘Equity in OA’ workshop. Addressing funding challenges that prevent greater uptake of more equitable OA approaches (i.e., free to read and free to publish) will be an additional area of focus in our workshop series.
- Pathways to funding more equitable publishing models are not (yet) well established. Publishers that would like to go fully OA in more equitable ways may need support with establishing funding for (and sustaining) inclusive models entailing no researcher-facing fees for reading or publishing.
- Prestige and perception issues lure them away from the benefits of open access
- OASPA will reflect on the best ways to support reform of researcher assessment, an activity stream already identified from OASPA’s ‘OA market’ efforts. We also acknowledge that research assessment criteria are focussed on more than just publications and exist within the framework of institutional ranking which is a complex and some would say unhelpful activity.
- We will also consider how we advocate for and improve the perception of open access, considering, as part of this, our code of conduct. OASPA feels that the principles around which publishing organisations centre themselves, the specifics of the services and workflows provided, the rigour of the scrutiny and editorial policy, the transparency of the process, and the inclusivity and fairness of the OA publishing on offer are all things that count.
I’ve used ‘professors’ in many places throughout this post as a writing device, but the term is intended to encompass all researchers, scholars, clinicians, authors and even practitioners with the occasional piece to publish – and these at any stage of career including post retirement. It could be argued that it is the younger and the next generation of scholars who are most affected by lack of access to OA publishing options. The use of ‘professors’ in this post by no means excludes them or diminishes their struggle in the increasingly cut-throat realm of academia.
My premise and presumption is that professors would not pick paywalls if all other things were equal. They sometimes pick paywalls now because they have no other choice (affordability) OR they are led to believe that paywalls are superior – something that the publishing community and those who are in charge of career assessment are currently reinforcing in ways described above.
From the change in authorship seen with journals that enable default and automatic OA (whether via S2O or Read & Publish or automated APC waivers) OASPA knows that ways to achieve more inclusive and equitable OA are possible. Our forthcoming Equity in OA workshops will focus on increasing default / automated OA as a norm. We will also devote efforts to exploring the criteria, parameters and other factors needed for the publishing community to be able to pull in required funding in order to make inclusive and equitable OA possible.
OASPA expresses big thanks to all workshop participants so far, and to those commenting and writing in directly with input. We are also grateful to Alicia Wise and Lorraine Estelle of Information Power for their expert facilitation.
If you are interested in contributing to this discussion or in OASPA’s ongoing efforts around Equity in OA, please opt in to receive news from our forthcoming workshops. You are also invited to comment below or email email@example.com. We welcome your participation.