Academic research is often taxpayer funded—yet kept behind expensive paywalls. Those affiliated with large universities or institutions have access to libraries with wide-ranging subscriptions to scientific journals but not all journals are included and not all individuals have institutional access, further gatekeeping the information.
Open access publishing turns this on its head, granting free access to research for readers but requiring the researcher to pay a substantial upfront cost. However, it still contributes to the significant profit that academic publishing draws in, and it might cause greater disparity in whose voices are heard, centering those who can afford to pay. Open access fees can range up to five thousand dollars, effectively knocking out those in the Global South or anyone anywhere without generous funding.
While more open access could help make the academic research space more equitable, it cannot fix all the problems and it must be carefully done.
Open access and equity
At its core, access to scholarly work highlights long-term equity issues in research. Some are trying to address this.
As a public institution, the University of California (UC) system has made a significant push towards open access for all their work. More funders, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, require any research funded by their grants be available open access. Articles published with funding from the National Institute of Health or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must be made accessible on PubMed, a biomedical research database, within a year of publication.
But—if only researchers from elite institutions can afford to publish and cover the open access or are even getting research grants, whose voices are being crowded out? What about smaller institutions that cannot afford to do what UC is doing? If every step in the process—admissions, mentorship, job placement, research funding, publishing, and even audience—is stacked against underrepresented scholars, is there really any hope in reshaping science?
Right now, science is facing a credibility crisis on one side, due to the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, and an equity crisis on the other, due to financial pressures on higher education and structural racism. The long-term goal is making the scientific funding model more sustainable and equitable so all voices can be heard. But doubling down on open access publishing and new models of access is a start.
How can we make it better?
While there is no simple solution to opening things up in a way that benefits everyone, small steps are possible.
Completely changing things up is not unheard of: PeerJ is a natural sciences publication platform that has a disruptive membership model. It allows authors to publish a certain number of open access articles per year for a set fee. But this model has not been widely embraced across other disciplines, especially those that may attract non-researchers, such as economics or health and social policy.
The newspaper paywall model could be another useful, gradual way to start. It could allow individuals free access to a certain number of articles in a given time period. The New England Journal of Medicine already does this. Plus, most abstracts are available for free, so people can carefully choose their free articles.
Academic publishing is an extremely profitable (and problematic) industry and likely one that cannot be disrupted overnight. For example, the publishing giant Elsevier reported nearly a billion British pounds adjusted operating profit in 2019. Plus, the industry is heavily reliant on free labor. Both the authors are unpaid to provide their manuscript, and their peer reviewers are unpaid. A new study estimated the value of this free labor in 2020 exceeded $2 billion just for United States, United Kingdom, and Chinese researchers alone.
But to navigate towards long-term solutions in both open access and true equity, the financial burden must shift to the haves from the have nots. Funders could both require and provide funding for open access – which, depending on the discipline, might lead to more citations.
Increasing pressure for open access
The open access debate is a longstanding one but rapidly becoming hard to ignore as institutions either push for it in the name of equity or deal with budgetary pressures.
In 2019, the UC system dropped their subscription with Elsevier, which has actively lobbied against open access policies for government-funded research in the United States. Then, in 2021, UC announced a novel four-year agreement with the publisher, allowing for all UC-led work to be made available to anyone, including research published in some of the most prestigious scientific and medical journals.
On the other hand, the University of North Carolina (UNC) announced a $5 million cut in library funding to address a budget shortfall. It saves UNC money, but it also shifts the cost of accessing research to individuals in an environment where equity in grant funding has a long way to go.
There is a quiet current workaround to all this, if individuals feel emboldened enough to e-mail an article’s corresponding author and ask for a copy. This almost always works and is generally allowed under most journals’ copyright agreements.
But what’s more likely? If an individual does not have access to an article, they give up and move on. Unfortunately, this helps no one and is especially harmful from an equity lens. Yet, individuals can only do so much; the system needs to be willing to give up some power to make research more equitable for all.