I had an interesting discussion over coffee at the recent SOAP Symposium about the question of whether the article processing fee revenue model for open-access journals disenfranchises authors with fewer financial resources. It prompted me to write up a fuller explanation of why this worry is misplaced.

Opportunity for full participation in research by as wide a range of scholars as possible is, of course, central to our meritocratic notion of the scholarly endeavor. Perhaps the biggest impediment to such full participation — to getting to the point where one has a scholarly result to present to the world — is gaining access to the facilities for carrying out research in the first place, including access to the published literature. It makes little sense to worry about disenfranchisement from publishing research results if the alternative is disenfranchisement from the reading that would allow generating the results in the first place. For that reason, open access to the scholarly literature is inherently an enfranchising program.

It also bears mentioning that it is not only open-access journals that charge author-side fees, the kinds of fees that critics complain are disenfranchising. Many subscription journals charge quite substantial fees as well. For NIH-funded research, the average is $1250 per article, which is plenty big enough to give your average developing-country scientist pause. One would be hard-pressed to impugn open-access journals on these grounds without roping in many subscription journals as well.

That being said, of course we want everyone to have the opportunity to publish in the scholarly literature, even those with lesser means. And there is a simple mechanism to allow for this with open-access journals that charge article processing fees. Journals can, should, and commonly do waive fees for necessitous authors. The details of these waiver policies differ. (See here for the PLoS policy or here for BioMed Central.) But the effect is the same: authors unable to afford the fees can still publish in these journals. More importantly, they can read the articles published in the journals too.

Some worry that authors requiring fee waivers may be discriminated against in the editorial process. Editorial processes must, of course, be kept separate from the financial processes. Different groups separated by a Chinese wall can handle the two issues. Indeed, the question of whether a waiver will be requested needn’t even be raised until an editorial decision on a paper is finalized, eliminating any possibility of a conflict of interest. PLoS has an especially simple method for handling waivers. After a paper is accepted for publication, authors can request a waiver of the fee, which is always granted.

Of course, the waiver idea can’t possibly be controversial. It is the same approach that subscription journal publishers use to address the reader-side disenfranchisement argument. They point out that the World Health Organization‘s Hinari program provides subsidized access to journals for scholars in a specified set of countries that have been deemed sufficiently impoverished.  A similar eligibility criterion could be used for processing fee waivers. But an approach based on targeting individuals rather than countries has much to recommend it. It can be much better focused on the real problem. For instance, it can address authors in needy cohorts who happen to live in a country not on the approved list. There are unemployed scholars in first-world countries or faculty at small schools in developing countries, for example, for whom Hinari is no help, whereas a fee waiver allows them to fully participate in the open-access publishing milieu on both the reading and writing side.

[UPDATE 1/21/11: The recent news that publishers have withdrawn Bangladesh's access through the HINARI program (because Bangladesh is "start[ing] to secure active sales“) makes regrettably clear the problem with this approach. Just because some researchers in Bangladesh may now fall within the scope of an institutional subscription, all are deprived access.]

The issue of fee waivers is important, and we should actively promote their availability. By way of example, many COPE-compliant open-access funds — including those at Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, MIT, and Columbia — will only cover fees for journals that have a waiver policy. Hopefully, this will provide some impetus for OA journals to institute reasonable waiver policies.

Ironically, Nature Publishing Group is entering the OA arena with Scientific Reports,  a PLoS ONE competitor. Phil Davis reports that they are apparently not allowing for fee waivers, and points out that this could lead to a problem of adverse selection, where PLoS ONE ends up handling all of the fee-waived articles to their competitive disadvantage. On the other hand, if this turns out to be true, Scientific Reports will not be eligible for support from the COPE-compliant open-access funds as discussed above. There thus may be ways to mitigate the adverse selection problem.

With open access, we can enfranchise both the readers and the writers of the scholarly literature. We can, and we should.

3 Responses to “Are open-access fees disenfranchising?”

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  2. Jean-Claude Guédon Says:

    Stuart,

    I have grown more and more tepid about so-called “author-pay” schemes in OA journals, and I have done so for a number of reasons. For one thing, waivers may be in place, but they are viewed as humiliating by authors who can still submit their articles to prestigious, yet toll-gated, journals. And they can do so without having to go through a painful request for special treatment. Every time I have tested this point with friends and colleagues in countries such as Brazil or India, the answer has been the same: it is not easy admitting you are poor. It is very difficult to beg.

    The second argument is that the author-pay scheme neglects a number of important facets of scientific publishing. It actually responds to a request for “sustainability” which, in my opinion, is simply misplaced. Why is it misplaced? Simply for the following sets of reasons:

    1. Scientific research is largely supported by public money, even in the US. In effect, industries in the world want to benefit from the largely pre-competitive results of fundamental research without paying for them. This means that, judged from standard economic criteria, scientific research is not sustainable. Yet, it has been going on since at least the 17th century, and probably earlier. Why? Simply because governments have found it important to ensure military and commercial advantages. In short, scientific research is not sustainable, but it is nonetheless viable (i.e. financially supported in a stable and constant way).

    2. Publishing, I believe we agree, is an integral part of the life-cycle of research. Then, if research is viable, but unsustainable, why ask that scientific publishing be sustainable? Making it financially viable should be sufficient.

    3. Scientific publishing costs between 1 and 2% of scientific research. Hence, extending financial support to scientific publishing should not unduly tax the budgets spent on scientific research.

    All this leads to a simple answer: scientific publishing should be financially supported by the same institutions and governments that support research. The mechanisms that could support such a scheme are varied, and libraries could be involved, especially as many of them are also supported by public money, but I will leave these details aside here. The point is that a system of scientific publishing can be developed that ensures free access to both potential authors and to readers.

    There is a good precedent for this: SciELO in Latin America and beyond. Recent rumours about the evolution of SciELO are ambiguous and leave me a little worried, but the track history of this project shows that several hundreds of journals have been able to mix the quest for high quality with complete free access for both readers and authors. This was achieved through direct subsidies to the journals, exactly like the rest of scientific research. And that is the way to go in my opinion.

  3. Stuart Shieber Says:

    Jean-Claude,

    We do not disagree as much as you may think. Your worry is not about article-processing fees per se but about authors having to pay them. You would prefer that research funders pay them. I agree completely.

    Funders should put in place policies that commit them to paying reasonable open-access article-processing fees on behalf of their funded authors. For research that is not funded by a specific granting agency — much research outside the sciences is implicitly funded by a university or research institution paying the salary and providing the facilities for a scholar — the university or research institution should pay the article-processing fees. This is exactly what COPE promotes.

    For the cases where neither of these options are available, a waiver of the fee is a reasonable fallback position. But I too think it should be a last recourse for non-grant-funded or institution-supported work.