Scholars in poorer states should pay less to publish, funders say

High APCs are a barrier to academics in low- and middle-income countries, says Coalition S

March 4, 2020
Source: Alamy

Academics from poorer countries should be charged less to publish in journals, according to a consortium of research funders who fear that high article processing charges (APCs) are stopping scholars outside the rich world from sharing their work.

Coalition S, a consortium of largely European research agencies pushing publishers to move towards open access, is now in talks to peg the level of APCs to a country’s purchasing power parity (PPP), a measure of what the average citizen can buy.

Poorer countries should gain from the shift to open access as articles become free to read, but the new system means that their scholars must now pay to publish – potentially making some journals unaffordable.

Under the old system, the price that universities paid for traditional subscriptions to closed journals was “very often adapted to PPP”, explained Johan Rooryck, the coalition’s open access champion.

“Maybe not in a very explicit way, but it’s clear that low- and middle-income countries pay lower subscription costs than the US and Europe,” he said.

However, the APCs levied to publish open access have not yet been tied to national wealth, Professor Rooryck warned.

“Why isn’t it the case with APCs? You don’t pay the same price for aspirin in New York as in New Delhi,” he added.

Professor Rooryck acknowledged that data on exactly how many academics were deterred from publishing by APCs were lacking. “But it does happen,” he said.

Publishers often offer APC waivers to academics based in poorer countries. Elsevier, for example, offers full waivers covering 69 countries, based on factors such as per capita income and human development measures.

But Professor Rooryck considers this to be an inadequate solution.

Such waivers, he said, are sometimes applied only to the very poorest countries, and not to states such as India, where costs can still be prohibitive. Springer Nature, for example, offers a partial waiver to lower middle-income countries, but neither it nor Elsevier provides any automatic discount for academics based in India.

Professor Rooryck also said that a number of academics in lower-income countries had told him that they felt blanket waivers were “demeaning” and “patronising”. “They don’t want to be seen as receiving handouts,” he said.

Trying to set a different price for each country would be too complex, he said. Instead, Professor Rooryck envisages perhaps six APC price tiers.

So far, Coalition S has spoken to several purely open access publishers, he explained, but dialogue with the world’s biggest is yet to open.

Coalition S is “not yet” considering making APC pricing by PPP a condition for journals to be able to publish the results of research funded by its members, Professor Rooryck said.

But it could become mandatory if a research funder from a middle or low-income country joined the group on the condition that journals introduce such a pricing model, he said.

A spokeswoman for Springer Nature said it was too early to comment. An Elsevier spokesman said the company did not have a position on the idea.

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