The problem with expensive research journals


Research can drive progress, but where are we in making publications accessible?felixioncool, pixabay.com

Scientists embark on the difficult journey of research to find solutions to the world’s most important problems. Accessibility is arguably the key to ensuring that science can fulfill its purpose. Only if science is widely consumed by a wide audience can it play its role as a remedy. Therefore, gatekeeping has no place in the commandments of scientific research, and thus the idea of ​​open access journals was born.

The principle of open access aims to make research available without any financial or legal barriers so that everyone can engage with the results of science. At the heart of the open access movement is the dream that everyone in the world can consume research without discrimination. This dream dates back to 1836, when Antoine Panizzi, a librarian at the British Museum, presented his ambitious vision to a parliamentary selection committee. Panizzi envisioned a world where every student can pursue their quest for knowledge and satisfy their curiosity, regardless of their economic status. He achieved part of his dream through his work as a book curator at the British Museum and helped build a collection of half a million books at the museum. However, universal accessibility had still not been achieved by Panizzi as one had to be physically present at the museum to use their collection. The true open access movement has gained momentum in the 1990s and is associated with the beginning of the Internet age. Proponents of the open access movement believed that the Internet would help replace these sentinels – traditional journals and their expensive subscriptions. But that was not exactly the case.

While it is true that research journals have largely moved into the digital space, the move from print to screen has not affected subscription prices and paywalls. The internet has made publishing, storing and sharing articles easy and inexpensive. Yet, despite the ease with which research can be made accessible in today’s world, the popularity of subscription journals has not entirely diminished. There has remained a constant debate, weighing the pros and cons of open access.

“Only scholars from wealthy institutions can access published research”

Many scientists support the vision of universal accessibility and approve of a freer flow of research and its results. They cited several advantages of the open access model, a key advantage being the accessibility of invaluable scientific results to people even in low-income countries and poorer institutions who cannot afford the expensive subscriptions. Another important benefit, especially for authors of research articles, is the higher citation counts that can be achieved by publishing in open access journals. Additionally, open access journals generally have a faster review process. Thus, the publication process is fast compared to traditional journals and this attracts many researchers.

Science is not an individualistic subject. Scientists are constantly building on the work of others – this is a collaborative effort where different people from different parts of the world contribute their expertise to create life-changing research. The traditional model of controlling access to research slows down this process of innovation, because only researchers from developed countries and/or well-funded institutions can have access to research that has already been published. Since scientific research plays a vital role in influencing policy decisions on critical issues like health and the environment, restricting access to research in different countries can theoretically limit their development. Therefore, the principle of open access plays a key role in the progress of science not only from an academic point of view, but also in people’s daily lives.

Opponents, however, have not jumped on the open access bandwagon. While some have gone the extra mile citing that the open access movement is akin to intellectual property theft, the final debate boils down to two downsides. The biggest disadvantages involve a high financial burden for authors and a compromise in the quality of research papers. Traditional journals are considered more picky and impose a higher degree of control when choosing their articles. However, because the open access model is based on a “you pay, I publish” model, many scientists fear that it will reduce the quality of published research. But this claim can be easily refuted by referring to the thorough peer review process that is at the heart of open access journals, just like in traditional journals. In addition, the quality of peer review and publication standards remain the same regardless of the business model adopted. Therefore, the choice of an open access model will not influence the quality of a journal in any way.

“If science is to live up to its problem-solving reputation, research results must be freely available”

The high cost of publishing in open access journals is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed to improve the publishing process. Since open access journals do not charge their readers money, they charge authors a fee known as an article processing fee (APC). APCs are significantly higher than the cost incurred by publishing in a traditional journal. The high cost is often a barrier if the author does not have enough funds to publish their research. In a way, this is a kind of reverse discrimination – again, only authors from well-funded institutions can pay the fees. To combat this problem, different levels of open access have been invented. The golden route, for example, is a “full” open access journal, while some journals prefer to follow the hybrid route where some articles may be open access while others are not. However, this hybrid model does not solve the problem of accessibility. Even authors who can afford APC may want to save money and choose to publish in traditional journals, especially if they are not concerned about an article’s reach.

If science is to live up to its problem-solving reputation, research results must be freely available. The current idea of ​​open access is based on the “greater good” but does not fully take into account the point of view of the researcher. There is a need to develop more sustainable solutions, with a set of well-thought-out rules that meet the vision of universal accessibility while protecting researchers from unreasonable financial burdens; perhaps wealthy institutions can sponsor the work of their researchers, or funds can be raised for scenarios where the author cannot afford the cost of the APC. The constructive way forward is to “reshape” the current model without losing sight of our main objective: universal accessibility.